Everywhere I look, I interrupt a wedding planning meeting.
I’ve lost my partner and three-year-old daughter in The Manor House hotel in Wiltshire shortly after arriving and in every room and corridor on the ground floor I search I discover a beaming couple having a nuptials pow-wow with hotel staff.
I can’t blame them. For as hotels go, there are few venues anywhere in the land as beautifully elegant and romantic as this ivy-clad 14th-century Cotswold manor house, with its walled garden and quaint mews cottages.
The Manor House hotel in Wiltshire sits in manicured grounds by the Bybrook River, in the foreground in this image
The ground floor of The Manor House hotel is gorgeously rustic – full of boutique finery. Pictured is the beautiful Front Hall
(Though I have reservations about the slightly grubby flagpole at the front.)
And to complete the picture, it sits by a babbling river, the Bybrook, in one of the most picture-perfect, chocolate box villages in Britain – Castle Combe.
Wedding photo heaven – and irresistible bait for Instagrammers.
Cars must drive very carefully through Castle Combe because visitors are prone to wandering its main thoroughfare in a daze, bewitched by the 15th-century stone cottages, Grade I listed 13th-century church and stone-canopied market cross and often stepping into the road without looking, smartphones and cameras held aloft.
Castle Combe is one of the prettiest villages in the land. The hotel sits just to the left of the road pictured here
Scenes for War Horse, Stardust, The Wolfman, Dick Turpin and 1967’s Dr Dolittle were filmed in Castle Combe
Hollywood film directors are keen on the aesthetics, too, including Steven Spielberg, who shot scenes for War Horse there.
The village was also used for Stardust, The Wolfman, Dick Turpin and 1967’s Dr Dolittle – and TV shows Poirot and Robin of Sherwood.
Castle Combe is truly a world within a world.
And so is the hotel.
I’m thoroughly enjoying searching for my family in the property’s snug rooms, with their dark-wood panelling and boutique finery.
In the end, I’m told they have ascended to our room, ‘Home Meadow’.
However, it’s not one of the hotel’s most romantic, bucolic chambers (pictured below).
Here the cosy antique Laura Ashely vibe recedes and we get a less lavish hint of DFS in the mix.
No complaints about the size – it’s big enough to host a lordly banquet (and to play hide and seek with a three-year-old) and we have two king-sized beds. Plus, the bathroom is impressive, with a standalone tub next to a TV mounted in the wall, a stunning rain shower cubicle with mosaic tiling and twin sinks beneath a slanting roof.
The sturdy wooden beams and the TV hidden in the main room mirror get a thumbs up, too.
These mews cottages are owned by The Manor House and contain some of the hotel’s snuggest rooms
However, some of the panelling and furniture, the wardrobe for instance, is a tad ‘conference hotel’.
And it feels sparsely furnished – a wee bit. For instance, there’s a dead space in the top right corner by a little window, which I would fill with a big armchair. This could be a seductive spot for curling up with a good book.
And the expansive wall behind the beds is crying out for a collage of paintings or photographs. And the stone windowsill a nice cushion to perch on.
Some more rugs would help cosy-it-up, too. I sit on one of the beds and it begins to roll across the wooden floor. There is a large comfy L-shaped sofa, but no cushions (though I later see a June 2020 review picture online of the same sofa adorned with plump green cushions… ) and the style jars with the ornate TV cabinet.
It feels as if the medieval feng shui so pleasantly aligned elsewhere has fractured.
There’s no more time to play interior designer, though, as the babysitter has arrived. We have a table for two booked at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Bybrook, where small children are not allowed.
Here, we’re back in extraordinary-land, thanks to the brilliant head chef Rob Potter and top-notch service.
The Michelin-starred Bybrook restaurant, where diners can experience exceptional dishes by head chef Rob Potter
One of Rob’s lamb dishes. Ted describes his a la carte meal as a ‘culinary fairground of finely tuned flavours’
Pictured left is Ted’s Newlyn mackerel with Porthilly oyster, cucumber and caviar. On the right is the head chef’s outstanding deconstructed and leftfield cheese course
Rob has total mastery of technique and the very fine ingredients he works with. Every dish is an utter joy, with taste sensation surprises around every corner. A culinary fairground of finely tuned flavours.
We’re presented with buckwheat soda bread with cultured butter.
It’s a slice of Venezuelan araguani chocolate layered with banana and honeycomb for dessert, pictured left, and fig with rosemary caramel, right
Supreme talent: Manor House Head Chef Rob Potter
Then Newlyn mackerel with Porthilly oyster, cucumber and caviar, and yuzu-cured Loch Duart salmon with radish.
Fresh and zingy.
Then it’s on to Cornbury estate venison with butternut squash and oxtail risotto fritter; and Wiltshire Downlands lamb with black garlic, violet artichoke and turnip.
Cooked to perfection.
Then we have an ingenious sort of deconstructed leftfield cheese course – a Brie-style Baron Bigod and truffle accompanied by scones, a little dish of honey and seeded crackers.
The waitress invites us to play around and mix and match the ingredients.
We mix, we match, we declare it yet another winner.
Pictured here is the Golden Leigh cottage suite – one of the hotel’s most bucolic bedrooms
The Lordsmeer Suite bedroom, decked out in soothing country-style furnishings
An entry-level cosy room, which costs from £190 with breakfast included
Ted’s Home Meadow room as photographed by a Tripadvisor reviewer. There were no cushions on Ted’s visit. The top right corner is where he’d place an armchair to fill up the space
The desserts – a slice of Venezuelan araguani chocolate layered with banana and honeycomb, and fig with rosemary caramel – are also both a triumph.
Beverage-wise it’s a lovely English sparkling wine by West Sussex-based Ridgeview to begin and a Tuscan red – a Bastianich La Mozza – to sip throughout.
It’s a nicely rustic number, but my (WSET 3-qualified) partner feels it doesn’t have enough fruit on the nose – the bouquet is mostly alcohol, she rightly points out.
It performs on the palette though and opens up as the meal progresses.
The only other brownie point I’m going to deduct is for not being asked if I’d like an aperitif when we’re seated. It’s always one of my favourite fine-dining moments, especially when fizz is suggested.
The waitress does suggest something sparkling, but water.
The Manor House bar. There are 180 gins to try at the hotel – and drinks can be distributed throughout the ground floor
These steps lead up to the hotel’s elegant walled garden – a great place for aimless wandering
WHERE IS THE CASTLE?
The Manor House says that many guests ask where the castle is today. All that remains of the structure, which dates back to the Iron Age, is ‘some stonework’, which lies amid vegetation about half a mile to the north west of the hotel. The castle was abandoned in the 14th century.
We return to the restaurant for an excellent breakfast in the morning, gazing across the manicured lawns as we devour comforting Eggs Benedict and toast.
The service dips below Michelin levels, though.
One guest is given his orange juice just as he’s getting up to leave and I observe one of the waitresses literally running across the width of the almost-full restaurant into the kitchen at one point.
We suspect they’re a person down, because the staff that are there are seriously dedicated to the cause and polite to a T.
The multiple dining options include afternoon tea, where tiered cake stands are the order of the day
Winter is coming… and The Manor House looks particularly romantic with a dusting of snow
This is where Manor House guests’ Range Rovers and Aston Martins swing in
Ted samples a Castle Inn lunch and is duly impressed, especially with the homemade smoked sea salt butter
Ted was hosted by The Manor House, which has 62 rooms costing from £190 per room per night (based on Cosy room bed and breakfast).
To round off our weekend, we walk through the village and the ancient wood above it – at the recommendation of one of the super-friendly reception team – inspect the hotel’s eye-catching 18-hole golf course and have lunch at the hotel’s 12th-century gastropub in the village, The Castle Inn.
Again, it could be a tad more antique-y inside, but we very much enjoy our squash soup with chorizo; Sunday roast; fish and chips, and syrup steamed pudding with custard.
But the biggest hit is the rosemary baked potato focaccia with mouthwatering homemade smoked sea salt butter.
I’d eat scoops of it.
The staff are great, too – chatty and welcoming.
We amble back to the hotel via the main entrance, which takes you past a riverside sign indicating the ‘perfect photo opportunity’ for a picture of the property, along with Twitter and Instagram handles for the hotel and the group that runs it – Exclusive Collection.
The sign is spot on – it’s a great angle (with the flagpole hidden behind a lovely big tree). Given the pretty setting, though, it feels a bit tacky. However, such corporate whiffs are not strong enough to break the spell this bewitching hotel has cast over us.