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'Exclusive' means cold coffee and warm bucks fizz

Published 19 September 2004
News Review
584th article

Geraldine found the furnishings at the Manor House too twee (Arnold Crust)

Last week I dealt with the sublime hotel La Reserve de Beaulieu. We now go from sublime to ridiculous, namely the Manor House Hotel at Castle Combe, Wiltshire.

Entering from the picture postcard village, you pass a wooden painted sign reading: "Exclusivity has never been so affordable." That's a laugh!

My room - I repeat room, not a suite - was £690 a night. Nor was it remotely exclusive.

It was bizarre. The hotel is very old, stone Tudor. The room could have been beautiful but had been over-messed-about to a ludicrous degree.

The four-poster bed, not against the wall, was raised on a dais. What's the point of that? Net curtains could be closed around it by a remote control, which supposedly did everything - lights, gadgets, served drinks, sang opera, wiped your forehead. You needed a degree in advanced electronics to work it. Even Geraldine, who's good with such things, couldn't find how to turn off the reading lights, so we twisted them away from us for sleeping.

The bed's net curtains were bordered in endless glass-drop beads. So were the window curtains and all the pelmets. How tacky can you get? Five steep steps led to a low-ceilinged attic bathroom with permanently dim lighting. It had the sort of taps you needed to be a genius to control, a flat-screen TV facing the bath -but no tissues.

I've never been in a hotel, even in the tackiest places I sometimes visit when on movie locations, that doesn't put a box of tissues in the bathroom.

The Manor House letter offering this mishmash stated: "We have recently refurbished this room to a more contemporary feel (why, in a classic house?) designed by a talented (could have fooled me!) London designer, Orianna Fielding Banks. It has all the latest bells and whistles." Geraldine described it more accurately, saying: "It's very much 'look how clever we are'. Too twee."

Never mind, perhaps for £690 a night, which included breakfast and dinner for two, the food would save the day. It didn't. Things started well. Tea on the lawn was exemplary. Very fresh sandwiches, Earl Grey tea with a strainer for me and another for Geraldine.

At dinner I ordered a bucks fizz, which should have been chilled. It was warm. I sent it back and got another that was slightly less warm. I sent that back and gave up.

The restaurant manager, Marc Van de Wynckele, had recently arrived from Cliveden. Not a good reference.

"I've got a lot to do to improve things here," he said. That was true.

My pate was all right. It was followed, oddly, by a very average passion fruit sorbet. I'd asked for the duck strips to be well done. They tasted of very little, but they weren't horrible. They appeared on the dreaded bed of spinach, which is always ghastly. At a large table opposite, two children were screaming and yelling. Perhaps they, too, objected to being served warm bucks fizz.

Pre-dessert was a "chilled vanilla milkshake". Except it wasn't chilled. It was warm. The next morning at breakfast my coffee was served cold. "They don't understand temperature at this hotel. I guess £690 a night for a room isn't enough," I volunteered to Geraldine. "Put it up to two thousand and they might figure out hot and cold as normal people do."

My dessert was disgusting. It was a chocolate mousse-type thing, sickly beyond belief. Geraldine tried a bit and did a waving motion with her hands. In Lynton-Edwards sign language that means "Not much good".

At breakfast, although I was told the orange juice had been squeezed in the kitchen, I doubt if it had been squeezed that morning. Orange juice degrades after an hour. This was well degraded. I timed my wait for a kipper to 25 minutes, then said to a waitress: "Could you please find out where my kipper is?"

"It's coming," she replied dismissively. That sort of answer sums up inadequacy. Without knowing or caring, you just get an automatic "It's coming".

I asked the restaurant manager to check in the kitchen, otherwise I'd leave without it. He returned to say: "It's coming in one minute." We all know a restaurant minute is not the same as anyone else's. In fact it arrived three minutes 20 seconds later, meaning it had taken nearly half an hour. It was, I say in fairness, extremely good.

Most of the hotel staff were pleasant and professional. I had a written agreement with the general manager that the £90 dinner bill would be waived for one night when I went out. When I got home and checked my bill it hadn't been. That's naughty.

Winner's letters

I'm 14 years old and before today couldn't think of one good reason why anybody would write to your letters column. I've been reading it for three years and only recently bothered with the reviews. I'm not impressed. Last week Geraldine said you should only be allowed to eat naked in the bath. That mental image ran shivers up and down my spine. As for saying children should not be allowed in restaurants, children should be allowed into any dining establishment - unless you're there. They should be saved the horror of clapping eyes on you.
Fiona Hyde, Dublin.

I read the letters first thing on Sunday, but not Winner's Dinners. Why should I take the advice of an insurance salesman on where to eat?
Amy Horridge, Lancashire.

Gerard, the poor old pool attendant at La Reserve de Beaulieu you attacked last week, only needs his palm greasing when you first arrive. He's then your servant for the duration of your stay. Surely he's entitled to his pound of flesh. I agree La Reserve is historic.
Laurie Moffitt, Hertfordshire

Ian Fraser is not unique (last week's letters). I also read the letters but not Winner's Dinners. Unlike Mr Fraser, these are not read first thing on Sunday. Just glimpsing Mr Winner's photo at the side that early in the day would put me off my breakfast. I wait until I know I shall not need to eat for a while.
Fern Shiner, Bristol

Over £30,000 for a 19-day stay at La Reserve! It fair takes the breath away. Have you ever thought of contributing to those millions less fortunate who have neither clean water nor food to sustain them? I imagine you do, because you're said to be generous. It would be comforting to hear of it in your column. Otherwise some people (not I, of course) might wonder if you're a selfish, fat, greedy slob with little social concern for your fellow man. Blessings on you and the fair Geraldine.
John Roberts, East Sussex

I thought the photo of Geraldine holding onto a lamppost at the meat market (Winner's Dinners, September 5) was most entertaining. Well done, dear. It's never too late to start pole dancing!
Sandra Macrae, Angus.

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk