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Top 10 traditional country sleepovers within an hour of the M25.
|Royal Oak, Yattendon.|
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2. Red Lion, Henley-on-Thames (Oxfordshire). Since the 15th century, this stout, red brick coaching inn has stolen plum position between the river and the church. Inside everything is deeply English, including the very inviting snug bar kitted out with leather club chairs and flagstone floor. Rooms are luxurious and welcoming, making this a good choice if spending a little more. Where? By the bridge in the centre of town. Henley sits on a picturesque bend of the Thames between Windsor and Reading. 35 mins. from M25 Jn. 15. When? Prone to flooding in mid-winter. Otherwise year round. Unbeatable for the Henley Regatta. How much? £145 - £165 for a double room. Phone for off-season offers. The X Factor: The finishing line view of the Regatta from your river room. (Book forever ahead.) A spot of culture: The Stanley Spencer Gallery, in Cookham, profiles one of Britain’s most unorthodox 20th century artists in an old Wesleyan Chapel. Hiking boots on: Some of the best, most secretive Chiltern valleys lie immediately to the north. Tell me more: t. 01491 572161.
3. Wykeham Arms, Winchester (Hampshire). This bustling old market town inn remains a much-loved favourite. A great position behind the Cathedral, the Dickensesque interior - a warren of bars and eating areas, and the convivial crowd of regulars are all part of the charm. Food is good dining pub standard. The comfortable, refurbished bedrooms are upstairs or in the more expensive Saint George annexe. Multi-award-winning. Where? Hidden away in the oldest part of the city amongst the narrow lanes between the Cathedral and the river. 45 mins. from M25 Jn. 12. When? Convivial and welcoming year-round. Warming fires in winter. How much? £90 - £120 for a double room. The X Factor: Winchester College school desks complete with schoolboy graffiti for bar-room tables. A spot of culture: Winchester Cathedral is Europe’s longest Medieval church, at its most at-mospheric for daily evensong. Star exhibit in the Great Hall is King Arthur’s Round Table. Hiking boots on: Walk out to St. Catherine’s Hill for an elegiac view over the city and meadows. Tell me more. t. 01962 853834.
4. Ringlestone Inn, Ringlestone (Kent). Hidden away deep in the Kent Downs, it’s the sort of bucolic rural backwater that by rights shouldn’t exist so close to London. The pub and farmhouse accommodation across the lane virtually make up the hamlet of Ringlestone. Built in the 17th century, the inn is cosy and atmospheric with brick floor and candles on the tables. Eat in the bar rather than the unexciting dining room. A tad twee and somewhat over-priced (avoid the extra-charge breakfast), but very relaxing. Where? In a fold of the North Downs east of Maidstone. 35 mins. from M25 Jn. 3. When? Best in autumn and winter when quieter and the dark evenings add to the atmosphere of a cosy hideaway. How much? £120 - £140 for a double room. The X Factor: The large, beautifully kept cottage and water gardens. A spot of culture: Moated Leeds Castle is one of the most fairytale of English castles and offers a wide array of additional attractions. Hiking boots on: The Pilgrim’s Way passes within a mile. The super-fit could hoof it all the way to Canterbury, but shorter walks are equally rewarding. Tell me more. t. 01622 859900.
5. Royal Oak, Yattendon (Berkshire). Facing out onto the green of a pretty West Berkshire village, this very smart old coaching inn makes a great base for exploring the little-known countryside round about or simply pottering. Food is a major feature. Metropolitan cooking is served in a choice of bar/brasserie or elegent restaurant. Rooms are cosseting with enveloping drapes and soft colours. Where? Between Newbury and Reading in the quiet, hilly countryside where the Chilterns run into the Berkshire Down. 50 mins. from M25 Jn 15. When? Year round. The surrounding countryside is its prettiest in late spring. How much? £100 - £140 for a double room. The X Factor: Yattendon is one of only a handful of villages in southern England that are still pri-vately owned. A spot of culture: Just down the road, the Living Rainforest is an ecologically inspired tropical garden that aims to educate as well as to entertain. Lizards, birds and butterflies all roam free. Hiking boots on: The Pang Valley to the south is the sort of understated, deeply English countryside that old colonials used to dream about from far overseas. Tell me more: t. 01635 201325.
6. Mermaid Inn, Rye (East Sussex). As quaint as it comes. A black and white half-timbered inn at the top of a cobbled street, the Mermaid was last rebuilt following a French raid in 1472. Inside it’s all inglenook fireplaces, leaded windows and carved oak – original not fake. Eat in the homely bar or smart restaurant. Rooms provide reasonable comfort in traditional vein. Expensive, but you’re buying the superbly romantic location. Where? In the heart of the old Cinque Port of Rye (now 2 miles inland) in the extreme east of Sussex. 60 mins. from M25 Jn. 5. When? Out of season – the crowds are impossible in the summer holidays. Winter is fun: big, brooding views out over the marshes. How much? £160 - £200 for a double room. The X Factor: Morris dancers congregate outside on bank holidays – you may wish to avoid. A spot of culture: Almost every building in Rye has historic associations. For the best view of the rickety roofs climb the tower of St. Mary’s Church. Hiking boots on: Camber Beach is magnificently moody; stretching further than you’ll be able to walk across its sand and shifting shingle. Tell me more: t. 01797 223065.
7. Horse Guards Inn, Tillington (West Sussex). Pukka but rustic dining pub in a sleepy Sussex village, with cottagey bedrooms attached. The three eating areas each come with roaring fire in winter and equine decoration. The front bar is simple with country furniture. Food is taken seriously – modern British with global influences. Clientele is decidedly upscale – not many local accents here. Best of the bedrooms is in the separate, simple cottage. Where? Opposite the 13th century church. Tillington lies off the main road just west of Petworth, West Sussex. 55 mins. from M25 Jn. 10. When? Late spring to early autumn for alfresco eating in the walled garden and the polo at next door Cowdray Park. How much? £65 - £75 for a double room. The X Factor: Sitting in the bar’s window seat with the Rother Valley spread out before you. A spot of culture: Petworth House is one of England’s finest stately homes with exceptional art and 700 acres of park landscaped by Capability Brown. Hiking Boots on: The South Downs Way runs along the high ridge crest visible across the valley. The stretch south of Bignor is one of the finest. Tell me more: t. 01798 342 332.
8. Five Arrows, Waddesdon (Buckinghamshire). Part of the Rothschild estate, the Five Arrows’ tall chimneys, timber gables and flower-decked balconies mark it out as somewhere with a bit more pedigree than the average boozer. Its warmly furnished, high-ceilinged interior is well-bred traditional with just a touch of colonial. The kitchen has a strong reputation for its eclectic fusion menu. Rooms are rather conventional, the suites have more character. Where? In rural north Buckinghamshire to the west of Aylesbury. 40 mins. from M25 Jn. 20. When? April to June and Sept to Dec. – when Waddesdon Manor is open but not overrun. How much? £95 for a double room (£150 suite). The X Factor: Rothschild first-growth clarets on the wine list to admire, with other Rothschild wines from Portugal and Chile to drink. A spot of culture: Waddesdon Manor is so OTT even the Victorian railway barons thought it nouveau. The collection of 18th century French decorative arts is one of the best in Europe though. Hiking boots on: Explore around Brill on its hill for wide views over the Vale of Aylesbury. Tell me more: t. 01296 651727.
9. The Fish House, Chilgrove (West Sussex). In summer, wisteria flowers drape the façade of this smart restaurant-with-rooms housed in a white-washed 18th century former inn. A wonderful setting in the heart of the Sussex Downs means walks from the doorstep, whilst Goodwood is just a few minutes drive. Known for its restaurant and more especially for its wines – over 600 are listed, it also offers a less formal bar. Rooms are peaceful if short on imagination. Breakfast in bed or alfresco in the garden. How much? £120 for a double room. Tell me more: t. 01243 535219.10. The Angel, Guildford (Surrey). Quite grand, this one. A coaching inn since the 13th century (Jane Austen and Lord Nelson have both stayed), the Angel retains bags of character as well as being rather luxurious. Guildford makes an excellent base for walks in the Surrey Hills and boat trips on the Wey, whilst the cobbled centre offers London shops without the crowds. For the curious, room 1 is reputedly haunted. How much? £155 / £180 for doubles / suites. Tell me more: t.01483 564555.