There is a tradition in Britain, particularly for Londoners, of regular retreats to the countryside, or simply, ‘the country.’ These days, the actual location matters far less than the hotel, itself. Old manors and converted farms, done up in every shade of fresh whites and beige have become the destination. Consider it a weekend resort, almost like camp for grown-ups. While there may be things to do in nearby towns, the general idea once one has parked the car is to not move it. Where city breaks demand the sort of schedule forcing one to use the room only for sleeping, the purpose of country weekends is exactly the opposite. There are inviting areas in which to take tea, a quiet drink, play board games, and acres of grounds for long walks with or without dogs, sometimes there are even loaner pairs of Wellingtons.
I recently headed two hours’ drive out of London to Gloucestershire, the heart of the Cotswolds, filled with charming, classic-looking English towns and thatched roofs. There, my companion and I checked into Calcot Manor, a country house hotel that’s been driving the trend, rather than following it. The Tithe Barn, used for private events, dates back to the 14th century, when it was built by monks from the Cistercian Abbey at Kingswood. Other converted buildings date to the late 17th and early 19th centuries.
Eating is one of the major activities during these weekends, and ours began with a stop in Stroud, a market town about 20 minutes north of Calcot Manor. The Saturday market is a feast of unusual snacks, like vegetarian Scotch eggs, and sweet potato pasties, alongside vendors selling fresh milk and cream from a dairy named for it’s beloved cow, Jess. The pit stop is memorable, but afterwards, we wish we’d left a bit of room to sample the wood-fire baked dishes at Calcot Manor’s Gumstool Inn.
Many country house hotels masquerade as 5-star luxury, others try a bit too hard at shabby chic. The atmosphere at Calcot Manor is neither. Rooms and public spaces are comfortable and well presented, without being design-driven or down at heel. The emphasis is more on relaxing, rather than inspiring selfies and instagramming food porn; thank goodness.
Dinner is in the Conservatory, a slightly more grown-up affair than the Gumstool.
While we spot locals dressed up for a night out, we don’t feel out of place in jeans and hiking boots. Vegetarian dishes, which often suffer from a lack of creativity and poor execution, are given as much attention as meat versions. Cornish lobster is sweet and simply served. Rack of lamb is tender and mashed potatoes come with a subtle background flavour of garlic.
After supper, we retreat to a fire-lit lounge for game of Scrabble, by far one of the best things about a country weekend – doing things you wouldn’t at home.
The Full English the next morning, unsurprisingly, hits the spot, with well-cooked eggs and bacon. But, for me, it’s the yoghurt that’s most memorable. It’s as fresh and creamy as the kind I’ve tasted in Crete. My request to find out the source results in a small tub delivered to our table, full of fresh yoghurt to take home from the local dairy that supplies it to the hotel. It’s gestures like this that make a place stand out. The manager, who we’d noticed overseeing things the night before, was as hands-on as it gets. Ensuring we took home a sweet souvenir from our brief stay is the kind of old-school touch that seems to have been forgotten in the glut of boutique properties offering generic service. But then again, the senior management team has been in place for years, instilling confidence from the top down, including guests.
As country house hotels go, Calcot Manor is among the few that are authentic. They’ve stripped away the fuss to offer comfortable, contemporary surroundings and warm, familiar service – just the sort of thing you’d want if one were lord of the manor.