The setting couldn’t be more romantic if it tried. Set in the very heart of the village of Old Minister in 65 acres of magical gardens, wildflower meadows and woodland, the Old Swan and Minster Mill is the perfect spot to escape the hustle and bustle of the week and relax in the charm of bygone years.
We flew there direct from Belfast to Heathrow – a 55 minute flight. Once there it was simple enough to hop on the Heathrow Express (15 minutes from Heathrow Airport into Paddington station) and from there change to the train for Charlbury station, which is the closest to the hotel.
The hotel sent a car to pick us up from the station and we were whisked away down a maze of country lanes surrounded on either side by sprawling farmland and distant rolling hills.
The sun was sinking low in the sky when we arrived at the hotel so after a quick check-in we decided to make the most of the fading daylight and take a stroll around the grounds.
Walking round the side of the Old Swan (we were staying in the Mill) we took the path down by the river, before veering off up the gravel path towards the conference rooms (the old malt house) and spa (treatments are available, but some rooms are still being finished) as it was beginning to get quite dark, we didn’t want to keep too close to the river and run the risk of falling in! Some of the bedrooms that run along by the river have their own private patio and fire pit – great for sitting round with a few beers/glasses of wine of a night. We walked as far as the gym, which we found out in daylight is actually the end of the hotel, before heading back to the Mill.
We were booked in for dinner at 8.30, so a quick change was in order before heading down to the restaurant. We were seated by the open log fire (the embers were dying down meaning the temperature was just nice) and presented with menus and the specials – I choose the goats cheese tart to start, while the other half had the root vegetable soup and a glass of wine a-piece (me the Merlot, he the Chardonnay). For the main course I choose the beer battered haddock and triple cooked chips – now this is one of my favourite dishes (I’m a regular at the Quays in Portavogie which serves the best battered haddock and chips in Ireland – yes, it beats the one I had in Kinsale) and I wasn’t disappointed. The batter was crispy and light and the fish was tender and flaky, while the chips were crisp and dry and the peas were fluffy and infused with mint. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it and cleared my plate… but the Quays still holds the number one spot.
The other half wasn’t feeling too well, he had been coming down with the flu since before we left Belfast, so he couldn’t finish his garlic roast chicken and oven roast vegetable main, although he assured me it was “absolutely delicious”.
Since he really wasn’t feeling the best I asked would it be possible to have my dessert in-room, assuring them I would bring the empty dish back down with me at breakfast (I couldn’t miss out on the chocolate melt-in-the-middle pudding). I was told that it wasn’t a problem at all and that I didn’t need to worry about bringing down the dish, the maid would pick it up for me in the morning. I’d love one of those at home!
Back in the room – with my chocolate fondant and Merlot in hand – the fella took himself straight off to bed and tucked up with the hot water bottle that had miraculously appeared in the bed during dinner, while I experienced a little bit of chocolate heaven watching the news.
The next morning after a hearty cooked English breakfast of sausage, eggs, bacon, white pudding, beans and toast we were treated to a tour of the hotel. If you’re looking for relaxation well this is the perfect spot. You can spend a few hours on the bank of the famous River Windrush (it has to be one of England’s most idyllic locations) relaxing with a picnic or trying your hand at some fly and coarse fishing. If fishing isn’t really one of your interests you could turn your hand to a game of tennis, boules, croquet, badminton, take a horse-ride, work-out in the gym, enjoy a leisurely country stroll, an invigorating hike, try one of the spa treatments in the new Windrush Spa or borrow one of the hotels bikes (and a helmet) and take a ride through the countryside.
Although a bike-ride did sound good, the other half still wasn’t feeling up to par and we decided to head into one of the local market towns. The bustling market town of Witney is nearby and so we took a trip in to explore the Saturday morning market and pick up some flu medications. The market is quite small but with a good selection of stalls selling everything from fresh homemade jams, chutneys and cheeses to vintage jewellery and mirrors, cheap pyjama bottoms and fleecy jumpers.
We bought a couple of jams and vintage cheddars (which you can sample at the stall) to take home with us. The small town also has a newly opened shopping avenue with popular high-street stores such as Debenhams, Monsoon and New Look where we picked up some bargains. The sun was shining (even though it was raining back home) and it was quite a warm day so we spent a couple of hours strolling through the town and exploring the vintage shops tucked away down little lane-ways.
We popped into a traditional little pub named The Angel Inn for lunch. The pub originally started life as a barbers back in the seventeenth century, before being leased out, in part, as a pub called The Greyhound. We just fancied a light snack and ordered a chicken sandwich each. It was quite a busy little pub, with real ales and wholesome home-cooked food, just the kind of thing you want on a relaxed Saturday afternoon.
We had planned to walk down to the nearby ruins of Minister Lovell Hall and Dovecote, but when we got back to the hotel the sky had started to cloud over and we didn’t want to get caught in a rain shower.
The hotel has a selection of DVDs for the use of guests, so we called down to reception and picked up two new releases – Salt and Sherlock Holmes – and retreated back to our room to watch them with a glass of wine before dinner.
As it hadn’t started to rain, and it wasn’t too cool outside, we got ready for dinner early and took a walk around the gardens and the petting zoo. The hotel has rabbits, ducks and hens – the hens were rescued from battery farms and when they arrived at the hotel had no feathers and were very frail, now however they are healthy and lay plenty of eggs for the guests breakfasts, children can even go and pick their own eggs in the mornings.
The hotel has two outdoor chess boards, one on the far side of the the Old Swan overlooking the river and the other in the gardens beside the Minster Mill restaurant. We were early enough for dinner and I had been dying to play a game on the outdoor chess set since we arrived (even though I had no idea how to play chess) and the other half agreed to give me a quick lesson before we ate.
After going through the basic rules and the moves each piece can play we spent an hour (him teaching, me learning) at the chess board before realising that I had better admit defeat and go in before we lost our reservation.
We were a bit chilled after out outdoor game and asked if it would be alright for us to eat in the bar beside the open log fire (which was roaring and smelled wonderful). It wasn’t a problem at all and we were quickly presented with menus, specials and wine. We both choose the beef burgers with home-made relish, just the right kind of thing to warm us up – good comfort food.
We had another early night (in bed for 10 I think!) tucked up in bed with one of our borrowed DVDs. The hotel had again provided the turn-down service while we had been at dinner, this time our hot water bottle cover was a giant Hello Kitty teddy (which could be taken home for £25). The next morning I found out that they have many different hot water bottle covers, from plain knitted ones like we had on our first night, to the more quirky ones such as the Hello Kitty cover.
We both tucked into another cooked English breakfast on Sunday morning (not good for the waistline I’m sure) before packing up and checking out. Since we weren’t leaving until the afternoon, the hotel stored out bags in reception so that we were free to do a bit more exploring. The sky still looked a bit overcast, but since there had been no actual rain, we decided to take that postponed walk to the ruins of Minister Lovell Hall and Dovecote (Dovecote was also the name of our room). We borrowed one of the hotel’s large ‘walking umbrellas’ just in case though.
It was a lovely stroll through the picturesque and unspoilt thatched village following the road to the Old church (the ruins are situated behind it). We spent about an hour exploring the ruins and taking a few snaps of the scenery. The ruins sit on a lovely spot right beside the river – it’s a good idea to keep an eye on children and pets here though as the water is quite fast moving and deep.
The 15th century manor house was the home of the Lovell family for centuries (supposedly granted to the family by Henry I prior to 1124) and is said to be haunted by the ghost of Viscount Francis Lovell, who fought on behalf of Richard II against Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth. The story goes that when Richard was killed in battle, Lovell fled to his manor where he hid in a secret chamber.
Only one loyal, old servant knew about the chamber and brought the Viscount food and drink while he hid. When the servant died suddenly, the Viscount slowly starved to death and his hiding place became a tomb. Supposedly you can still hear his piteous moans amidst the ruins.
Thankfully there was no ‘piteous moaning’ and more importantly, no rain, although the other half grew quite attached to the walking umbrella – I think he quite fancied himself as an English Lord rambling through the countryside.
After our Sunday morning country jaunt, we whiled away our Sunday afternoon playing chess and scrabble in comfy armchairs beside the roaring fire in the snug before heading for home. Tucked away in the most historic and romantic corner of the Cotswolds, the five-star Old Swan and Minister Mill offers luxurious accommodation with great character that won’t have you out of pocket. Staying at there is more like being a house guest.
Room prices at the Old Swan and Minister Mill at Minister Lovell, in the heart of the Cotswolds, start from £160. For more info log on to oldswanandminstermill.com.