Posts Tagged ‘daytrips from London’

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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Whitstable Oyster Fishery Restaurant


A week ago, summer had finally arrived in London, as had my parents, in town for a week-long visit. So Jon and I thought we’d take a day trip to Canterbury with a lunch break at nearby Whitstable.

Things were off to a good start on the high-speed train from St. Pancras to Canterbury West, which ran on the Eurostar tracks for much of the journey, took just under an hour, and cost only £55 for four return tickets.

Canterbury was warm and sunny, and it was an easy 15-minute walk to the Cathedral, which turned out to be the only thing in town really worth seeing. The Tourist Information office across the street from the Cathedral entrance provided great maps to both Canterbury and Whitstable, as well as a list of the cycle shops (two) in town where we could rent bicycles. Both shops were sold out, so instead of cycling the 7 miles to Whitstable along the charmingly-named Crab & Winkle Way, we took a 30-minute, super-slow ride on the bus.

Unsurprisingly, the Michelin-starred Sportsman in Whitstable was fully booked for lunch that day, so instead we ended up at the lively Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company.

Pros: The Whitstable Oyster Fishery’s dining rooms are high-ceilinged, bright, and cheerfully rustic. There are views of the sea, and the seafood, generally, tasted fresh and was served in generous portions.

Cons: The service was extraordinarily slow. We waited 35 minutes for our starters to arrive, and another 45 minutes for our mains. And despite several repeat requests for tap water, water was not forthcoming. Apparently the easygoing pace of seaside living is not for me.


grilled king prawns (£9)



fried calamari (£8.50)


Starters of mussels mariniere (£9.50), grilled king prawns, and fried calamari were all very good. The prawns in particular reminded me of Barrafina‘s sweet-tasting giants and were well worth the £9 for two. The leftover melted garlic butter served with the prawns was my favorite for sopping up with bread, though my dad thought the mariniere sauce had the edge.


fish and chips (£16-ish)


Fish and chips were a mixed result: the cod was silky firm and gorgeously flaky, and the batter was light and golden. The mushy peas actually tasted like peas – sweet and smooth – but the chips were a stale-tasting letdown.


pan-fried skate (£17.50)



whole lobster (£24)


Jon’s skate was sadly thin and meagre, but he enjoyed what little meat there was. Being environment killers, my mom and I split the steamed lobster imported from Canada, which was served cold. The meat was a bit mealy and the accompanying minted potato salad tasted overwhelmingly of mint (not good), but that’s what I get for ordering something that comes from Canada.

With various beers and lemonades, our total for four was £112, which was fair for the overall quality of the seafood and the scenic environs, but a bit steep for the incredible slowness and unhelpfulness of the service.

After lunch, we took a quick walk around Whitstable harbour, which, sadly, is not attractive. Not only is the harbour crowded with industrial machines and boats, but also the nearby beaches are of the stony variety. So we quickly returned to Canterbury to pay our £8 each to see the famous cathedral and hopped back on the train to London.

Overall, a pleasant day trip out of London, but I wouldn’t return to the area without (a) reserving a table at the Sportsman and (b) reserving a bicycle to try out the Crab & Winkle Way.

Whitstable Oyster Fishery Restaurant, Horsebridge Road, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1AF; 01227 276 856.

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Henry Moore’s Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped

Taking advantage of some non-rainy, partly-sunny weather this past weekend, Jon and I, together with our friends Liz and Ben, journeyed down to Kew Gardens.

Kew is the Royal (what does that mean, exactly?) botanic garden located way at the end of the District Line. I hadn’t been there since last winter, when I tried out Kew’s temporary ice rink and was scared away by the mobs of teeny boppers who congregated there (why didn’t they go hang out in malls, like they do in America?).

Despite the trauma of teeny boppers on ice, I wanted to revisit Kew in order to check out the Henry Moore exhibit that just opened, so Jon and I paid our £21 admission (it would have been £25, but Liz and Ben have a membership, so we got to mooch some savings just for being with them) and happily wandered around the gardens for a few hours to enjoy the landscape and see Moore’s handiwork.

The “Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped” (photo at top of post) is representative of what little I know about Moore’s work. I like that his sculptures are so rounded and sexy, but I couldn’t help wondering if, absent knowing the name of the sculptures in advance, I would identify such abstracted shapes so “clearly” as, say, a reclining female figure.

My introduction to Henry Moore was at university (see, Mom and Dad, that $130K you spent was totally worth it!), where visitors and students can ooh and ahh over a smaller version of “Oval with Points.”

Henry Moore’s Oval with Points

In the Henry Moore brochure Kew hands out, it says that Moore designed Oval with Points because he was inspired by an elephant skull. Well, clearly the brochure is just indulging in crazy talk, because everyone at university knew that if you viewed Oval from a side angle, you’d find only Richard Nixon’s nose – like so:

Profile view

The sculptures I enjoyed the most were the ones whose images and shapes changed depending on what angle you stood. I enjoy feeling like I’m figuring out a riddle – the riddle of “what is it supposed to be?” Like with Oval with Points, or, say, Double Oval (below):

Henry Moore’s Double Oval Sculpture

Looks like the PBS logo to me!

Much as I enjoyed the sculptures, don’t be discouraged if you don’t make it to Kew in time to see the exhibit (though you have until 30 March 2008). The Gardens are very pretty on their own.

There’s a classic, Victorian-era palm house to see and sweat in; a pagoda, English style (i.e., made of brick and covered in French doors); the truly stylish Sackler Crossing over a pretty, manmade lake; and even a little folly, built so Queen Charlotte (wife of every American’s favorite King, George III) could play the role of simple country girl to get away from it all. If you’ve been to Versailles and have seen that ridiculous petit hameau, you’re familiar with how out of touch those royals were (are?).

So I say, save up your 1,250 pennies and get to Kew!

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