Grade II-listed Whatley Manor, a gorgeously restored 19th century manor house built out of glorious, golden Cotswold stone, and bordered with vivid, sweet-smelling lavender bushes, has had a colourful history. In 1925 it was bought by the deputy master of the Beaufort Hunt, a Canadian who massively extended the stable courtyard, added a wing, built a coach house and laid out ornamental gardens and a small park. One can only admire his style, and imagine the dizzy, dazzling fun it must have been had at subsequent hunt balls.
In 1987 Whatley Manor became a hotel, which in 2000 was bought by a Swiss couple, Marco and Alix Landolt, scions of the Sandoz hospitality empire; they stayed there while visiting their son Christian, who was competing at Badminton horse trials. Their painstaking renovation took the manor back to its former glory: most of the 26 gardens are based on the original 1920s plans, and the elegant spa, with its fabulous indoor/outdoor hydrotherapy pool and extensive thermal suite, has to be experienced to be believed.
Whatley Manor has recently joined the exclusive Pride of Britain group (never more than 50 hotels), and has been part of Relais & Chateaux, the Swiss-owned association and badge of international distinction, since 2004. Its accolades are seriously impressive, the most recent including three AA awards (AA Five Red Star Inspector’s Choice Hotel 2017, AA Four Rosettes 2017, AA Breakfast Award 2017), the retention of two Michelin stars this year, and five (out of five) in the Good Spa Guide’s pleasingly named Bubble Rating 2017. So I was thoroughly looking forward to my stay there; to say expectations were high would have been putting it mildly. But did it deliver?
The answer is a thumping, resounding, shouty caps yes. On every level. From the moment we were greeted by the reception staff, who were charming, friendly and outstandingly professional (always a winning combination but not as easy as they made it seem), to the minute we checked out, too unwilling to leave warm flagstones underneath vast silk rugs, the toasty smell and crackle of log fires in huge stone fireplaces, sweet, smiling faces, sensational food … oh God, don’t get me started on the food… Deep breath. Let’s start again.
Our well-appointed suite comprised a bedroom, bathroom and sitting room, each with large double windows looking out over the south facing drinks terrace, immaculate sloping lawns leading down to pretty private meadowland and the river Sherston Avon, and beyond that staggering views of the gently undulating Wiltshire countryside, which must be pure bucolic heaven in spring and summer.
When I say the suite was well-appointed, I mean Bang & Olufsen audiovisuals, Philippe Starck bathroom fittings, l’Occitane de Provence toiletries, vast velvety towels, a million threadcount linen: not a single jarring element. The enormous sleigh bed was so comfortable I could have lain there forever, were it not for the fact that at Whatley Manor there’s such a lot to get up for.
New chef Niall Keating has recently introduced an ambitious 12-course tasting menu (£99, plus £75 if you go for the sommelier’s wine suggestions). An amuse bouche of delicate rice crackers with Japanese seven spice, parmesan and lime got us off to a cracking (sorry) start, the deep umami of the cheese and seasoning lifted by zingy citrus. ‘This is fusion cooking that actually works,’ said Andy, who’s never been much of a fan.
It was a good job it worked, as an ingenious East/West balance was evident in every delectable mouthful thenceforth. The oyster and champagne course had a just-poached silkiness offset nicely by a slurp of dashi broth and tangle of seaweed, while the dashi custard topped with salmon roe was as much about texture as flavour, with a sublime release of delicate fishiness from pinging fish eggs into hens’ with tongue against roof of mouth. Extraordinary.
Our next course, described on the menu as ‘brown butter, buttermilk’, was basically sourdough bread and butter. But there was nothing basic about it, the bread unfeasibly light and springy, with a crisp crust, the butter sweet, nutty, slightly redolent of butterscotch. Really, almost orgasmically delicious.
Mackerel and preserved raspberry were paired with the perfect wine, Greco di Tufo, Lapilli, an Italian white from the Campagna region, clean and minerally, no astringency required to cut through the fatty fish as the sharp fruit had already done that. Black tortellini was another fusion triumph: silky threads of squid ink pasta with a pork meatball floating, wonton-like, in its clear, ginger-fragrant broth.
My notes for the next course of scallop risotto (made with sushi rice) go like this: ‘So yummy I almost licked my bowl clean! Sweetness of raw scallop, savouriness of dried, very good cooking indeed…’ OK, so we were several drinks down by this stage, but you get the point. Then there were a couple of lovely medallions of barely cooked cod accompanied by delicate eel tempura and wakame, and finished with a rich chilli broth at the table; the ‘main course’ of rare, intensely-flavoured 62-day aged beef with Dorset-grown wasabi instead of horseradish; salted rhubarb sorbet with mint umeshu (a Japanese liqueur) granita—Schiaparelli pink, icy and refreshing, brought to us by the pastry chef herself, a nice touch.
Afterwards, we were invited into the kitchen to meet the chef and the rest of his team. Keating, who’s only 26, has an impressive pedigree, including stints in San Francisco and Copenhagen, which goes some way to explain his deft and inventive way with fusion cooking. One gets a real sense of his enthusiasm for, and pride in, his menu.
There is also a brasserie at Whatley Manor, for lunch or evenings when the full 12 courses are a bit full on. We weren’t there long enough to sample it, but the menu is appealing, from smoked mussels on toast, charred onion Caesar salad and omelette Arnold Bennett to braised beef cheek with parsnip and bok choy, roasted bream with baby cabbage and almond, rhubarb trifle with ginger financier, and English custard tart with nutmeg and blackcurrant sorbet.
Breakfast was just as good as everything else in the gaff, Andy’s scrambled eggs with top notch smoked salmon perfectly loose and creamy, my warm crepes with orange honey delicately flavoured and moreish. Service continued to be charming and attentive, our affable waiter proffering a pen for the crossword when he saw I was reading the T2 bit of the Times.
Who goes there?
Anyone with any sense! When we were there it was almost exclusively couples (we spent several enjoyable minutes over dinner speculating about the nature, illicit or otherwise, of said relationships).
Well-heeled gentlefolk of a certain age, discerning media types up from London (Whatley Manor boasts a 40-seat cinema available for private hire), savvy multi-generational groups celebrating something special.
Out & about:
A miserable, stormy February was probably the worst time to appreciate the gardens at Whatley, but we wrapped up warm and took a tour, imagining them in full summer bloom. Highlights include the Loggia, with striking fountains that are normally lit up and filled with black-dyed water, and egg-shaped wicker swing chairs in the Cotswold stone seating area; head gardener Barry’s garden, which uses a planting scheme to encourage bees and butterflies; and the meadows planted with wild flowers leading down to the river, where you may catch sight of trout, crayfish, kingfishers and swans. The kitchen will make you a picnic if you want to spend a day relaxing by the water, or anywhere else for that matter (damn you, February!).
The beautifully-designed, marble-tiled Aquarias Spa centres around a warm, circular hydrotherapy pool fizzing with all manner of jets and bubbles, which extends outside, through a glass wall, where there is a sunbathing terrace and pretty meadow garden which is sown with poppies, cornflowers and other wild flowers to create an almost alpine atmosphere. Even in February it was carpeted with crocuses.
Upstairs the spa is home to salt scrub showers, a tepidarium equipped with warm stone loungers and stacks of magazines, and a mosaic-tiled thermal suite with caldarium, steam grotto, laconium (varying degrees of heat, some with tinkly fountains) and sauna. Again, no detail is overlooked, from orange slices in jugs of chilled mineral water to cool face towels presented on a bed of ice, to scented rainforest showers for cooling off after heating up.
The ancient town of Malmesbury, home to the historic Malmesbury Abbey, parts of which can be traced back to 676AD, is just three miles away; Tetbury, considered one of the most beautiful parts of the Cotswolds, is a little further afield. You can hire bikes from Whatley Manor to explore the surrounding countryside, but frankly, when the hotel itself has so much to offer, I’d be reluctant to leave its grounds.
The worst thing:
Wanting to make the most of our suite after dinner, we borrowed a DVD from the library at reception. The Boat That Rocked, we thought, sounded a winner: Richard Curtis, a groovy late 60s soundtrack, Bill Nighy. Sadly it was terrible. This is, of course, nothing to do with the hotel itself, and the only negative thing either of us experienced in the 24 hours we were there.
The best thing:
The fact that it was all so good. Maybe it’s a Swiss family-run thing, this pursuit of excellence down to the tiniest detail; maybe it’s a Pride of Britain thing or a Relais & Chateaux thing. Whatever it is, it works, and I can’t wait to revisit in summer, with the gardens in full, sensational bloom. This is an exceptional hotel, bursting with charm and beauty, overseen and manned by some seriously talented professionals. I can’t recommend it highly enough.