The Manor at Weston-on-the-Green, Oxforshire
The bulk of the Manor at Weston-on-the-Green arrived during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, although the oldest remaining portions of the property are thought to have been built in the fourteenth century, and it can trace its history back to the Domesday Book. It’s a venerable pile in other words and, like all self-respecting country houses of such antiquity, it claims to have a ghost.
The spectre is a nun called Mad Maude and she has a rather sad story. Five centuries ago, when the manor house was serving as a monastery, Maude wanted to share some private time with the monks. She was caught in the act with a young not-so-celibate brother, she was dragged out into the garden, she was chained to a stake and she was burned alive as a warning to all those thinking of following her example. Ever since she’s been seen hanging around the grounds and house–which leads you to question her soubriquet. Spending 500 years at Weston Manor seems like a pretty sane decision to me. I guess ‘Sensible Maude’ doesn’t have quite the same ring, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the old girl clearly knows a good spot when she sees one.
You see, the Manor at Weston-on-the-Green is lovely. From the outside it’s fantastically imposing: all gothic towers and weathered stone set within expansive and carefully manicured grounds. Inside, especially in winter, when a roaring fire is the first thing you’ll see as you walk through the heavy old wooden door, it sets you instantly at ease.
Happily, things only get better from that moment of arrival. I’m told that a few years ago, the hotel was looking tired and shabby. There were bright-purple baths, covered in limescale. There were problems with hot water– there was peeling wallpaper, poor food and worse service–all of which seems hard to imagine now. After a year under new management, and following a serious renovation programme, everything looks, if not exactly brand-spanking new, then pleasingly scrubbed up. Bathrooms are sparkling, mercifully neutral in colour and efficiently modern. Linens are crisp, fresh and abundant. The wood linings and minstrels’ gallery in the dining room, meanwhile, are all authentically aged and lovingly polished. It still has something of the feel of a work in progress, but good progress, and progress based on an extremely strong starting point, thanks to that magnificent setting.
If I wanted to niggle, I could point out a few areas where the hotel didn’t quite reach the standard to which it has rightly started to aspire. I was disappointed, for instance, to find sachets of Nescafé in my room instead of anything resembling real coffee. I wouldn’t want to fault any of the staff for not trying, however. There were also always good people in place where it mattered (an excellent French sommelier, friendly local front of house, and smoothly international barman). But a few were clearly still undergoing training. One poor kid was struggling so much that he dropped a chocolate into my drink at the end of my meal and looked set to weep.
I didn’t complain, however. I couldn’t–for precisely the same reason that I don’t want to niggle and would, in fact, ask you to disregard that previous paragraph. The meal I’d eaten before that sweet was dropped was so good that I was–and remain–prepared to forgive just about anything. The best move by the new regime at Weston Manor has been to hire a serious head chef in Larry Jayasekara. He’s cooked under Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing and Michel Roux Snr, worked in several Michelin-starred kitchens and appears to be aiming for a gong of his own.
Even thinking of that food fills me with a sense of warmth and good feeling to my fellow man. I hesitate about saying too much more about it in case it makes you jealous, but duty compels me to include a few delicious details. So: I started with game ravioli, consisting of rich and tender venison, grouse and pigeon. I was immediately lost for words. Next to the relevant spot on the menu, I managed to note down the solitary comment: ‘Yum’. That just about sums up the whole lot. Next up was Scottish salmon fragranced with dill and given just the right amount of kick by a surprisingly subtle wasabi yoghurt. Then the unexpected but frankly brilliant combination of quail, redcurrant, red cabbage and pumpkin. Then the requisitely bright palate cleanser of mango, passion fruit and lime. Then a dark chocolate cream praline wonder dish. Then, finally the aforementioned feeling of overwhelming contentment and gladness. I’d brought my wife for a romantic pre-Christmas dinner and felt like a hunter-gatherer king. I knew I’d been able to share something pretty special with her.
Breakfast the following morning passed in a mildly hungover blur and I made the mistake of using the VIP voucher I was given at reception to visit designer shopping outlet Bicester village on what was the final shopping weekend before Christmas (think the seventh circle of hell, but with ruder crowds and far worse haircuts). But none of that took off the glow. The Manor at Weston-on-the-Green made me feel great. Hopefully poor old Mad Maude is happier than she’s ever been.
The Manor at Weston-on-the-Green, Oxfordshire OX25 3QL. Contact +44(0)1869 350621 www.themanorweston.com.