The Scarlet hotel, Mawgan Porth, Cornwall

Update, Oct 22 2011: This quick review trip was so blissy that I’ve just booked a seven night stay at the Scarlet for the week before Christmas. Which I believe is what people are talking about when they mention putting your money where your mouth is – and I can’t wait. 

Regular readers will have seen that last week I was invited to check out (and check into) a couple of very different hotels in Mawgan Porth. Mawgan Porth is a tiny Cornish village perched on a cliffside overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bay, where waves which have built up enough momentum on their journey across the Altantic to make a surfer’s day crash over an impossibly yellow, sandy beach.

Mawgan Porth
Mawgan Porth from the Cornwall Coastal Path. The Scarlet is the large curvilinear building in the middle (click to enlarge the photo) with the black roof.

The Scarlet opened a couple of years ago with a very individual take on what a top-class hotel should offer. The first thing you’ll notice is that there’s no reception; instead, you’re shown to a comfy chair by a fireplace, with a birds’ eye view across the bay, while the receptionist comes to you and takes your details. There’s a library, a sitting room, and a large and quiet spa; the place is full of tranquil little corners to bolt yourself away in, and children are not allowed – as well as a well-stocked and lively bar, and a very classy restaurant (of which more below). There are only 37 rooms, which makes for a pleasantly calm atmosphere, and you’ll find Cornish sculpture and paintings displayed prominently all over the hotel, which has the feel of something between an art gallery and the home of a really good and hospitable friend.

Scarlet lobby
The view from the entrance to the hotel - a lobby with no reception desk. That's not a swimming pool, but a decorative feature which I am sure serves some ecological purpose besides being decidedly pretty.

The Scarlet was built with the firm belief that it’s possible to provide a luxury hotel experience while making the minimal ecological impact, so you’ll discover that hidden away are biomass burners, solar panels, a very clever cooling system that relies on natural ventilation but offers a similar level of cooling to air conditioning, and as much recycling, reusing, and electric car charging as you can shake a (locally sourced) stick at. It’s all deeply sensible stuff of the sort that should occur to anyone who has to run their own home efficiently: unfinished bars of hotel soap are used in the laundry as stain removers, the drippy bits left behind in the bottoms of candlesticks are sent back to the candlemaker to be made into new candles, grey water is recycled, rain water is collected, and where possible, the hotel’s supplies are bought without packaging. All that you, the guest, will notice here is that your sugar cubes aren’t individually wrapped up.

Scarlet library corner
The hotel library - a perfect place to relax with a cream tea and a good book.

Best of all, though, from my perspective, was the way the eco-friendliness had been carried across into the hotel spa, becoming a feature rather than an economy. Here is an outdoor pool that’s really a sort of swimming pond overlooking the sea, filtered and cleaned not with chemicals, but via a gorgeous reed bed which forms part of the pool itself. It’s a bit nippy in September, but Dr W manfully took a dip and pronounced it lovely before scampering inside for a hot shower. The pool indoors is solar-heated to a nice bathroom sort of temperature, and cleaned with very low-dose bromine instead of the more skin-unfriendly chlorine. And the hot tubs are perched on the cliff-top lawn and, charmingly, heated by stoves full of logs. (Those logs can create sparks in high winds, which, thanks to hurricane Katia, precluded my having a soak.) You can book a hot seaweed bath in one of these tubs, which look for all the world like giant red teacups; the seaweed is harvested locally, and apparently does all kinds of wonderful things for the skin.

Indoor pool
The blissfully warm indoor pool. A better option on a chilly day than the sea or the outdoor swimming pond!!

Our room had big, sliding balcony doors at the foot of the bed, from which we could walk out onto a lawn on the cliff, and straight down to the sea. This was one of the best hotel rooms I’ve stayed in this year (and I’ve stayed in a lot this year; in the last month alone I’ve slept in a W in New York, a Fairmont in California and a Hilton in Arizona, none of which has rooms a patch on what’s on offer at the Scarlet). A lovely, light space coloured by the sea outside with crisp linens, blond woods, sea-toned textiles and sculptural decorations. The lighting is not something I usually do anything other than curse about in hotels – you’re probably familiar with the situation where you’re presented with six separate switches in different parts of the room, none of which do what you want them to. At the Scarlet, though, the lighting is designed to switch between seven different situations: your lighting can be architectural, ambient or mood-matching, and it’s all controlled from a central panel by the bed or one by the door. A bathroom is integrated into the room over a low wall, with a huge tub and basin on the bedroom side, and a shower and toilet hidden behind a heavily frosted glass wall. It all adds up to a sense of airy lightness, enhanced by the sun and the waves an outstretched arm away outside the window.

Scarlet room
Bedroom overlooking the cliff-top lawn

This is Gastronomy Domine, so you’ll want to hear about the food. As I mentioned in the piece I wrote about the Scarlet’s sister hotel, Mawgan Porth is very close to Padstow, a town entirely colonised by restaurants, hotels, cafes and gift shops run by Rick Stein (who himself prefers to spend his time in Australia these days). This means that an unholy number of food tourists visit the area – and the result has been to cause other, non-Stein hotels and restaurants to raise standards to a very high level. At the Scarlet you’ll be eating with that spectacular view along one wall of the restaurant, all chocolate and purple velvet and private corners.

The localism that characterises the Scarlet makes itself felt in the menu, where the food is impeccably seasonal and chef Ben Tunnicliffe emphasises quality ingredients. What’s more September-y than the sweet, pinkly bloody breast of a grouse served with cobnuts? The heather these little birds live in grows in abundance all over Cornwall, and after a day yomping over the moors, I can’t think of anything better to round things off than this beautifully prepared dish, so well-balanced in flavour and texture. Fish, of course, is as fresh as can be, and the monkfish tail wrapped in bacon and served with a mussel tagliatelle was based around the sort of dense and rich seafood stock that you can only dream of producing at home in a kitchen where your only fish is from the supermarket. Venison terrine, blackberry crumble (deconstructed so it arrives on the plate looking like some of the hotel sculpture) – this is a thoughtful, ultra-seasonal menu which will have changed to reflect what’s best at the moment you visit. The restaurant was packed on the night we visited, and there was a bit of a delay between courses – but when that’s the worst criticism you can come up with in a 24-hour stay, somebody’s doing something very right.

Grouse with a cobnut and bacon salad
Grouse with a quail egg, cobnut and bacon salad - one of the best starters I've eaten this year. Simply beautiful stuff.
Roast monkfish tail wrapped in smoked bacon, roasted courgette, mussels, creamed tagliatelle
Roast monkfish tail wrapped in smoked bacon, roasted courgette, mussels, creamed tagliatelle
Rhubarb pannacotta
Rhubarb panna cotta

Breakfast follows in the same vein – local bangers and hog’s pudding are on the menu (waiter service here, none of your buffet scrummage) alongside Tregida kippers, which are currently vying with Frank Hederman’s kippers from Ireland as my pick for world’s best. They’re very heavily smoked over oak, with an ethereally sweet and buttery flesh. I’ve been very pleased to discover that the Tregida Smokehouse’s produce is available by mail; I’ll be placing an order when I’m back in the UK. There’s apple juice on the table, pressed locally: a lovely way to wake up after a night listening to the waves break over the beach below.

Breakfast table
Breakfast table setting. Augment this lot with pastries, porridge, coffee and some world-beating kippers, and you're all set for the day.

We got into the car for the drive home absolutely miserable to leave the place behind. A 24-hour stay simply wasn’t long enough. I’ll be back at the Scarlet as soon as I can as a paying guest, and I hope you decide to take someone you love very much too, for a weekend or so of calm, indulgent grown-up time.

Bedruthan Steps hotel, Mawgan Porth, Cornwall

I was invited to spend a weekend at the Bedruthan Steps hotel and its sister, The Scarlet, in Mawgan Porth in Cornwall. These are two hotels catering for very different audiences, but sharing an ecological, food-loving ethos – and one of the greatest sea views you’ll ever wake up to.

Clifftop view from the Cornwall Costal Path, a few paces from the Bedruthan Steps

I don’t have kids. It means that I’m blissfully ignorant of things like baby monitors, the school gate experience, feeding times and other arcane kid stuff. So I was a wee bit worried about being invited to the Bedruthan Steps, which is heavily advertised as being family-friendly. I’d resolved to steel my way through a day of kids, then collect my reward at the Scarlet in the company of grownups the next day.

Bedruthan Steps from the outdoor pool
Bedruthan Steps from the outdoor pool

A total surprise, then to pitch up at the Bedruthan Steps, admittedly full of pre-vocal people accompanied by their carriers/feeders/cleaners, and find it weirdly tranquil. The management know that not everybody wants to spend their day being poked with a plastic shovel, so to that end, there are plenty of adult-only areas (and a teenager-only area which Dr W had a good old whinge about not being allowed into so he could play pool). This works well for parents, too, who don’t have to worry about their kids’ noise and play annoying the kid-free; the kid-free are all in the adults’ lounge, the bar, or the adult-only pool. Breakfast saw us and all the other childless visitors put in a child-free section of the restaurant. There’s also a no-children swimming pool and spa. And this place is beautiful. Externally – well, not so much; you’re looking at a white 1950s monolith stacked up the cliffside in steps. But inside, the Bedruthan Steps is a lovely thing: all marine colours, pale woods, sculptural shapes, Cornish artworks and handsome textiles.

Cornish cliches
Cornish cliches in Mawgan Porth village: clotted cream ice cream, pasties and surfing. All that's missing is a scone and some tea.

If you do have kids, then you are really the person this hotel is catering for. Baby monitors in the rooms; a children’s club; an adventure playground with scrambling nets and a kids-only zip wire (cue more howls of disappointment from Dr W, an 8-year-old in a six-foot microchip architect’s body). The spa offers those special pregnant-lady massages, alongside all the usual treatments. All the baby stuff that my baby-owning friends have to tote around with them is provided, so you’re not going to have to pack the car to the gills – you can use the hotel’s plastic baby cutlery, cots, bibs, reusable nappies and potties (four words which I hope never appear again on this blog) for free, and if you want, you can also rent strollers, sterilisers, bouncing chairs and bottles for a very small fee. Our room had a double bed separated from the rest of the room by a half-wall, and two single beds for our imaginary children to sleep in in the living area.

Hotel room
Hotel room - and that view!

There’s a lot of attention to detail in the child facilities, and I did feel that that same attention to detail was missing in small ways in the rooms (perhaps it was just the bad luck that comes with being assigned room 13) – I could have done with a towel rail and loo roll holder that stayed attached to the wall, and I could really have done without the half-used bottle of lubricant that a previous guest had left in the bedside drawer. But the view from every bedroom, of Mawgan Porth’s gorgeous little sandy cove and the impossibly blue Atlantic pounding up to the beach – that’s worth all the nasty bedside drawer surprises in the world. We opened the window in the night to breathe in the sea air, and to listen to the wind and the waves; better than any prescription sleeping tablet. There’s lousy cell phone reception up here on the cliff, which makes for a fantastic excuse not to pick up the phone to talk to work while you’re away.

Lane down to sea
View from the lane down to the sea

You can walk down to that beach in about five minutes. It has a dedicated lifeguard and makes for a perfect sandcastle-making spot. It’s also good for surfing, and you can arrange lessons with Nick via the hotel’s front desk. The hotel is only a few yards from the Cornish Coastal Path, and there’s some great walking in both directions along the cliffs.

Mawgan Porth bay
Mawgan Porth bay

Padstow, now entirely colonised by Rick Stein restaurants, gift shops and hotels, is just up the road. This has been great news for diners visiting this part of Cornwall – rather than allow him to have the lock on good eating in the area, the other hotels and restaurants around here have really raised their games. Dining at the Bedruthan Steps, overlooking the bay through the restaurant’s ceiling-height windows, you’ll find a menu that changes daily; mixing simple, traditional cooking with more exotic (but never unapproachable) flavours like sumac and green curry. The fish here is local, admirably fresh and carefully selected, but if you’re not a fish person, there’s lots of choice, from vegetarian dishes to some great locally, organically raised meats. Locally fished mackerel stuffed with cracked wheat, currants and pistachios had sweet flesh, rich with oil, underlined by a sharp, herby gremolata dressing. And a beef casserole, full of local vegetables, had a lovely dumpling floating in the middle, light and airy: this is family food just like my Mum used to make. Cornish plums and Mawgan Porth lavender in a tarte tatin – locavores can quite literally eat their hearts out. Cornish beers (I was there for a Harvest Festival celebrating local beers and produce) stand alongside some extremely good Cornish fruit juices – of course, if you’re a wine drinker, there’s also an extensive, non-Cornish wine list.

Mackerel stuffed with crushed wheat
Mackerel stuffed with cracked wheat
Beef stew
Beef stew with an ethereal dumpling and some terrific onion rings
Tarte tatin
Roast plum and lavender tarte tatin - and a compulsory dollop of Cornish clotted cream

Alongside this localism, you’ll see a real commitment to sustainable, ecological management of the hotel. The food and drink aren’t the only locally sourced things you’ll see here – soaps, stationery, and even the hotel’s building materials are all from the local area. There’s solar heating for the outdoor pool; the rooftops are planted with grass; and the hotel has a year-round commitment to keeping the beach clean. There is constant waste and energy monitoring, motion-sensitive lighting in some areas, and a slightly irritating towel rental policy if you want more than the one per person that you’ll find in the room for the pool or beach.

Bedruthan Hotel spa

If you’re a parent of children of any age, I can’t think of anywhere you’ll find a better mix of things for the kids to do and for you grown-ups to enjoy too. There’s so much to do in the surrounding area, but if you want to stay in the hotel, there are weekend activities for adults: shoe-making, bread-baking, beekeeping, toddler-management, yoga and so on. (Check the hotel website for what’s on when.) Summer in Cornwall is late in finishing; when we were there in early September lots of families with pre-school-age children were taking advantage of the final flush of the south-west sun. Older children appear in the school holidays. Just watch out for the contents of the bedside drawers in room 13.

Guy Fawkes Afternoon Tea, Royal Horseguards Hotel

I’d been invited back to the Royal Horseguards Hotel (0871 376 9033) in Westminster yesterday to try pastry chef Joanne Todd’s latest bit of afternoon tea whimsy. You might remember the beautiful Wimbledon afternoon tea she confected in the summer, served out on the hotel’s terrace by the Thames. Now the nights are closing in, tea is served by a roaring fire in the hotel lounge, a harpist around the corner belting out oddly incongruous Andrew Lloyd Webber hits.

Toasted marshmallows
Toasted marshmallows

Joanne’s fast becoming one of my favourite pâtissiers in London. Both of the teas I’ve tried have been well-balanced for sweetness and texture, full of seasonal flavour (elderflower and strawberries in the summer, mulled wine and chestnuts for November), and so full of character, charm and humour that it seems a shame to eat them. Almost. Witness the white chocolate truffles from yesterday’s tea, flavoured with a little chilli and popping candy, and styled to look like a tiny cherry bomb. A shot of hot chocolate, thick with malt, had a couple of marshmallows in it on a stick for toasting – and there was an indoor firework/candle arrangement to toast them on.

“I wanted a really big one that sort of shot flames out of the top,” said Joanne, “but the hotel maintenance people weren’t too happy about the idea.” She looked ruefully at the spotless white ceiling with its architraving, and the handsome soft furnishings and tasselled curtains.

Guy Fawkes Tea
Guy Fawkes Tea

Much as I would have enjoyed a Roman Candle sticking out of my tea, the excellent little sparkling candles more than did the job. Here was a shot of boozy mulled wine jelly with a topping of cinnamon crème pâtissière I could have happily swum in; that most surprising of things, a roast chestnut cupcake where the icing/cake balance was absolutely correct – not too sweet, not too stodgy –  with a barking mad but delicious parsnip crisp sticking out of the top; and one of Joanne’s gorgeously toothsome macaroons, this time flavoured with gunpowder tea and decorated with a little nugget of the same.

My favourite were the mini toffee apples. Looking a little like very fat, handsome olives, they were actually a skin of marzipan covered with a sticky, appley glaze. Wrapped up inside was a juicy little spoonful of caramel apple compote – hopelessly good. I could have eaten ten. Lapsang Souchong, being smoked, is the obvious tea to drink with this spread, but you can choose from a large selection of loose teas.

Cherry bomb truffles
Cherry bomb truffles

The tea finishes up with a plate of enormous scones (two each), jams and a giant football of clotted cream to anoint them with, and finger sandwiches in good old-fashioned English flavours – cucumber, egg and cress, smoked salmon and ham. If you can’t face the 50-yard waddle to Embankment tube station, they’ll call you a cab. After a tea this size, I don’t think you’re going to be fitting down any Parliamentary tunnels with barrels of gunpowder any time soon.

The Guy Fawkes Afternoon Tea runs until November 7, and costs £28 per person. Joanne has something special up her sleeve for a Christmas tea in December too, and that event will be running all month – book a table while you can!

Chetco River Inn, Brookings, Oregon

Update, Jun 2010 – sadly, Sandra and Clay retired and sold the inn earlier this year; the new owners do not plan to run the place as a B&B. All the best to Sandra and Clay, and many thanks for the two perfectly romantic stays we spent with them.

Sometimes, amazing things just fall into your hands. We had to make our way from Portland down to Lake Tahoe a couple of weeks ago, and needed a staging post to split the journey up into two (very long) days’ drive. I grabbed a map, found a town about halfway between the two places, looked it up in a guidebook and booked a night in the first likely-looking B&B.;

I wish I’d booked a whole week.

The Chetco River Inn (21202 High Prairie Road, Brookings, OR, 97415 – email, tel. (541) 251-0087) is an utterly charming bed and breakfast in the middle of one of the Pacific coast’s temperate rainforests. These forests are magical: so damp that the all the trees are festooned with mosses and sharp-tongued ferns, they teem with wildlife. To reach the inn, you’ll need to drive 20 miles down a narrow road, un-metalled in places, with dripping trees overhanging the roadway and the pristine Chetco river bubbling alongside. The inn itself is perfectly positioned in glorious isolation by the river, and is popular with botanists, with hikers and with fishermen, who arrive for the salmon run in the autumn and stay over the winter for the steelheads. If you are lucky, you’ll find fish fresh from the river on the inn’s dinner table.

We arrived just in time for supper, and Sandra and Clay, the owners, were waiting for us at the inn with their Scottie dogs and a vat of steaming French Onion soup. We found ourself enjoying this and a beautifully prepared, enormous prime rib with a fishing group, who shared their wine (Oregon’s Pinot Noirs are particularly good, and we had a great time sampling them) with us in return for some of the microbrewery beer we’d brought down from Portland. Sandra’s freshly made banana ice cream was a rich and custardy end to the very generous meal.

We’d booked the cottage at the inn, a separate building only a few years old with accommodation for four. (These photos are taken about twenty paces from the cottage’s front door.) This lovely little cabin will sleep two downstairs, where there is a large jacuzzi and well-stocked bathroom; and two in a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed up on a mezzanine level, overlooking the living area and kitchen. We had the place to ourself, and had one of the most romantic evenings we’ve ever experienced, falling asleep to the light flickering from the log stove which heats the cottage, and the sound of the dripping trees and night birds.

The weather in the Siskiyou National Forest is always wet but wonderfully atmospheric, with rains for most of the winter – temperate rainforests do not freeze in the cold months, and you’ll find surprisingly warm, sunny days in the middle of the coldest months – and mists in the cool summer. We got up before dawn for an early breakfast so that we could watch the steel-grey, winter light rise over the river, the clouds boiling and rolling off the forest. Sandra and Clay prepare a breakfast of legendary proportions. A sugar-dusted, maple syrup-soaked Dutch baby pancake, sausages, delicious home-fried potatoes and gallons of good coffee and juice set us up for a walk along the riverside. In a couple of hour’s gentle stroll along the shingle we’d seen an otter, an elk and a simply astonishing selection of birds. (Sandra informs me that the otters are surprisingly tame, and that summer guests who swim in the river, which is the United States’ cleanest, will often find the otters swimming alongside them.) A short drive away you’ll find Oregon’s exceptionally scenic Pacific coast, where the beaches are often deserted, while a little further south are the giant redwood forests.

This place is paradise. I’m already planning our next trip.

De Vere Grand hotel, Brighton

Here in the UK, we’ve just had a bank holiday weekend. True to form, the weather took the opportunity to stop being gloriously balmy, and did a very fine impression of somewhere north of the Arctic circa Noah. (I’m being perfectly serious here: the Met Office put out news yesterday informing us that this weekend, the UK was colder than Alaska.) Of course, this freezing, soaking weekend happened to be the weekend we had tickets for Cosi fan tutte at Glyndebourne, where I’d hoped to picnic in the garden; and a hotel room booked in Brighton, where I’d hoped to make use of the beach. Fat chance.

It’s usually pretty difficult to find a hotel room within reach of Glyndebourne during the opera festival, and many local hotels insist that you take a room for at least two days if you’re there over the weekend. I managed to find a breathtakingly expensive room for a single night at the De Vere Grand in Brighton, ten miles from Glyndebourne, which boasts five stars and an interesting history (it’s the hotel which was bombed by the IRA during the 1984 Conservative conference, and it’s opposite the burned-out remains of the West Pier).

£210 will find you a large room in the front of the hotel, with a big picture window looking over the English Channel and the curiously beautiful ruins of the West Pier. £210 is a large sum to be paying for a non-suite room (that’s about $420 for American readers), and I expect something pretty fine for the money, especially in a hotel boasting five stars. I’m still bewildered by the curate’s egg of an experience we had in our 24 hours at the hotel, where the staff were, on the whole, charming, helpful and solicitous; the room seriously sub-standard; and the check in/out experience a total nightmare.

First, the good. On arriving at the hotel, having carried Dr Weasel’s dinner jacket from the car in a torrential downpour, I was greeted by the concierge who took it from me, and told me he’d dry it and have it delivered to the room. He not only dried it (all without asking); he also removed all the cat hairs.

More good: I’d ordered a picnic to be picked up when we arrived, so we could take it to the opera (where it’s traditional to spread out on the lawn outside the auditorium in the long interval over champagne, sandwiches, strawberries and cream). The hotel offers a picnic service at around £20 a head, depending on the contents of the hamper. The gentleman I spoke to was charming, and I asked him to surprise us with the picnic contents. I was more than surprised; I was delighted. He’d packed the basket, which came with proper porcelain and cutlery, napkins and a rug, with beautiful roast beef and horseradish cream sandwiches on white bread, and some smoked salmon and cream cheese on brown, all with the crusts neatly sliced off. There were four excellent cheeses, including a wonderfully nutty Comte, all accompanied by some home-made relishes, including a tangy, sweet onion marmalade, and a relish with allspice and fresh apples. A selection of different grapes and celery, along with some lovely little biscuits, accompanied the cheeses. There was a dish of soft fruits: giant blackberries, sweet raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. And most welcome of all, because it was very, very cold at the covered picnic table where we huddled over our hamper, was a huge thermos of fresh coffee, complete with proper china mugs.

More good: breakfast was in the best tradition of the English hotel breakfast. The buffet spread was vast, and offered Continental and English breakfasts, with lovely little black puddings, delicious rosti, a fresh egg station and extremely moreish muffins, all with a view of the sea. The serving staff were some of the most cheerful people I’ve ever met at eight in the morning. Evening cocktails were also good (they’ll be better when the smoking ban comes into force), with some deliciously strong martinis; and it was great to sit in the conservatory at the front of the building and watch the thunder and lightning over the sea. Our wake-up call was on time, and the correct newspapers were delivered.

Unfortunately, I’m struggling to find anything else good to say about the place. Check-in was late, but not insultingly so. This isn’t something I’d recognise as a five-star hotel, and I do not expect a room I’ve forked out £210 on to have fraying carpets, chipped tiles (they’d made an effort at disguising this with something that appeared to be typewriter correction fluid), someone else’s shortest, curliest hairs adorning the bathroom, upholstery that’s coming apart at the seams, a television that doesn’t work and Britain’s least comfortable bed. This king-sized plank was actually two planks pushed together with a solid ridge standing proud all the way down the centre, like a Berlin wall between husband and wife. My side had some plasticky, sweat-inducing layer under the bottom sheet, and I woke up glued moistly to the bed down the side where my skin met the mattress. Dr Weasel leapt from bed screaming every time a police car howled past the building, sirens on. It seems there are more events requiring sirens and lights at 3am in Brighton than is, perhaps, natural, and the glazing in this place is very noise-transparent. The radiators were a) fierce, b) unadjustable and c) very emphatically on, so the hotel had accompanied them with an air conditioning unit which, also very emphatically on, whined into the night like a conference of wasps.

That excellent breakfast went a long way to soothe my troubled nerves, and we went to check out with a smile. That smile evaporated when we checked the bill and found a number of cocktails on it which appeared to have been ordered and signed to our room the previous afternoon, while we were ten miles away, soaking up some culture. We explained that this was obviously a mistake, given that we weren’t even in the building…and this is where things went badly wrong.

In any other hotel I’ve stayed in, politely notifying reception of erroneous charges is almost always met with an apology and the erasure of those charges from the final bill. This time, though, the receptionist decided to respond with a cynically raised eyebrow, and she told us that there was no mistake: we had definitely ordered these drinks.

I feel a prat quibbling over a sum that’s under £20, but this place had already seen a great deal of our money for a sub-par night, and I found this insistence that we were lying about the drinks massively insulting. On seeing the specifics of the bill, I felt even more insulted – the people who’d signed the drinks to our room had been drinking Shirley Temples.

Several minutes of arguing later, the receptionist took the charge off the bill, announcing righteously that she would be going to the bar later to check the signature on the drinks charge against her record of our own signatures, and charging our card if she found they matched.
We stomped out, glowering, and started to drive towards Cambridge, smug in the knowledge that we do not drink Shirley Temples. Ten minutes later, I received a mildly sheepish, mildly apologetic phone call informing me that ‘someone had made a mistake’, and that we wouldn’t be charged for the drinks after all.

So sorry, De Vere Grand – I’m not coming back any time soon. Put some money into refurbishing the rooms, train your receptionists and cleaners as well as you have trained the excellent catering and concierge staff, and perhaps I’ll think about it in a few years’ time, when I’ve stopped being piqued about the drinks thing…but for the meantime, I’ll be going to the Hotel du Vin around the corner.

George Hotel, Stamford – Seafood platter

Dr Weasel and I spent this week’s Bank Holiday Monday in Stamford, where we had our wedding reception in 2004. The George Hotel is one of my favourite places in the country: it’s a coaching inn that’s been active since around 947 AD, with a gorgeously planted garden, quiet lounges with inglenook fireplaces, comfortable rooms and two very good restaurants. It’s in Stamford, a beautiful market town built out of creamy Barnack stone, a few minutes from Burghley House, the palace built by Elizabeth I’s treasurer, William Cecil. We spent the morning at Burghley, then stopped at the George for the afternoon to have tea and scones by the fireplace, and read our books.

The hotel is probably the oldest still functioning in the UK. The original coaching inn forms the heart of the building, with the two religious buildings on either side incorporated into the inn about 500 years ago. One side used to be the Holy Sepulchre, a hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. The George’s historical success came from its position at the side of the old Great North Road, and pilgrims and knights of the Holy Sepulchre stopped here as they travelled from the north down this main conduit on their journey to Jerusalem. There is a crypt beneath the cocktail bar where you can see part of the old hospital, and little architectural details pop out all over the building; trefoils carved in the stone, medieval gateways and the thick walls which once formed the outside of the building, now inside the hotel.

There are two restaurants at The George – the Garden Lounge is smart, but less formal than the Oak Panelled Dining Room, where men are asked to wear a tie. (Dr Weasel had left his in Cambridge when we visited a few years ago, and was given one by the head waiter.) Try the Oak Panelled Dining Room if you get the opportunity; it’s an experience simply to sit in the beautiful room, lit only by candlelight. The wine list is fascinating and meticulous, and the food, traditional English dishes like Woodbridge duck, suckling pig and a wonderful sirloin of beef, is always hearty and delicious. (We’ve looked up from our plates to see Judi Dench eating in the restaurant twice in the last few years – stalkers take note.)

We ate yesterday’s meal in the Garden Lounge, where the menu is a bit lighter. The menu changes seasonally, but there are a few constants – the gruyere fritters with a Thai chilli jam have been on the menu since I can remember. I had this gorgeous Brittany Platter – a dressed crab, a langoustine, an oyster (only one, sadly), a clutch of whelks, little palourde clams, cockles, mussels, tiny pink prawns and a huge king prawn. The enormous platter was served with a green salad spiked with celery, home-baked bread, and three home-made mayonnaise sauces; a Marie Rose, a mayonnaise tout simple and an astonishingly good tartare sauce.

The seafood here is always good; this was gloriously fresh. The shellfish, steamed gently, tasted of the sea, and the prawns were sweet and tender. It’s always good to find a whelk that’s not gritty or slimy, and these whelks accomplished that with aplomb. Grated egg yolk and white garnished the crab, and my, those little clams were a thing of beauty. Remarkably, I nearly managed to finish this; I left about five prawns, a couple of mussels, a whelk and some of the crab’s brown meat. Nearly 24 hours have passed, and I’m still full.

If you’re in the UK and looking for a weekend away, or if you’re visiting England from abroad, do think about spending a couple of days at the George. There’s nowhere I know that serves up that mixture of tradition, service and comfort quite as well. Ask for the kippers as part of your enormous breakfast, and tell them I sent you.