The undercover guide to Britain's best stopovers
In a new book published this week, Five TV's Hotel Inspector, Alex Polizzi, names some of her favourite places to stay in the UK. Here are six spots that caught her discerning eye
Sunday 01 August 2010
Fauhope House, Scotland
Set back on the south-facing hillside overlooking the Tweed Valley, Melrose Abbey and the mystical Eildon Hills in the Scottish Borders, Fauhope House has one of the best locations of any B&B in the UK.
Though this area of Scotland is often overlooked by visitors rushing to Edinburgh or heading up into the Highlands, it is jam-packed with natural beauty, history and culture.
Putting these considerations aside, staying at Fauhope House is quite simply a joy because of the owners and hosts, Ian and Sheila Robson. The care and attention they spend on their guests would put many top-class hotels to shame, and if all B&Bs were like this I suspect most hotels would go out of business!
You arrive to a welcome that is both warm and genuine. Do accept the invitation to a glass of sherry, wine, or a cup of tea with Sheila on arrival, depending on the time of day. She is full of charm and laughter, and her enthusiasm and knowledge of the area is unrivalled.
Fauhope House was built by the renowned Scottish architect Sidney Mitchell for a Glaswegian shipping tycoon in 1897, and is a fine example of the Arts and Crafts movement in architecture. Its turret and many windows look out over manicured lawns and quirky large metal bird sculptures, 23 acres of gardens, fields, woods and one of the most picturesque views in Scotland. In summer months, you can relax on the terrace and admire the tranquillity of the setting, while in winter you would be better settling into a sofa by the fire in the drawing room, which is lit with candles and lanterns in the evening.
The Ashton, Lancaster
You could be forgiven for thinking that the glory days of Morecambe, its spectacular bay, arcades and Winter Garden, once host to the West End's finest shows, were long past. The completed restoration of the famous Art Deco Midland Hotel, however, with sculptures designed by Eric Gill, has encouraged high hopes that it may provide a springboard for the area's resurgence. In much the same way nearby Lancaster – once a thriving Georgian port at the centre of trade with the West Indies – seems on the up and up.
Although its trading days are long past, the town now has a champion in the form of James Gray, the native-born but recently returned proprietor of The Ashton – a square, handsome house with regular windows, built in 1834 with stone from the local quarry, now Williamson Park. James opened it only 18 months ago, having spent five months transforming the five rooms.
On approach, you drive into a gravel courtyard where chickens and ducks wander, apparently untroubled by any predator. A knock at the slate-grey door and you are into the hall. On your left is the sitting room, with its ivory pillar candles clustered, burning, in the grate. The bookshelf and table are stocked with what seems to be every interior design book ever published. The walls and ceiling are painted in "invisible green" – a dark and sexy colour that sets off the room's mirrors, flowers and candles.
The dining room on your right, painted in the same colour, has a huge, marble-topped wooden sideboard displaying homemade cakes under sparkling glass domes. The lighting is flattering, and the general effect is stage-set perfect, yet homely.
The Felin Fach Griffin, Wales
Set in a beautiful valley, surrounded by lush rolling hills and in the shadow of the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains, the Felin Fach Griffin is an inn that has been delighting people with its idiosyncratic charm for a decade. "Eat, Drink, Sleep" is the motto of the pub and its owners, brothers Charles and Edmund Inkin. It's indicative of their commitment to "the simple things in life done well".
They have fantastic locally sourced food, much of it from their kitchen garden – the Felin Fach Griffin's restaurant was the first to achieve organic status – a superb wine list, local beers and ciders, and simple but comfortable rooms. That this inn is also set in a stunningly beautiful part of the United Kingdom only enhances its appeal for the discerning weekenders who don't need room service or designer accessories in their rooms.
The terracotta building is sandwiched between a country lane and an A road, although traffic noise does not seem to intrude. The front door opens into the bar which, with its flagstone floors, oak beams, gloriously battered leather sofas with bright cushions, open fire and upright piano has the feel of an eccentric gentleman farmer's home. The half-wood panelling is painted blue and the stone walls white. Quirky curios, photos and artwork combine to give the room warmth and humour and make you feel immediately at home. Indeed, while drinking your complimentary pot of tea, you may perhaps start to ponder why the words "totally relax" are not part of the motto.
The Great House Hotel, Suffolk
You might feel a pang of disappointment on arriving at The Great House in Lavenham. But that's only because to get to it you drive through the winding streets of this village which boasts more than 300, mostly Tudor, listed buildings. You pass streets and squares of colourful half-timbered and latticed-windowed houses, all leaning at precarious angles, before arriving at The Great House which, due to an 18th-century facelift, looks suspiciously Georgian in design.
The disappointment doesn't last long, however. While Lavenham may be traditional England, The Great House is traditional France; there is a no-nonsense dedication here to producing the best in both French cuisine and service without any hint of compromise. This is perhaps why the owner, Regis, has chosen not to display the many years' worth of AA two-rosette plates on the walls like so many other establishments do. Rather, he has his staff eat from them – an eminently practical reminder to keep standards high, as well as keeping the walls clear for a much more attractive collection of paintings.
Both the bar and the dining room are quite stark, without being cold, due to the abundance of wood – a polished wooden bar stands in front of glass-fronted wooden wine racks. Wooden floorboards run the length of the bar and dining room, and the white walls are criss-crossed with old wooden beams. White linen tablecloths and leather-backed chairs add a final touch of understated elegance.
By day these two rooms are light and airy, and by night low-lit and cosy, with candles on each table and on colder evenings there is a fire in the large old redbrick fireplace. To the rear of the house is a terrace with seating and the potential for drinking or dining during more clement times of the year.
The Bingham, Surrey
As Richmond is only a handful of miles from where I live, Surrey is not a county I have ever had in mind when considering a weekend away. Yet that has all changed after a stay at The Bingham, a beautiful Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse hotel that looks out over the River Thames.
Built in 1740, The Bingham was originally two houses that were merged by Lady Bingham, a relative of Lord Lucan, in 1821. In 1984 the building was bought by the current owner Samantha Trinder's parents. Samantha took over the running of the place in 2001 and set about creating this stylish townhouse hotel.
The ground-floor bar and restaurant are amazingly chic and sumptuous, while remaining sympathetic to the heritage of the building. The bar has a double-height ceiling and it retains its original ornate cornicing. Huge mirrors adorn the walls, tall French windows lead out on to the terrace and the bar itself looks like a temple to all things alcoholic. During the day, the room is bright and breezy and the sofas provide a great place to relax and have a coffee. By night, the room is softly lit, with an ambience that encourages some propping up of the bar and the sampling of a cocktail or two.
And yet, the real reason to come for a stay here is not the hotel's delightful location or the glamour of its public rooms, but the fact that you will be able to fully enjoy the wonderful food without any arguing about who will have to drive home.
The Bingham's dining room is elegant, ornate and filled with light. It is classically glamorous, with hand-painted golden wallpaper, droplet chandeliers and art deco mirrors, light wood tables and beige seating. If there is a prettier place on the Thames to enjoy dinner with your beloved, I cannot think of it.
Mount Haven Hotel, Cornwall
As you drive towards Mount Haven Hotel and catch a first glimpse of this rather unprepossessing white cement building poking out from above the low wall, it would be understandable if you felt just a tad deflated. In this, you would not be alone. With commendable humour, the hotel's owner, Orange Trevillion, says that when she bought the hotel, with her husband Michael in 2001, she was congratulated on owning "the ugliest hotel in Cornwall". Despite Mount Haven's lack of looks, however, you are more than compensated by its most glorious sea views out over St Michael's Mount – it provides the hotel with a truly magnificent outlook.
As soon as you walk into reception, you will be struck by the smell of incense, the proliferation of Buddha heads, Indian fabrics and the representations of gods, along with many photographs of Sai Baba, the guru whose teachings Orange follows. If the weather is good, you will be ushered directly into the bar-cum-lounge to have a cup of tea on the lovely, wood-floored terrace, with its picture-postcard views.
The hotel's approach is to allow guests to come, relax and unwind as quickly as possible. To this end, Orange offers treatments either in your own room or in a dedicated treatment room – aromatherapy massage, reiki, deep tissue massage, reflexology – the profits from which all go to support various worthy projects in India, helping orphans in particular.
As you might expect, the décor here is eclectic and charmingly haphazard; bits of furniture from the East are combined with leather chairs and sofas, outside tables are teak, art is either local or Indian. Classically fitted out with white linen tablecloths and white walls, the downstairs restaurant is more formal, but it too offers incredible views of the Mount.
Alex Polizzi’s Little Black Book of Hotels (Quadrille, £20) is published on Friday. To order this book for just £17, with free p&p to UK mainland addresses, call 0870 079 8897 or go to www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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