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Posts Tagged ‘Cotswolds’

Cowley Manor

A couple of Thursdays ago, wanting to take advantage of the recent sunny and warm weather, Jon and I called up Cowley Manor in the Cotswolds to see if they had any last-minute specials for the weekend.

The good news is that they had a few “Better” rooms available.  The bad news was that these rooms weren’t offered on discount and still cost £385 a night.  (What happened to the general hotel practice of lowering prices to fill an empty room?)   Instead, Cowley agreed to waive its two-night minimum stay requirement, so we could arrive on a Saturday morning and make full use of facilities both that day and Sunday.

a "better" room at Cowley Manor

When Jon and I visited Cowley Manor last August, we’d tried out the “Good” rooms (the cheapest ones available) for £250 a night.  I was pretty happy with the room we had, which was in the Main House and had views of the beautiful back gardens.

The “Better room,” while more expensive, wasn’t as appealing as the “Good” room, I thought.  For the additional money, a Better room got you a suite spread over three floors, including your own sitting area.

I’m not sure who values having their own little sitting area, but it wasn’t me.  I’d much prefer to take advantage of the large, stylish “common area” sitting rooms in the Main House.  The other reason I wasn’t keen on our Better room is its location in the converted stable blocks, which by definition lack the Main House’s heaps of character.  So if you’re deciding between the “inexpensive” Good rooms and the pricier “Better” rooms, I say take a Good room and spend your savings on an extra spa treatment.

caesar salad

chicken sandwich and chips

On our last visit to Cowley Manor’s restaurant, we thought the menu offerings were fussy and not well executed, so this time we kept most of our meals simple.  Sandwiches, chips, salads were all  simple, freshly made, and good value at less than £6-7 an item.

Breakfast was lovely, partly because whoever supplies Cowley Manor with its croissants is a master.

We would’ve skipped dinner in the restaurant, but because it was included in the price of our room, we didn’t motivate to leave Cowley for a meal elsewhere.  The food was just as fussy and unimpressive as we remembered from last August, with the low point being dessert.  I asked the waiter if the “cinnamon donuts” were freshly fried, and he replied that they were and highly recommended them.  I also asked if the accompanying “apple crumble sorbet” could be replaced with just plain vanilla ice cream, and again, he swore the apple crumble sorbet was not to be missed.

Sadly, our waiter was 100% wrong on both fronts.  The donuts were hard as a hockey puck.  totally bizarre, and honestly, a 50p bag of Tesco donuts would’ve been superior to what I was served.  The apple crumble sorbet was watery and gritty.  Just awful.

gardens at Cowley Manor

fountains at Cowley Manor

But food isn’t Cowley’s strong point.  The grounds and spa are.  Taking advantage of the lovely weather, we did lots of walking around the gardens, which have both manicured bits and wilder bits.

wellies on loan

Key for getting through the wilder, muddy bits:  wellies.  Lots of wellies in every size are made available for guests.  Definitely a great, practical novelty for us Londoners.

outdoor (heated) pool at Cowley Manor spa

indoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

And of course, the Cowley Manor crown jewel:  the spa is as peaceful and pampering as ever.  Treatments are long and relaxing, and all the staff super accommodating and attentive.

If you’re looking for a lovely country getaway, it’d be hard to surpass Cowley Manor.  Ideally you drive there so you can sample food in nearby Cheltenham, though, and while you’re at it, save yourself the train and taxi fare, which add up.

Cowley Manor, Cowley, Gloucestershire, GL53 9NL; (0)1242 870 900; reachable via First Great Western train from Paddington Station to Kemble Station (1.5 hours or less depending on whether you have to switch in Swindon) and about £40 per roundtrip ticket. Then a 30-minute taxi ride costing £35 each way.

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Cowley Manor, viewed from the garden

Because Jon has spent most of this summer training for his Channel swim (which he and his team completed in 12h 45 mins while also raising £13,000+ for charity – well done, no?), we haven’t taken any holiday yet this summer.

Channel swim over, he and I spent last weekend in the Cotswolds, where we treated ourselves to a stay at Cowley Manor. Longtime followers of this blog (hi, Mom and Dad!) will remember that last spring, Jon and I visited Barnsley House, which is a nearby competitor of Cowley Manor’s.  So the title of this post could really be “Face Off: Cowley Manor vs. Barnsley House,” except that I’m not that dramatic.

In case you find yourself in the enviable position of deciding which luxury spa hotel to choose for your next trip to the Cotswolds, here are my thoughts on the two, with the caveat that it’s been over a year since I was at Barnsley House:

"good" room at the Cowley Manor

Jon and I chose a “good room” for £250/night, which is the cheapest category of rooms at Cowley Manor.  In other words, presumably the rooms get only nicer from here.

Our room was large and comfortable, but I was disappointed that the decor wasn’t half as modern chic as that of the rest of the house.  The overall effect was still very Dark Wood Paneling, and the bright, stunning bathroom we had at Barnsley House beat that of our Cowley room by a mile.  We had a lovely view of the Cowley Manor grounds, though.

snow pea leaves, asparagus and poached egg

roast duck breast and rosti

Dinner at Cowley Manor Restaurant was disappointing.  First, all our dishes were under-seasoned (though happily the restaurant leaves sea salt on every table, so you can DIY season).  Second, the poached egg in my starter was cooked for so long that the egg yolk was chalky rather than my beloved runny.  Third and least appealingly, roast duck breast was chewy and flavorless, perhaps as a result of its long acquaintance with a heat lamp.

We did, however, love our side order of chips, so next time we’ll probably stick to eating in the casual bar area of the manor.  Or we’ll walk the half mile to the nearby pub, the Green Dragon.

The restaurant dining room was attractive and had views of the garden, and gracious, attentive service.  But with our two starters, two mains and modest bottle of wine costing £100, I expected much better.

smoked salmon eggs benedict (brekkie included in room rates)

Breakfast is included in the room rate, and Cowley Manor’s spread was generous and good quality.  The fruit salad was packed with exotic fruits that tasted as good as they looked, and the croissants were ultra-flaky and buttery.  Hot dishes could be custom ordered, and I couldn’t resist the siren call of eggs benedict with smoked salmon instead of ham.  The egg yolks turned out soft boiled rather than runny, but the zippy hollandaise redeemed everything.    Overall, a better breakfast than at Barnsley House, which charged extra for hot dishes despite room rates being higher than those at Cowley.

picnic hamper (£45)

For £45, the kitchen will prepare a wicker picnic hamper for two and set up lunch anywhere on the manor’s gorgeous grounds.  Doing this was a lot of fun, and there was enough food for four in our hamper, so next time we’ll bring friends.  What the above photo fails to capture are the cheeses, lemon drizzle cake and berries that were also part of our hamper.

indoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

And here’s where Cowley Manor really shines and surpasses Barnsley House:  the spa.  Cowley, being a bigger place than Barnsley House, has a beautiful, large spa discreetly tucked away behind the main building.  There’s an indoor and outdoor pool, and even at busy times of day (i.e., a weekend afternoon), the atmosphere is relaxing.

outdoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

Jon and I treated ourselves to lengthy and excellent spa treatments and then whiled away a few hours poolside.  The spa staff, like everyone else we encountered at Cowley Manor, were friendly and attentive.

Overall, Barnsley House’s food, privacy and guest rooms were more appealing than those of Cowley Manor, but Cowley Manor’s spa facilities, first-rate staff and impressive-and-beautiful gardens leave me wanting to return to Cowley Manor before I’d go back to Barnsley House.

Which means this is the first time I’m choosing a getaway spot based on criteria other than food.  If CM’s restaurant improved a bit, the place would be perfect.

A “good room” (the least expensive category) at Cowley Manor was £250/night, which includes breakfast.

Cowley Manor, Cowley, Gloucestershire, GL53 9NL; (0)1242 870 900; reachable via First Great Western train from Paddington Station to Kemble Station (1.5 hours or less depending on whether you have to switch in Swindon). Then a 30-minute taxi ride costing £28 – £35 each way.

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Barnsley House, near Cirencester, in the Cotswolds

Barnsley House, near Cirencester, in the Cotswolds

Jon and I had to turn in our passports this month to change our visa status (just in case either of us gets fired, we don’t want to be deported), so for all of March, we couldn’t leave the country. As consolation for not being able to travel (and taking advantage of the recent good fortune of sunny weekends), we decided it was high time to visit the Cotswolds. Sure we’ve been to Bath a few times, but a true Cotswolds getaway seems to involve an old country pile somewhere. And that’s where the Barnsley House comes in.

Generally when Jon and I travel on holiday, we don’t stay in luxe accommodations, figuring it’s a waste of money because we’re out and about so much. But when Jon mentioned Barnsley House’s fabulous spa facilities, tasty-sounding restaurant, and a current promotion of weekend rooms at £362 a night (including breakfast and dinner for the two-night minimum stay), I didn’t need to be asked twice.

We arrived on Friday night, after a 1.5-hour train ride from Paddington, followed by a 20-minute taxi ride from Kemble station.

house champers and truffles upon arrival

house champers and truffles upon arrival

Upon arrival, a receptionist immediately walked us up to our room, showed Jon how all the Bose and Bang & Olufson equipment worked while I filled out credit card details on a simple form, and then left us to relax over a free bottle of house champers. We could’ve been arriving at a friend’s house, rather than checking into a hotel. A strong start.

ooh and ahh-worthy bathroom

Part of the reason we decided to spend the weekend at Barnsley House instead of at nearby competitor Cowley Manor is because we’d read excellent things about the food. So after loafing around in our enormous room and oohing and ahhing like hicks over our stupendous bathroom, we walked downstairs for dinner.

roasted pork loin with honeyed prawn

roasted pork loin with honeyed prawn

Dinner at the Barnsley House is prix fixe only. 3 courses for £42.50 or 4 for £49.50. There’s lots to choose from, and having eaten in the resto both nights of our stay, I was interested in how the kitchen managed to evolve the menu from one day to the next. What was pork loin one day was pork belly and crackling the next. I’d like to imagine that over the next few days, you’d see pork shoulder, pork head, pork trotter . . . .

Much of the veg on the menu is grown in the house gardens, and all the meat comes from local producers.

Did you know Liz Hurley raises pigs? I didn’t. It does seem a bit ironic, don’t you think? But her country getaway lies just behind the Barnsley House, and how could I resist the “organic Hurley loin of pork with red onions and honeyed tiger prawns”? It was good meat – juicy and rich, with a crisp, delicate, salty crackling. A thing of beauty. The tiger prawn was besides the point (and by the way, there was only one prawn, so why the menu said “tiger prawns” is beyond me).

Jon tried out the signature vincisgrassi, which the menu described as “baked pasta with Parma ham, porcini and truffles.” It was tasty, but to our perhaps-slightly-unappreciative eye, it looked and tasted like lasagna. A really creamy, good lasagna, but still, lasagna.

a view of the garden from the restaurant

a view of the garden from the restaurant

While the food is pretty ambitious and well-executed, it’s not destination dining, and the food shares the spotlight with the dining room, which overlooks the House’s famous Rosemary Verey gardens. The room looked its best in the morning, when the sun brightened and warmed the generously-spaced tables. (You really can pretend like you have full run of the place – the Barnsley House is about the luxury of privacy and space).

pot roast chicken with parma ham at the Village Pub

pot roast chicken drumstick with parma ham at the Village Pub (£16)

For a change of scenery, we walked 100 yards down the street from Barnsley House for lunch at the Village Pub, which is also owned and operated by the Barnsley House. While we did recognize a few other Barnsley House guests there at lunchtime, the place seemed to be popular with locals, too. The food, though, was hit-or-miss, and Jon’s mediocre £16 chicken drumstick was pretty ridiculous. Service was also an issue – we waited over half an hour for our starters, which were a curried parsnip soup and a potted pork. Not exactly stuff that needed intensive effort before serving. It was hard to believe the Village Pub and the Barnsley House were related at all.

Overall, we had a delicious, relaxing weekend at the Barnsley House. It’s one of those places where all the components (service, decor, food, spa facilities), each taken alone, are at a high level, and combined, are unforgettable. We saw our final tab double the promotion price once we factored in wines at dinner, lunches, and (really wonderful) spa treatments. Incredibly enough, though, I thought our weekend was worth every penny.

As stated above, Jon and I took advantage of a promotion for rooms at £362 a night (including breakfast and dinner for the two-night minimum stay).  However, on the Barnsley House website, it says if you stay on a weeknight, the price is reduced to £185 a night. Worth taking a day off from work, I tell you.

Barnsley House, Barnsley, Circencester, Gloucestershire GL7 5EE; 01285 740000; closest rail station: Kemble (from London Paddington), followed by a 20-minute, £20 taxi ride.

The Village Pub, Barnsley, Circencester, Gloucestershire GL7 5EF; 01285 740421.

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