Review by Fiona Duncan, published 9th September 2010.
We wake, briefly, at dawn to the mournful sound of ships' foghorns. A blanket of thick, yellowish mist has descended on the water, illuminated by the thin early morning light. Later we surface properly and listen to the first of the day's ferries – the muffled throb of its engine and an equally muffled but reassuring voice over the tannoy welcoming passengers aboard. The fog has lifted. Drawing back new, thickly interlined curtains – grey, aquamarine and white, covered in fanciful flying birds – we find a perfect day and a view that, although we know it well, never fails to delight.
I love The George, a handsome mid-18th-century building in the charming little seaside resort of Yarmouth. Its owners, Jeremy Willcock and his wife, Amy, the cookery writer, and John Ilsley, formerly bass guitarist with Dire Straits, and his wife, Steph, have cultivated an easy-going atmosphere. "We try not to have rules – only blinkered thinking says you can't have breakfast whenever you feel like it," they say.
In the 16 years since Willcock and Ilsley bought the then rundown hotel, I've watched its progress, and I sense that, right now, after a few wrong turns and bad patches, it's in its prime.
Steph Ilsley, who recently created four pretty bedrooms at the couple's pub near Lymington, the East End Arms, is responsible for freshening the old pine-walled sitting room and the mostly quite small bedrooms, some of which, in the oldest part of the house, are panelled, with nicely sloping floors. Two have iroko wood terraces.
Steph has added furniture from Oka and pretty, appropriate touches that make all the difference, both in the neat cream and white bathrooms – a sailboat, a bowl of shells, a scented candle – and in the bedrooms: a row of cacti on the windowsill, an orchid, painted wooden seabirds, a Roberts radio by the (very comfortable) bed.
But what has really transformed The George since I last visited is the new brasserie. It's larger than the old dining room with a stone-floored, awning-covered terrace that leads to the garden and the shingle beach beyond. It's a room that works perfectly: elegant yet buzzing, contemporary but with echoes of its Georgian surroundings in the softly painted panelling. It is also much improved food-wise, thanks to the arrival of Liam Finnegan, who previously worked with Michael Caines and has learnt a thing or two.
After dinner we drink coffee in the former circular garden bar, now a sitting area. Willcock had wanted to make it into a honeymoon suite, but Elf and Safety decreed that it would be dangerous should a tsunami strike the Solent; relaxing on sofas in the gathering dark, we decide that we are the beneficiaries of such lunacy.
Why does The George work? It has a wonderful location; has enjoyed a degree of investment; has been sensitively updated; has a past; and has people who care in charge. The portrait of Admiral Holmes, the island's governor, for whom the house was built in 1670, hangs in the generously proportioned hall, little changed and left uncluttered to speak for itself.
As for the view from our room (No 20), it involves a cannon on a grassy battlement and a castle wall that shelters the garden from the prevailing winds, Yarmouth's charming wooden pier (perfect for a stroll before bed), yachts slipping out of the harbour into the Solent, and the Solent itself, stretching across to the Lymington River with its needlelike forest of masts bunched together in the distance.
- Quay Street, Yarmouth (01983 760331; www.thegeorge.co.uk) Doubles from £190 per night, including breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities.