OLDIE BUT GOODIE: The Olde Bell Inn
IT WAS AN experiment to see if it is possible to harness the ‘holiday’ spirit in just two days, and only half an hour away from home.
Even before my son arrived, three and a bit years ago, I’d never done anything so unusual. Weekends away – although not common – were to Barcelona or Paris, or in the UK, to Yorkshire or Cornwall – not just a 35 minute jaunt round the M25/M40.
But demoralised by the approach of a cold, dark winter, and seduced by the promise of Ilse Crawford’s first UK designed hostelry – and also, I have to say, bolstered by the increasingly fashionable idea of holidaying close to home – it was hard to turn down the opportunity to capture a little bit of Autumn romance at the recently made-over coaching inn..
It should be said, the Olde Bell Inn – in Hurley, a lesser known Berkshire village close to the rather more famous Henley – and a couple of miles walk up river (The Thames) from Marlow, is a work in progress. The Inn itself – with parts dating from the 1100s – consists of seven bedrooms featuring supersize beds, Bestlite lamps and roll-top baths, a cosy pub bar at the front complete with friendly village locals, and a restaurant at the back. The futher rooms and barns in a large complex across the road from the Inn are undergoing the Studio Ilse treatment right now – and once complete one imagines would be the perfect party / wedding venue.
Because, and I emphasise, this, the food team behind the Inn, is of upmost importance. Rosie Sykes, of the Kitchen Revolution book and website, is the chef behind the fabulous organic, local, imaginative English menu, which during our stay produced a melt-in-the-mouth salt lamb shank I’ve still not forgotten a couple of months later. When we were there, an elderly gentleman was awaiting the chef in the garden with a copy of her book – he was after an autograph. And with a recent spate of bad food experiences in the weeks preceding our stay, it was not just refreshing to experience good English food – but utterly heartening.
You’re questioning my romance statement. Yes, although romance and three-year-old boys who can’t sit still for longer than five minutes and don’t class colouring-in at the dinner table as a sustainable activity, don’t go hand in hand, this site is undeniably romantic. Hurley is a picture-perfect English village in that historical part of the Thames path previously enjoyed by kings and queens. It’s the kind of England that Daily Mail readers bemoan the loss of in their online chat forums. BUT it still exists. It’s free (the river walk part, anyway). And on a weekend in mid autumn, when freakishly, the weather was as glorious and sunny as on the warmest of summer days, it belonged to myself, my man and our little manling, for a few hours.
It was enough. Helped by the Bell Inn’s endless meadowy gardens – so the three-year-old could run free while we ate lunch outside (available May to October) – and the dedicatedly child-friendly approach (on Sundays in summer there are children’s activities in the gardens, and the staff are upping the ante with the kid-friendly attractions: including, shortly, the inclusion of a play room) we did have both romantic AND family time.
There were downs. The manling was too tired to truly enjoy (or let us linger over) our dinner. We had to retreat to our room early and content ourselves with watching Indiana Jones on TV with the volume on super low instead of heading downstairs to the pub (although you could, if you so wished). And truth be told, we didn’t have the best night’s sleep (an unheard-of illegal rave in the village kept us awake much of the night), and the restaurant beneath our suite was noisy until closing time (these ancient buildings don’t have sound-proofing)… Would we head back? Oh yeah. It’s just round the corner, for one (just 20 mins from Heathrow on a good day, and thus a great outside of London stop-off). And I’m even thinking, once the barns are refurbished, it might be the wedding destination I’ve spent the last few years searching for…
*The Olde Bell Inn, High Street, Hurley, Berkshire, SL6 5LX, UK. £150-£300 a room including breakfast. www.theoldebell.co.uk. Or just book in for lunch or one of their seasonal special food events – ring or see the website for details.