Hotel Review: The Crown at Exford

Exmoor - Crown Hotel

Although husband and I have enjoyed several city breaks over the decades we have been together, by far our favourite holiday is one where we can go for long walks each day in beautiful countryside. Exmoor is a destination we return to again and again. As we hadn’t been for a few years – for reasons anyone can guess – this was our choice when we were looking for an August break.

The Crown in Exford is a family run hotel that sits on a junction at the heart of the village. A small park is across the road. The River Exe runs to its left. From Exford there are footpaths and bridleways leading to many other pretty villages. These follow riverbanks, cross woodland, fields, and climb up onto the surrounding moorland. Exmoor is hilly but any effort expended will be rewarded with stunning views. These include a stretch of coastline with Wales visible across the Bristol Channel.

Exmoor - moorland viewWe had asked for a larger room with a king sized bed and were allocated one looking out to the front of the hotel. The ensuite had a large bath that was much appreciated after each long day’s walking. The hospitality tray was well stocked with essentials, including biscuits. We were told on arrival that housekeeping would only be provided on request. This suited us well as we feel no need to have fresh towels each day and take care not to make too much mess in the clean and carefully prepared room anyway. When we ran low on teabags and milk this was quickly replenished.

Exmoor - hotel bedroom bed  Exmoor - hotel bedroom seats

An important aspect of our holidays is the food. We do like to eat well when away. The Crown offers what it describes as casual dining. Although the atmosphere in the various eating areas was relaxed and convivial, the dishes prepared were impressively fine – freshly prepared, beautifully presented and cooked to perfection.

Exmoor - tasty fish dinner  Exmoor - pudding in lounge

On the first evening we chose to eat at a table in the hotel vestibule. On subsequent evenings we ate in the public bar. This attracts many locals for drinks and chat, providing a lively atmosphere and a window into life in this beautiful but remote location.

Exmoor - drinks outside pub

Exmoor - superfood salad  Exmoor - pudding in pub

Breakfasts were served in what had previously been the residents’ restaurant. These were made to order and served plated. A good range of options were available, including: fruit juice, tea or coffee, fresh fruit, cereals, porridge, various egg dishes, toast, a full English fry up. I was particularly taken by what was described as a superfood breakfast – smoked salmon or bacon, avocado and poached egg served on sour dough and sprinkled with seeds. This was both delicious and filling without being too heavy.

Exmoor - hotel breakfast room  Exmoor - superfood breakfast

Adjacent to the breakfast room was a small gift shop stocking an interesting range of locally sourced products. This complemented the various artworks and sculptures that adorned walls and window ledges around the hotel – with price tags for those who might consider purchasing.

Exmoor - hotel gift shop  Exmoor - hotel animal sculptures

Although we were lucky with the weather and were able to be out and about each day, had the weather been less pleasant we could have relaxed in the hotel lounge. Games and reading material were provided here. For colder days, a log burner would keep the area cosy.

Exmoor - hotel lounge

When relaxing in our room we were often distracted by the sound of horses being ridden through the village. Drivers of tractors and 4x4s would pause to talk to those sitting at the bar’s outside tables. Exford is obviously a friendly place where residents know each other and take an interest. As visitors we were welcomed, provided with efficient and friendly service, and thoroughly enjoyed our stay.

Hotel Review: The Hafod

Hafod hotel

With the Jubilee weekend approaching, husband and I decided we would make use of the long weekend by getting out of the country. We left England for the first time since Covid restrictions were imposed, driving west into Wales. As hoped, the bunting was less prolific here.

We had booked ourselves into The Hafod Hotel at Devil’s Bridge (east of Aberystwyth) for three nights, on a dinner bed and breakfast basis. We were glad to have opted to be fed entirely here as there were few other options in the immediate area. The bar and restaurant proved popular with both residents and non-residents, something that at times affected service. The staff were unfailing friendly and welcoming but clearly working as hard as they could in challenging circumstances.

We had asked for a superior rather than basic room. What we got was newly refurbished accommodation. There wasn’t a great deal of space but it was fresh and clean. We appreciated the walk-in shower in the en-suite (there was no bath). The view of the valley was delightful.

The hotel is situated on a busy through road – although all roads in this area are narrow and twisty. It is popular with bikers, who parked their machines under our window. Across the road are tables that were well used by both residents and passers by. It all added to a convivial atmosphere. Overnight the traffic dropped and we were able to sleep well in the peace and quiet.

Within the hotel, food and drinks may be enjoyed in the restaurant or a large bar area. Between these is a lounge where we had our pre-dinner tipples. The hotel sources what it can locally and I enjoyed several gins from the Dyfi Distillery this can be visited in nearby Machynlleth.

From the lounge area a staircase rises to the guest accommodation. I was amused by a doorway that had been blocked with a smaller staircase it would be a challenge to climb.

The food on offer was oriented towards pub fare rather than fine dining. Portions were generous – rather more than I am used to eating. The menu was unchanged throughout our stay so I did repeat a few dishes.

While the halloumi fries were tasty, the delicious feta and melon starter suited me better.  My usual choice of fish arrived drenched in a sauce so I switched to the chicken burger thereafter. This contained a portion of whole chicken that I believe was deep fried – a preparation I usually avoid but managed to digest without issue. The cheese board proved excellent – local cheeses served with a good supply of biscuits and grapes. Husband enjoyed each of the puddings he ordered, trying a different one each evening.

Pleasant though our stay at the hotel was, the highlight for us was the location. From the hotel at Devil’s Bridge we walked both up and down the valley in which it sits. There were numerous waterfalls to marvel at as the various rivers converging in this area tumbled through steeply cut gorges. By climbing through woodland we gained a spectacular view of the surrounding area.

Paths could be challenging to navigate at times – seriously boggy in places riverside and worryingly narrow above ravines. It was worth persevering to appreciate the topography. We heard cuckoos and woodpeckers. We pondered the preponderance of the rhododendrons that grew in every location.

Man-made structures were also admired, including the eponymous bridges – three built, one on top of the other, the oldest dating back many centuries.

We travelled to Aberystwyth on the Saturday morning to take part in their Parkrun, getting back to the hotel just in time for breakfast – we had previously checked it would be served until 10.30am. Sadly, my poached eggs were barely cooked on this day. I wondered if the kitchen staff had been inconvenienced by our later arrival at the table.

We returned to Aberystwyth in the afternoon to explore the town and enjoy a coastal walk – this was time well spent.

On our final day, having checked out of the hotel, we enjoyed a lovely walk in the nearby Hafod Estate. The riverside paths here were well maintained and the surrounds picturesque. It was a fitting end to a most enjoyable short break.

Hafod room name

Hotel Review: Billesley Manor near Stratford

hotel sign

Earlier this month I enjoyed a few days away in Shakespeare country. Husband and I spent three nights at the Billesley Manor Hotel, situated a few miles west of Stratford-upon-Avon. A manor house has existed on this site since before the Norman Conquest. The current Elizabethan Grade 2 listed building has benefitted from a recent multi-million pound refurbishment, retaining character but adding contemporary touches.

hotel entrance

We stayed in one of several rooms located in converted stone barns, across a carpark from the hotel reception area. It was modern, clean, spacious and comfortable, although the soundproofing between rooms was such that I could hear neighbouring guests as they moved around, chatted and then later snored. Wi-Fi in the barn was notably glitchy compared to that available in the manor. If we return we may choose to stay in the main building.

Our room was serviced daily, including replenishment of the hospitality tray and bathroom products. A small teddy bear was provided that residents were invited to take home. Of course, we did.

hotel bedroom  billesley bear

The manor includes a library where Shakespeare is reputed to have written his play, As You Like It. The room is now a games lounge with books on the ceiling.

As You Like It Lounge  As You Like It desk

Adjacent to the hotel grounds is the preserved 11th Century church where the bard married Anne Hathaway (not the only church in the area to make this claim). We walked along local lanes into town to visit her cottage. It was closed for the winter but quieter and more atmospheric for this.

All Saints church

Located amidst rolling countryside and therefore with fewer dining options, we had booked in on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis. On the first evening we were treated to a complimentary cocktail. Dinner choices were delicious – well cooked and beautifully presented – although sadly these changed little over our three night stay. Without being told, staff picked up it was husband’s birthday and kindly provided an appropriately presented pudding.

welcome cocktail  happy birthday pudding

Breakfast included a cold buffet of juice, fruit, cereals and pastries. Tea or coffee were brought to our table and refilled on request. A tasty, full English breakfast was also available but no other hot options. We were pleased this meal was offered until 10.30am, enabling us to take part in the Stratford-upon-Avon Parkrun without having to rush.

The hotel grants guests inclusive use of its spa – a small gym, 12m indoor pool, sauna and steam room. Treatments are also available although we did not try any of these.

The grounds include two tennis courts and a topiary garden inspired by Alice in Wonderland. We enjoyed the short wander this offered. Had the weather been warmer we could have requested equipment for other outdoor games.

topiary garden  topiary garden 2

A short walk across fields from Billesley is the village of Wilmcote where Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, was raised. Her family farm has been preserved for tourists but was closed for the winter.

The Stratford-upon-Avon Canal runs through Wilmcote and may be followed into town, passing a steep flight of locks, the final one of which links the canal to the River Avon.

Adjacent to the river are the various theatres in which the Royal Shakespeare Company performs. We considered booking tickets for a matinee but the production looked to be some sort of modern interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing that didn’t appeal. Instead, we explored the pretty town alongside many other tourists. Even in the off season, the place was busy.

stratford

Back at the hotel we enjoyed seeking out little touches that make a place more memorable. The dog statue, doggy treats and water bowls by the front door made clear such pets are welcome – a guest staying in an adjacent barn room had a snuffling companion who they walked in the grounds. The bar area, with its cosy open fires, was overlooked by a minstrel’s gallery. We appreciated the atmosphere created by the dark wood panelling, including several ‘hidden’ doors, but not so much the colourful ink splodges adorning more traditional portraits. The globes above the bar may or may not have been a hat-tip to the London theatre.

doggy statue  minstrel's gallery  globes

Staff throughout were welcoming and attentive making our stay relaxing and pleasant. We enjoyed our few days away – the walks, history and literary links that, although Shakespeare focused, included mentions of other luminaries. The rolling Warwickshire countryside reminded us of our home county, Wiltshire. I can think of no better accolade.

hotel garden

Random Musings: A weekend in Brighton

Last weekend I was in Brighton. This is not the easiest place to get to from Wiltshire by public transport, requiring:

  • a walk
  • a bus journey
  • three different train journeys
  • another walk.

This took around five hours and wore out one of the wheels on my pull along suitcase.

It was, however, worthwhile.

As I was there with my husband to celebrate his birthday, we were booked into a rather fine hotel – the Jury’s Inn on the waterfront. We had asked for a sea view room and it looked out over the promenade and Palace Pier – delightful despite the noise from the nightclub crowd as they congregated and dispersed in the wee small hours of the morning.

Having settled in and briefly explored the locality, especially enjoying the warren of lanes behind our hotel, on the first night we enjoyed a delicious dinner at Il Bistro.

The next day and the day after our daughter travelled down from London to join us which added greatly to the pleasure of our stay. Together we: visited the Royal Pavilion; walked the promenade as far as Hove in one direction and along the Undercliffs in the other; visited the museum and art gallery.

We breakfasted at Cafe Rouge and The Breakfast Club; ate dinner at Browns. On Sunday we indulged in a sumptuous afternoon tea at Malmaison on the Marina.

On our final morning my husband and I opted for a ‘Spoons breakfast at the Post & Telegraph. Having attempted to walk this off on the promenade, we set out on the return leg of our lengthy journey home.

The Royal Pavilion is splendid if somewhat outrageous in extravagance of design and colour. I loved the many dragons – appropriate as the place was built for a King George. Adding to the fun was the Stephen Jones hats exhibition, liberally and effectively displayed in many of the rooms. I had no idea millinery could be so entertaining.

A highlight of the museum was the archeology gallery. In our troubled times it is good to put man’s short and foolish history on this planet into wider perspective, and to be reminded that climate change is a natural, if often deadly, occurrence (albeit affected at times by various outside influences).

I will also mention my experience at the exhibitions: Museum of Transology, and Queer Looks.

The former wouldn’t have warranted a particular mention had it not been for a lady herding small children around the museum as we were browsing. One of her charges entered this space and was quickly detoured. I wondered what the woman feared would happen if the child viewed the exhibits. The displays may have prompted questions but isn’t that the point of a museum – to educate and encourage thinking? I hope that she had better reasons than the obvious – I try so hard not to judge what I cannot know.

The latter exhibition disappointed because, for all the variety of choice and challenge to heteronormativity in choice and design of dress, the displays were all aimed at slim shaped people – a standard definition of beauty. In my experience LGBTQ+ people come in many sizes of body. I found it distracting to consider that fatphobia may exist in the trans and queer community who, of all people, must be aware of the importance of acceptance.

This article from Culture Trip states:

“The fabric of Brighton is woven with inclusivity, equality and tolerance – creating a strong sense of community. It’s part of what makes the city so special and open to all.”

I enjoyed my few days in this small city. Walking ten or more miles a day will have helped my body deal with the effects of the delicious food consumed. It is the sights and their impact that will linger.

(For further, in depth discussion on inclusivity, equality and acceptance, listen to Episode 1 of the Comma Press podcast)

Finding my groove

Day two of National Novel Writing Month (NoNoWriMo) and I am feeling stoked. The ideas keep coming, the words are flowing and I am on an absolute high. Of course I am aware that this is unlikely to continue for the entire month. For now though I am enjoying a whole new experience in the joys of creativity. I had not expected this challenge to be quite so pleasurable.

In other news, it has been a busy week for my little household. Having failed to complete the helmet of my daughter’s Loki costume I was required to dye her hair black to enable her to cosplay to her satisfaction at the opening night of Thor: The Dark World. This is her at our local train station, subjugating her first minion on her way to the cinema. Apparently, random strangers approached her asking to be photographed alongside the character she played – what fun!

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The following evening was Halloween and she set out with friends to watch a showing of Frankenstein at our local cinema. I realised by the excitement I felt at these opportunities and experiences she was enjoying, that I was starting to live vicariously. Talk about a wake up call! I quickly put the brakes on that and returned to my own life. Much as I love to be involved in my childrens’ plans and activities I do not wish to invade their space. Plus I have my own life to live and I am fine with that.

Yesterday I made sure to take time out to go to the gym with my neglected husband, and then to hang around for a swim and a spot of relaxation with him in the sauna and hot tub. It is rather too easy to stay busy with the house and garden, or to get engrossed in our respective screen based activities (I write, he plays on line sudoku), and to neglect spending time interacting. I find swimming to be great for pulling my thoughts together and suspect I will go to the pool often in the coming weeks as my NaNo ideas inevitably start to wane.

When I asked my little family to grant me the time and space to write for NaNoWriMo I was gently mocked, but actually they have been very good so far about supporting me. My daughter is also taking part, this will be her third year as a participant, so we are comparing work counts and progress. She has been so busy socialising this week, and has a ton of homework to catch up on, that I am having an easier time of it for now. All the housework that I did earlier to assuage my guilt at spending so much time at my desk is paying dividends.

And my library, oh my library! What an inspirational space this is proving to be. What writer wouldn’t be inspired in such surroundings?

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For those who voiced concern, my elderly, moulting hen seemed a little better today. Our weather continues to be unpredictable but my little flock were able to free range today and laid me a good number of eggs. Another storm seems to be brewing this evening so I hope that the noises made by the wind and falling debris do not distress them overnight. Even safely shut up in their coops they can be spooked by unexpected noises.

I have made pleasing progress today with my writing so shall grant myself an evening off to spend time with whichever family members choose to join me. The half term holiday is nearly over; I have enjoyed it enormously.

Family time

We are half way through the autumn half term break from school. My husband has taken the week off work and wanted to go away for a few days but nothing was sorted so we have spent the time at home. Given the recent weather here in the south of England I am fine with this arrangement.

The forecast storm last weekend came and went with the only casualties we saw being a littering of leaves in our garden and a missing ping pong table cover that later turned up in a side alley. Lying warm and cosy in bed, listening to the rain on the window panes and the wind whistling through the trees, was actually quite comforting. I appreciated once again the luxury of being safe and warm in my own home. Too many these days are not so lucky.

My daughter had made many plans for this holiday week so we ate out as a family on one of the few nights when we were all free. We opted for the informal, relaxed atmosphere of our local Pizza Express and were not disappointed. Sometimes the company and ambience matter more than the food, and I do still enjoy eating pizza, despite my advanced age!

The morning after the storm that never really happened, my husband set out to deliver our daughter to the first of her many appointments: a three day private gathering of her writer friends to critique, encourage and continue with their respective stories in a sociable but intensive environment. With our resident vegetarian away we decided to treat my younger son to a meal at one of his favoured eateries. He enjoys a freshly made, thick and meaty burger with ketchup and chunky chips far more than any fine dining experience. I tried one myself and it was satisfyingly tasty.

Alongside these outings, my boys and I have been working on the finishing touches to my daughter’s Loki costume. We have still to create the helmet though; it is proving particularly tricky to make. Today, both she and my younger son have arranged to attend the opening of Thor: The Dark World with friends. The rest of us will probably wait for the release of the DVD, by which time we will undoubtedly have picked up the majority of the plot from other sources.

All of this activity and it is not yet Halloween. For me, it has been a good holiday thus far. I have managed to find plenty of opportunities to read and write as well as spending time with my little family. There has been no pressure to perform and plenty of treats along the way. Had we left home for a few days it is unlikely that I would have felt so relaxed.

I would also have had to leave a poorly hen. My little flock have now completed their winter worming week and are, once again, wandering free in the wider garden by day. One of my older ladies is looking unhappy though. She is moulting, which doesn’t help, but is also moving with the slow gait of an unhappy hen. With no other outward signs of problems it may just be old age; I am glad that I am here to keep an eye on her.

I can understand why some animals hibernate. When the temperatures drop I find it comforting to wrap up warm and snuggle down indoors. I enjoy the long, dark evenings when the curtains are drawn and the lamps have been lit. I feel content to relax in my armchair, feet up with a good book.

And still we have half the holiday left. There are jobs to complete around the house and garden, but no sense of urgency. I am keen to maintain this contented atmosphere, to allow the days to flow with just the occasional highlight to draw us together.

Family time is so fleeting and precious. ‘This is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it.’    

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