The Lion Inn, Winchcombe
It is not your usual arrival at a Cotswolds retreat. Rather than drive by day, ogling chocolate-box England, we navigate to Winchcombe on a bleak night, our full-beamed headlights picking out spectral trees on the unmarked Cotswolds lanes. It is midnight when we pull in to the Lion Inn. Yet standing sentinel at the entrance on a brutally cold night is Sandro Cherchi, the food and drink manager, waving our parking permit with a smile so winning he appears impervious to the cold.
We glimpse the whitewashed bar and dining room as he leads us to room 4, the mini-suite. It is one of seven rooms (priced £90-£165), painted in a Farrow & Ball palette and adorned with fresh flowers. The style is Scandiwegian-French-bohemian-shabby chic with the odd decorative quirk: a vintage Swedish chest, a rustic rocking horse. The décor is halfway between a stylish home and a boutique hotel. It works.
Cherchi has left us a bottle of Argentinian Malbec and a slate with a midnight feast of cheeses, a local pâté, salami and crispy bread with pistachios. It is a relief to find no television. Instead, there are cards and Scrabble (a game, I confess, that I have always resented – a legacy of having a smarter older sister).
“I want people to come downstairs and escape the tyranny of the television,” explains Annie Fox-Hamilton, the owner, the next day. She reopened the old coaching inn – her first move into hospitality after a career in events management – 10 months ago, after extensive renovation. In their previous incarnation the rooms had fleur-de-lis carpets and Artex ceilings.
“I don’t want it to be a pub. I try to say ‘inn’,” she says. “The AA describes it as a restaurant with rooms. But I want it to be a bolt-hole, a club everyone can be a member of; a place where women can go on their own and not feel self-conscious. It’s creating an experience, with a certain amount of style, but that is not intimidating or precious.”
Winchcombe, an old Saxon town, is convenient for country walks, Sudeley Castle or racing at Cheltenham. On the Sunday we brave an arctic walk to Cleeve Hill, the highest point of the Cotswolds, before driving to picturesque Broadway and Chipping Camden.
It is a relief to be back in less-touristy Winchcombe, where we retreat to the bar. It is here that Fox-Hamilton shows signs of her former craft in creating an ambience. There is her jocular Lion logo. “He’s very distinguished. Almost like Peter Ustinov. It’s very smoking-jacket whimsy.” It is an apt sartorial shorthand for the room’s mood. There is an open fire, guarded by brass lions. A mother plays a board-game with her son. Some regulars are in from Cheltenham, at ease in leather armchairs, amid the relics of Sunday papers. There is a companionable sort of intimacy; not a claustrophobic bed-and-breakfast intensity. Ambience attained.
The service is excellent, the food good modern British fare – local lamb chops, hot profiteroles – that falls just short of destination-dining but easily fills the void left by a windy walk.
Caroline Daniel is editor of FT Weekend
The Lion Inn
North Street, Winchcombe, GL54 5PS
01242 603300; www.thelionwinchcombe.co.uk. Doubles from £90
Winchcombe is six miles from Cheltenham. From London, trains take 93 mins to Moreton-in-Marsh, 12 miles west of the town
Hot holidays: British island hopping
At certain times of the year, very low tides make it possible to walk between some of the Scilly Isles, writes Tom Robbins. The Hell Bay, an award-winning hotel on Bryher, has launched packages which include guided walks to nearby Tresco. The trips, which run 10 times, include breakfast and dinner on Bryher, and lunch at the Flying Boat restaurant on Tresco. From £160 per person; www.hellbay.co.uk
Les Ecrehous are a remote and little visited corner of the Channel Islands – a group of tiny islands, all but three of them submerged at high tide. There are houses and a ruined abbey, but the only permanent residents are seals. Jersey Kayak Adventures runs full-day trips to the islands, travelling from Jersey by motorboat before switching to kayaks. £146 per person; www.jerseykayakadventures.co.uk
A bracing dip in the sea is part of most beach holidays, but John Coningham-Rolls takes the concept further, arranging swimming adventures from the Arctic Circle to Thailand. He also offers weekends in Cornwall, based at Marazion on the south coast. After a warm-up day swimming along the coast, the climax is a circumnavigation of St Michael’s Mount. From £425 per person; www.coningham-rolls.com