Beyond London: cosy countryside boltholes
When the temperature plummets towards zero, is there anything more comforting than a cosy countryside bolthole with stylish bedrooms, a roaring fire, delicious pub grub and a choice of frosty walks outside the door? We think not, so let’s take a look at three of our favourite retreats within two hours of London.
Wiltshire: The Bell at Ramsbury
Spruced-up and sophisticated, this prominent former coaching inn has been the hub of Ramsbury village life for more than 300 years. Deep in the beautiful Kennet Valley 70 miles due west of the capital, it’s the kind of rural escape many Londoners long for: hassle-free and effortless, yet still a world away from the city.
Smartly decked out with lavish linens and soothing neutrals, the Bell at Ramsbury‘s nine restful rooms are spread across the pub’s first floor and a separate coach house annex. All are a good size, but the annex’s Pike Suite is particularly capacious: oversized bed, a gnarly old beam-framed vanity counter, plus a luxury en suite and sitting area. If you want to feel like you’re padding around in your own modern manor house, this is the room to book. Back downstairs, we are in fine dining territory, with an ex-head chef from Marco Pierre White’s former flagship Yew Tree Inn at the helm. Attention to detail is assured, whether you opt for a classic plate of Ramsbury Beer-battered cod and chips, or a warming winter dish like the sweet-and-salty pork belly or beetroot and goat’s cheese risotto. This is destination dining around these parts, with a fresh, upmarket interior to match. For post-meal drinking with an earthier village vibe, head to the traditional bar next door and share a pint or two with the locals.
Find a quiet slice of rural England in this lesser known corner of Wiltshire. Ramsbury lies just north of the River Kennet and is surrounded by other idyllic villages and the rolling chalk hills of the Marlborough Downs; an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Avebury – a Neolithic henge which is home to the largest stone circle in the world – is 12 miles west, and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with nearby Stonehenge in 1986. A prehistoric wonder, Avebury is the centerpiece of a hauntingly atmospheric landscape, besides being the only stone circle in the world to contain a pub. Within the village, there’s also a National Trust-run museum, manor house, garden and cafe.
Hampshire: Bourne Valley Inn
An hour from London and 30 minutes from Winchester, this stylish redbrick gastropub with rooms is the epitome of modern-rustic style. Hidden away in the Hampshire village of St. Mary Bourne, the Bourne Valley Inn sits beside a pastoral patchwork of water meadows, downland hills and trout-filled rivers, but its contemporary cottage-style interiors lean more towards reclaimed-luxe than country twee.
Upstairs, the boutique-y rooms are done up in a mix of elegant muted tones and bold printed wallpapers. Though not huge, they pull off a chic vibe well – fresh coffee, generous local-brand toiletries and plush bedding tie it all together. On the ground floor, it’s cosier still. The traditional bar and dining room are separated by a central chimney and double-sided open fire: leather club chairs and wingbacks on one side, a cushioned banquette and row of wooden dining tables on the other, all set against a backdrop of chalky whites, smudgy greys, monochrome photos and big squidgy cushions. There’s enough of interest to tempt the eye, but nothing to distract too much from the modern British menu, which takes its cue from the surrounding landscape and local farms. Smoked and cured on the premises, the freshwater fish from nearby chalk stream rivers are the speciality here, though the classic steaks and game dishes – venison sausages, pheasant chausseur with truffle mash – are equally strong. And did we mention the deli-cum-cake counter at the end of the room? Stock up on homemade brownies and smoked salmon sandwiches before you leave.
A 10-minute drive from the Bourne Valley Inn is the award-winning Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill. The showstoppers, undoubtedly, are the extraordinary Thomas Heatherwicke-designed intertwining botanical glasshouses, but this former paper mill has been sensitively restored from top to bottom, and is a shining example of sustainable design. Hosted (or self-guided) tours explain the gin-making process, followed by a complimentary cocktail in the bar.
Nine miles north is Highclere Castle; seat of the Earl of Carnarvon but perhaps better known as the main filming location of hit period drama Downton Abbey. Open seasonally, visitors can explore the opulent interiors as seen in the show, and wander through vast Capability Brown-designed gardens before enjoying a traditional English cream tea in the cafe.
The Cotswolds: Sign of the Angel
Slightly further afield yet still only two hours from the capital, the southern Cotswolds village of Lacock is entirely owned and managed by the National Trust, and widely regarded as one of the prettiest in England. Here’s where you’ll find the supremely atmospheric Sign of the Angel restaurant with rooms – a 15th century inn complete with original oak doors, stone archways, low ceilings, exposed beams and glorious open fireplaces. As boltholes go, this is one of the finest we’ve come across. Just remember to mind your head.
Downstairs, the restaurant is spread across several low-lit spaces, one of which can be used for private dining and events. All are gorgeous, but the room at the rear is the cosiest; a charcoal-painted space with a vast open hearth. Book here for lingering Sunday roasts or Cotswold cream teas, then head up to the snooze-inducing sitting room for a flick through the papers and an afternoon nap. Those staying over can choose from five delightful guest rooms, all individually decorated with antique wooden furnishings, French-style armchairs re-upholstered in smart modern fabrics, and sumptuous down bedding with soft tweed throws.
Lacock Abbey – part medieval cloisters and part country house – lies a 3-minute walk from Sign of the Angel’s front door. The abbey has featured in multiple big-name productions including two Harry Potter movies and the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, and is surrounded by 11 acres of wooded grounds. Next door is the The Fox Talbot Museum, dedicated to the work of former resident and creator of the photographic negative William Henry Fox Talbot.
Fourteen miles to the west is the honey-hued city of Bath – a stupendous example of cohesive Georgian architecture and an unmissable destination in this part of the UK. It’s also the only place in the country where you can bathe in minerally-rich, naturally hot spa water.