The small Gloucestershire town of Painswick may have been built on the wool trade but it’s yews, not ewes, that bring visitors to its picturesque honey-stone lanes today. The parish churchyard is famously home to 99 of the evergreens and local legend has it that, should a 100th be planted, the devil will destroy it (apparently the theory is currently being put to the test).
If counting trees isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other reasons to visit Painswick. Prime among them – besides the nearby Rococo Garden and café – is the town’s newest hotel. The Painswick re-opened last Easter, having been bought and refurbished by the Calcot Collection, whose other properties include Calcot Manor, Barnsley House and the Lord Crewe Arms.
With affordable room rates and a playful aesthetic (note the neon sign in the reception area), this is designed as a younger, more affordable addition to the group’s properties (and, possibly, a Cotswolds riposte to The Pig hotels).
Previously Cotswolds88, a rock chick-style retreat with a black, white and yellow bar and zebra-print furnishings, the renovated hotel is now more in keeping with the building’s late 18th century structure. Bedrooms are decorated in muted natural shades, lounges come with open fires and mountains of cushions, a lawn is perfect for sprawling on sunny days, there are two treatment rooms for facials or massages and, in the hallway, scrolls of printed walking routes and a stack of help-yourself wellies invite guests to tramp out into the neighbouring Slad Valley (of Laurie Lee fame).
The Painswick sells itself as a restaurant-with-rooms and we expected great things of a kitchen headed up by Michael Bedford (who won a Michelin star for the Trouble House pub in Tetbury) and supported by the Calcot team. For the moment, however, it doesn’t quite live up to the promise.
First the plus points: the restaurant’s teal and mustard colour scheme, gorgeous leather dining chairs, panelled walls and central counter make for an atmospheric and decadent space.
Also impressive is the brevity of the menu, which sticks to a mix of appealingly rustic-sounding dishes (wood-fired pizza bianci, mini mackerel burgers, crispy ham hock with white beans and chorizo).
As for the food itself, our best dishes involved fish. A starter of twice-baked Parmesan soufflé with smoked haddock and spinach was light but creamy with a firm top and a salty haddock hit. And a main course of roast sea trout with a white bean and crayfish cassoulet was rich in flavour, the soft fish and velvety sauce balanced by crunchy kale. A starter of salmon tartare was also expertly done, although it would have been better without a too-sweet Granny Smith sorbet alongside.
Desserts, too, were good, the standout being a giant but gossamer-light raspberry soufflé. Beneath its sweet, crunchy top was a pillow of soft, warm souffle tinged with just a hint of sharpness and served with a scoop of smooth raspberry ripple ice cream.
So what didn’t we like? Firstly the nibbles. Pre-dinner drinks were brought out with little dishes of sweet popcorn (odd), crinkle cut crisps (OK) and homemade pork scratchings (bland and oily).
Then there was the service. The young waiting staff were friendly and pleasant but lacking experience. This showed in their unfamiliarity with the menu and a lack of attention to detail.
The menu was also a little muddled. Not only were there few really seasonal choices on our visit (we would have liked some inspiring salads in the height of summer in place of Beef Wellington and Chicken Kiev) but the portion sizing was unpredictable and some of the dishes were unnecessarily fussy (a chicken liver partfait starter came with rhubarb, a giant crisp, a huge slab of toast and a side salad that was topped by an avalanche of root vegetable crisps). In a few cases, too, dishes didn’t match the menu descriptions (most obviously a gazpacho that had no tomato in it – possible, yes, but most diners would expect tomato unless forewarned).
The tiny but pretty bar, with its chapel-like windows gleaming behind spangling glass bottles, is tucked upstairs, beside one of the hotel lounges.
Try the cocktail of the week (Just Peachy when we visited – London Dry Gin with peach liquor, fresh lime juice and crushed ice). Or, order a Bloody Mary and toast the hotel’s history; the Palladian-style house was substantially altered in the early 1900s and, as the bartender splashes some Worcestershire sauce into the mix, reflect on the fact that much of that extension work was funded by Frances Isobel Seddon, formerly a Perrins (of Lea & Perrins).
The best thing about the hotel’s 16 bedrooms are the views. Which isn’t to say the bedrooms aren’t lovely (they are) but that the views are particularly stunning. Splash out on one of the grander rooms in the main building and you can have those Cotswold rooftops and valleys fringed by a private balcony or a wheel window. Check into a standard double in the modern garden wing and you can have it framed by mullion windows.
Once you manage to focus your gaze further inwards you discover bedrooms slightly calmer and more restrained than the rest of the hotel, with lots of taupe. Accent colours – in hues from soft mustard to moss, teal and heather – add individuality to each room and there’s a clever nod to the building’s Arts and Crafts additions in the choice of those colours, as well as features such as simple wooden panelling and patterned fabric headboards.
Much thought has gone into the little extras, with a shrewd choice of paperbacks, pencils that double as paintbrushes (plus notepads that double as sketchpads), illustrated graphics showing how to use the in-room coffee machines and afternoon treats of homemade macarons all provided. Retro Roberts radios and colourful Bakelite phones also add a sense of fun.
Bathrooms, too, are sleek and well designed; all but one have a bath (many of them are clawfoots) as well as a shower, and all are stocked with classy Neom toiletries.
Breakfast is not included but it’s worth having, with exemplary flat whites, delicious shots of apple and ginger juice and, as well as a small but carefully curated continental buffet, some interesting cooked choices.
We weren’t tempted by the Full Elvis – waffles, banana, peanut butter ice cream, crispy bacon and chocolate sauce – but the hotel’s simple, cinnamon-sprinkled take on French toast was a winner. And if you don’t fancy one of the more sophisticated options (the eggs Benedict looked good), bacon or sausage butties are also on offer.
Rates start at £149 per night per double, room only (thepainswick.co.uk). Breakfast costs from £6pp for the continental buffet.
Written by Rhiannon Batten, September 2016
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