A late 17th century Grade II listed manor house set in extensive landscaped gardens, Barnsley House resembles the (luxurious and well equipped) Cotswolds country retreat belonging to old friends you wish you’d had the good sense to cultivate. When we visited a couple of weeks before Christmas, Gloucestershire lay under a thick blanket of snow and the ivy-clad stone building rose majestically from the whiteness, a huge Nordic fir in the foreground.
Inside, we were welcomed by another twinkling tree and log fires crackling away in flagstoned lounging areas. Wanting to make the most of our time, we’d arrived early, so our room wasn’t quite ready. Not a problem. Michele, the charming, entertaining manager, offered us tea with buttery, crumbly, homemade shortbread and led us to the nearest sitting room, stopping to chat as we warmed up after the chilly journey. This is one of the many ingenious ways they have of making you feel at home here: there’s no signing into reception, just a warm personal introduction as another member of staff whisks your luggage away.
All the downstairs informal drawing rooms are decorated in muted country shades—sage greens, earthy browns, purply heathers—and sumptuous contrasting textures—tweed chairs, velvet sofas, tapestry and silk taffeta cushions (not a glimpse of chintz). While waiting for our tea, I explored a tiny reading nook, with bookshelves full of poetry and an armchair next to a leaded window with views over the garden. Heaven.
Somehow, in the hour or so between arriving and settling into our room, the weather perked up: freezing, miserable sleet to still freezing, but sunny with unfeasibly blue skies, which proved ideal for our immersion in the large, steaming outdoor hot tub, which we had to ourselves. Flocks of starlings swooped overhead as we sat underneath thundering jets of water, feeling very pleased with life indeed. Inside, the spa was just as rewarding, with all manner of steam rooms, saunas, showers with multiple jets, all infused with the delicious scent of herbs picked and then distilled from the garden.
Ah yes, the garden. Or more precisely, gardens. They were designed by the legendary Rosemary Verey and even covered in snow were pretty spectacular, with striking topiary, marble statues, geometric-shaped ponds and a huge variety of strategically planted trees. I’d love to see them in full spring or summer bloom.
There is a pleasing horticultural theme at Barnsley House, from the rosemary sprigs adorning the rustic wooden tables at The Potager restaurant, to delicate botanical drawings in frames in our bedroom and well-thumbed, crinkle-paged gardening books provided to read in the bath. Even better, its kitchen garden produces most of the fruit, vegetables and herbs (admittedly tricky in snowy December), its hen house freshly hatched eggs and its beehive home-made honey. I mean—what’s not to love?
Every room, suite and cottage is decorated differently, and having stayed in Room 1 (classed as a Deluxe Garden Room), I can only begin to imagine how stunning the rest of them are.
Maybe it was the snow outside reflecting the soothing all-whiteness of the interior: drawing creamy silk curtains to see sun sparkling on its frosty purity (the like of which you never see in London) was nothing short of magical.
Maybe it was the fact that our bathroom was more than the mere adjunct suggested by ensuite: a large room in its own right, down a small flight of wooden stairs, with twin roll top baths, walk-in rainforest shower, flat screen telly and generous bottles of yummy smelling Ren toiletries. None of the proportions of the beautiful old building had been buggered about with—it had mostly (walls, window frames, skirting boards, original wooden shutters, cupboard doors) just been painted white and given a supremely stylish update.
Or maybe it was the bed. Oh God, who am I kidding? Of course it was The Bed! It was all wonderful, but I have never slept in anything so all-enveloping, so almost obscenely comfortable: vast, firm mattress, downy duvet, perfect piles of plumpest pillows, God-knows-what thread count linen, all in such a soothing cocoon of whiteness. Maybe we’re just horribly lazy, but it only took a few seconds in the morning to decide to sacrifice a final trip to the spa for another hour (or so) in The Bed’s snuggly depths. If I believed in heaven, this might well be it.
The Potager restaurant, another symphony of pale wood floorboards, white-painted original panelling and sumptuous creamy silk curtains, has floor-to-ceiling French windows that open onto the gardens in late spring, summer and early autumn, which must be pretty idyllic. In the depths of winter it produced a delicious, seasonal dinner with only the most minor of hiccups.
We started with an aperitif of Cotswold gin with lemon and black pepper Fevertree tonic (there’s a table in the bar adjacent to the Potager brimming with artisan gins just crying out for a return visit) whose delicacy of flavour was as stark a contrast to aeroplane-standard Gordons and Schweppes as lawn cotton is to hessian.
I had never heard of Vincigrassi, but as it was the house speciality I reckoned it my noble duty to order it. Lord was I glad I did! A kind of lasagne with porcini and prosciutto in smooth, cheesy béchamel, the manageable, starter-sized portion ticked every umami box going. Mmmm. I veritably moaned with pleasure.
Andy’s starter of ruby-red pigeon breast with celeriac was, he said, an excellent combination, with bits of shot reassuring evidence that the bird was both recently and locally slain. Each to their own.
To follow, I went for the fillet of beef with bacon pomme anna, spinach and peppercorn sauce. Exemplary: one large tournedo of tender, medium-rare meat in a creamy, peppery emulsion, given a nod to health by the iron-rich muscle of deepest green spinach. But the bacon pomme anna was the star of the show, a cake of thinly sliced spuds with a thick slice of smoked pig running through it. I couldn’t manage the bacon itself but it lent the potato cake such depth of savoury richness that I wolfed most of the spuds down (Andy always helps on such occasions), very glad I’d chosen to wear a loose-ish dress for the evening.
Andy’s venison—a generous and beautifully cooked portion of five medallions—was slightly let down by its accompaniment of squash gnocchi. Neither of us is much of a fan of squash (except perhaps in soup) and this sadly only served to confirm our shared prejudice: stodgy, under-seasoned and bland.
However this was the only dud note of an otherwise mouthwatering meal and the kitchen redeemed itself with pudding: melting, dark-as-night chocolate fondant with home-made vanilla and honeycomb ice-cream. By now the healthy spinach was but a distant memory, but the menu does offer much lighter options, especially in the fish section (at this time of year, red mullet with dried broad bean puree, Loch Duart salmon with spicy lentils, whole plaice with greens). And in spring or summer we’d no doubt* go for the lighter options ourselves.
Room service breakfast the following morning was good enough to drag me out of The Bed for ten minutes or so. Andy, with unimaginable reserves of appetite, went for the full English (WTF?! might have been my reaction), while I, in a desperate attempt at damage limitation, tried the imaginatively nutritious root vegetable rosti topped with spinach and a perfectly poached egg. It was clever, tasty cooking, but I was still too stuffed from the previous night’s blowout to do it justice.
Who goes there?
Discerning couples, I’d heard. While its sister hotel, Calcot Manor, is known for being family-friendly (see my WLL review here), Barnsley House has an altogether more grown up vibe. What I found most striking, though, was how much a part of the village it is. The week we arrived, the snow had rendered lots of people (many of them elderly) out of power, so Michele and his team decided to rehouse them in the conference hall until they could get warm again, feeding them too.
In much the same vein, there’s a 30-seater cinema that can be hired for £200 if you want to impress your Soho House friends, but the hotel also hosts twice-weekly cinema nights for locals and hotel guests alike, with a cheaper pre-film dinner menu. There were loads of them enjoying it when we visited mid-week; also several retirees post-Shakespeare matinees in Stratford.
It is also a popular wedding venue, and leafing through the stunning albums in one of the reception areas I could certainly see why. I wouldn’t change my own London wedding for the world, but if Andy ever wants to renew our vows (or treat me to a landmark birthday party, for example—are you reading this, darling?), Barnsley House would be top of the list.
I’d read about how stylish it is (and it is), but you have to go there to experience the true loveliness. A fabulous place, with a big heart and great ethos. I’d recommend it to anyone.
Out and about:
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to exploring the Cotswolds: whether you prefer horseback, bike or foot, Barnsley House can arrange it for you—and provide a picnic hamper if you fancy it. Polo is played at Cirencester Park during weekends in summer; other nearby leisure options include several excellent golf courses, private trout farms, lakes and rivers, champagne hot air balloon rides on clear mornings and long summer evenings, even gliding (for the brave/reckless/insane amongst you).
Or you could just head across the road to the relaxed and cosy Village Pub, with its stone floors, open fires, day’s newspapers, great ales, lovely wines and cracking menu—think Portland crab, rocket, lemon and crème fraiche, Ham hock fritter, pea puree, celeriac remoulade or Middle white pork sausage, mash, tobacco onions.
The worst thing:
The squash gnocchi. I really can’t think of anything else even remotely bad.
The best thing:
All of it, but in December, by the tiniest of margins, The Bed. I imagine in spring and summer the gardens give it a run for its money!