Review by Fiona Duncan, published 5th November 2006.
It's a real Tudor castle-palace. So real that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed here and Princess Mary, later Queen Mary I, lived here. Even its founder met a typically Tudor end: executed on trumped-up charges of treason, having been betrayed, like his father before him, by people close to him. "Both felled by our servants, by those men we loved the most," as his character in Shakespeare's Henry VIII cries out before the chop.
There followed centuries as a picturesque ruin before the Howard family, to whom Thornbury Castle had passed, transformed it in Victorian times into a splendid private residence, approached through a stone arch in the eponymous south Gloucestershire town. All the panelling and decorative features you find inside either date from this time, or are hand-crafted modern reproductions, including much of the furniture.
Today it's a hotel. To be precise, a Von Essen hotel. Or to be strictly accurate "one of the Von Essen collection of private hotels".
What does that mean? It means that a spa will soon be built, because that's what its core Von Essen-friendly clientele expect. It means that the "roaring fires" the brochure speaks of are all roaring gas log fires. It means there is an assortment of black-suited flunkies - French, Spanish, Polish, Bulgarian, even one from Kazakhstan - who say "sir" a bit too often and a bit too loudly, but are also prompt, friendly and well-intentioned.
"Don't be so unfair", says my husband, when I grumble that I can't love our vast, skimpily equipped, dimly lit "bedchamber" (bare stone walls, grand stuccoed ceiling, four-poster, red velvet curtains) and that I think it's overpriced. "This is a castle. What do you expect?" It's certainly properly heated, no complaints there. It's a foul day outside, but from the moment we are led up the spiral stairs of the stone turret to our room we feel agreeably, reassuringly warm.
Downstairs in the sitting room and later in the dining room my doubts deepen into dislike. There's something unappealing about both these rooms, though I can't put my finger on quite what. Perhaps it's the combination of ponderous pseudo-Tudor interiors, the cavernous feel lent by the lofty ceilings, the plethora of Windsor chairs, the absence of a real crackling fire in the huge hearth and the slightly artificial atmosphere and over-formal service.
At dinner (£42.50 for three courses and not bad at all), we meet Pepe, the head waiter, a sane version of Manuel from Fawlty Towers who has been there for 32 years, since Thornbury Castle first opened. "And," he tells us proudly in a thick Spanish accent, "I have not missed one day through illness." He's the real thing. And so is the wonderful trolley of English cheeses he pushes round the room. So, too, is the lovely Tudor garden set within the castle's outer walls, shadowed by the church (there's a small vineyard too, from which a very decent Thornbury Castle wine is made). Breakfast, back in the mauve-walled dining room, is hopeless, with watery coffee and factory sliced bread. By now even my husband is wavering as the flunkies flunk and guests talk in undertones. "It may be a castle," he booms (whisper is something he doesn't do) "but it's a jumped up one." Heads turn; I flee.