The Inn Crowd: Cosy places for winter weekends

Looking for a rural retreat with style? Ask the expert, Alastair Sawday, the man behind 'Special Places To Stay', the hotel bible

1 Howard Arms, Warwickshire

Buzzes with good-humoured babble in the flagstoned bar as the well-kept beer flows. Logs crackle in a vast open fire; the dining room has unexpected elegance, with great swaths of bold colour; and everywhere is a smoke-free zone. Gorgeous bedrooms are set discreetly apart from the joyful throng, mixing period style and modern luxury beautifully: the double oozes charm; the twin is more folksy, with American art and patchwork quilts, and the half-tester is almost a suite. All are huge by pub standards. The village is a surprise, too, tucked under a lone hill, with an unusual church surrounded by orchards. Round off a walk with a meal at the inn: pancetta-wrapped Berkshire pork fillet with parsnip purée and marsala sauce.

Best room: number three is the biggest - there's a half-tester bed.

Best place to relax: beside the inglenook fireplace.

Best table: under the clock.

Best dish: pan-fried calf's liver with buttered onions, crispy bacon and balsamic dressing with garlic mash.

Doubles from £97-£112.

The Howard Arms, Lower Green, Ilmington, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire (01608 682226;

2 Stein Inn, Isle of Skye

Dating from 1790, it's the island's oldest inn. Angus stocks more than 100 single malts and ales in the little wooden-clad bar. In good weather, sit out by the shore of the loch. Lose yourself with a pint, then step inside to the simple dining room. The menu includes fish from Loch Dunvegan; try chocolate bread pudding or apple and cherry tart. The rooms are neat with bright blue carpets, pine furniture and jolly quilts. As well as a place for afternoon tea, there is a pool room and a play area - the affable Angus and Teresa are child-friendly.

Best room: Lochbay - it's the biggest.

Best place to relax: in the bar by the fire.

Best table: number three.

Best dish: langoustines.

Doubles from £50-£66.

Stein Inn, Stein, Waternish, Isle of Skye (01470 592362;

3 The Felin Fach Griffin, Powys

Stylish but cosy, fresh but not fussy. This bold venture mixes the buzz of a smart city bistro with the easy-going pace of Welsh country living. Downstairs fans out from the bar into several eating and sitting areas, with stripped pine and old oak furniture. A Dutch chef stars in the kitchen, conjuring up simple but sensational dishes; fruit, vegetables and leaves are mostly from the kitchen garden. Breakfast is served around one table in the morning room. Wallow with the papers and make your own toast on the Aga. Bedrooms are in a modern style with a few designer touches.

Best room: number one, with its Rajasthan four-poster.

Best place to relax: the three giant leather sofas around a raised hearth.

Best table: tables six or 11 in the bar by the window.

Best dish: rib-eye steak with chips and béarnaise sauce.

Doubles from £97.50-£125.

The Felin Fach Griffin, Felin Fach, Brecon, Powys (01874 620111;

4 Spread Eagle Inn, Wiltshire

Mellow and old-fashioned this establishment may appear, but peep inside and you see slate floors, Farrow & Ball colours and jugs of garden flowers on old pine tables. In the bar a wood-burning stove is merry and the seats are comfy; you can eat here or in the restaurant that doubles as a sitting room. Red walls, large modern paintings and old prints create a cosy mood. Bedrooms are peaceful, with muted colours, white linen, original fireplaces and delightful views. Food is English and locally supplied: Wiltshire ham, organic salmon salad.

Best room: number three.

Best place to relax: on the sofas in the restaurant.

Best table: 21 or 22.

Best dish: Old Spot pork chop with Madeira, mushrooms and tarragon.

Doubles £90.

Spread Eagle Inn, Stourton, near Warminster, Wiltshire (01747 840587;

5 The Star Inn, Yorkshire

You know you've hit the jackpot as soon as you walk in - low ceilings, flagged floors, gleaming oak, flickering fire. Andrew and Jacquie arrived in 1996 and the Michelin star in 2002. Andrew's food is rooted in Yorkshire tradition, refined with French flair and written in plain English: dressed crab with herb mayonnaise, turbot with salad of seared celery. Bedrooms, in lodges and cottages, feature oak doors, deep baths, crackling fires. All are different, all enchanting. No wonder weekend bookings are taken months in advance.

Best room: number seven, for its double spa bath.

Best place to relax: sofa by Cross House Lodge fire.

Best table: choose garden or village views.

Best dish: black pudding with pan-fried foie gras.

Doubles from £120-£210.

The Star Inn, Harome, near Helmsley, Yorkshire (01439 770397; the

6 The Bell, Skenfrith

Indulge the senses at this classy 17th-century coaching inn on the banks of the Monnow. Inside is immaculately done but informal - and the whole place is run with warmth. Expect the best of everything: proper cappuccino, food mostly organic, superb wine and cognacs, and even an organic menu for children. Bedrooms, all different, are understatedly elegant; you get home-made biscuits, Cath Collins toiletries and a hi-tech console by the bed so you can listen to music in your bath. After an energetic day out on the hills or the river, settle down to Usk Valley lamb and tarte tatin in the restaurant overlooking the terrace.

Best room: Whickham's Fancy has a great view over the Monnow.

Best place to relax: on the sofa by the bar's fire.

Best table: number 23.

Best dish: fillet of beef with a leek and blue-cheese suet pudding.

Doubles from £95-£170.

The Bell at Skenfrith, Skenfrith, Monmouthshire (01600 750235;

7 Hope & Anchor, Northumberland

The Hope & Anchor, three dwellings knitted into one, has been an inn for as long as anyone can remember. You step off the street and into the bar - a straightforward, no-frills affair, with a coal-effect gas fire for winter snuggery. Then up the stairs to creamy-walled bedrooms with soft pine, gentle lighting and comfy beds. The enthusiasm and warmth of Debbie the landlady animate every room; the dining room is lovely and the chef, Andrew Hudson, prepares delicious, sensibly priced dishes using local produce. A great little place for families - there's Alnwick Castle round the corner (worth a detour for Harry Potter fans: it's Hogwarts in the film), Newcastle and Edinburgh are a train ride away, and mile upon mile of unspoilt beaches await buckets and spades.

Best room: Kittiwake as it's the biggest.

Best place to relax: corner of the bar, where you can chat with friendly locals.

Best table: window tables.

Best dish: Hope & Anchor seafood pie.

Doubles from £76.

The Hope & Anchor, 44 Northumberland Street, Alnmouth, Northumberland (01665 830363;

8 Forester Inn Wiltshire

Once there were seven inns in the village. Now there is just the Forester. Martin has kept it plain and unfussy: colours are muted, there isn't an ounce of flounce and locals prop up the bar late weekday lunchtimes. The kitchen is reassuringly busy and delivers fine English food with a European twist from the best local suppliers. Puds are cooked to order, slowly. Two bedrooms are white, with cast-iron beds and fireplaces, plain blinds and squashy feather duvets with white linen. Bathrooms are halogen- lit, all white and with plump towels. Reassuringly good value.

Best room: Talbot with its high cathedral ceiling.

Best place to relax: on the soft leather sofa in the private room at the back of the bar.

Best table: number 16 by the wood-burning stove.

Best dish: seared trout with crab risotto.

Doubles £65-£95.

The Forester Inn, Lower St, Donhead St Andrew, Wiltshire (01747 828038;

9 Queen's Arms Somerset

Buried down several lanes on the border with Dorset, this 18th-century stone pub has an elegant exterior. Inside, Rupert and Victoria have created a calm, relaxing space. The bar, with its rug-strewn flagstones and bare boards, pew benches, deep sofas and crackling fire, retains its country feel. In the dining room - big mirrors on terracotta walls, new china on old tables - happy eaters dine on robust British dishes distinguished by fresh ingredients from local suppliers. The bedrooms and bathrooms are beautifully designed in gorgeous colours; a duck-egg blue wall here, red and cream checked curtains there. All have lovely views and the bathrooms are immaculate.

Best room: number two has an antique walnut bed and a chaise longue.

Best place to relax: by the fire in the bar.

Best table: no 11.

Best dish: fillet of sea bass marinated in vanilla, with crushed new potatoes and local greens.

Doubles from £90-£120.

The Queen's Arms, Corton Denham, Somerset (01963 220317;

10 The Globe Inn Norfolk

The bustling building site on Buttlands Green has become a pub with special rooms. Now the old coaching inn has two bars, not one, and a restaurant that serves unstuffy, tasty modern food. Only the season's finest will do: spring lamb with fresh asparagus, venison and wild partridge from the Holkham estate. In winter, settle in to the atmospheric "new" bar - a warm mish-mash of old furniture and big woodburner. Bedrooms are as fresh and as untraditional as can be, gleaming with oak floors, powerful showers and digital TVs. Children and dogs like it here, too, what with child-size pies and walkies on the hugest beach ever.

Best room: number one overlooking the Georgian square.

Best place to relax: next to the woodburner.

Best table: table 17, tucked in an alcove.

Best dish: game pie.

Doubles £55-£115.

The Globe Inn, The Buttlands, Wells-next- the-Sea, Norfolk (01328 710206;

All prices are per night, based on two sharing, including breakfast

The best bath

At the Queen's Arms, the bath is a deeply indulgent roll-top affair, made from cast-iron in rather fetching lilac and double-ended so just right for two. What could be better than a good yomp across country - the nearby Monarch's Way is a mere 615 miles in length, the pub will lend maps and wellies and even pack you a picnic - and then back for a well-deserved soak with a glass of champagne before dinner.

The best garden

Want to walk your own estate - one with temples to Apollo, monuments and rare plants around a serene lake, a gorgeous grotto and vistas that change dramatically? You can do all this grandiose fantasising at Stourhead's Spread Eagle Inn, especially if you start very early in the morning before anybody else arrives. If you are feeling particularly energetic, walk through mature woodland to Alfred's Tower for stunning views.

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