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Ten years ago on a cold but thankfully dry Saturday in March I got married - much to the surprise of many of my friends and family who'd not even met my fiance. For the first few years we tended to go away for our anniversary - we did Paris, Venice, Bilbao and other assorted places - hubby generally not actually realising there was a pattern to his annual trips. He did actually say one year 'I'm having a really nice time but is there a particular reason why we've gone away this weekend?' and then proceeded to swear blind that our anniversary wasn't until April. Ladies, don't assume that getting your anniversary engraved in his wedding ring will make any difference at all. However the good thing about marrying at an unfashionable time of year is you can get some really good deals when you want to go away for your anniversary.
To be fair we have a lot of anniversaries and birthdays in a relatively short time so he had a sort of excuse. But this year he knew he wasn't going to get away with it. We'd both booked a week off work with the intention of doing 'something special' and then I went and blew it all by handing in my notice at work and it just not being the right time to take a week away. So instead it turned into a weekend break. I didn't want to fly because that's too much like a busman's holiday for me so we settled down with a few of the hotel websites to see what we could find. We live in Northants and wanted something no more than 2-3 hours away and hubby fancied going to Bath. Various searches and we found Tortworth Court in Wotton-under-Edge - or more precisely, a few miles outside Wotton.
What appealed about the hotel was the building - a massive grey stately home-style place - the location, just off the M5 Junction 14 - and finally, the price. Lastminute.com were offering B&B for £85 per night but further investigation with the hotel's own website and we found a DB&B offer for £99 per night. I gave them a call, told them it was our anniversary and they suggested an upgrade deal for an additional £20 per night which would mean we'd be guaranteed a nicer, larger room in the main house rather than one of the rooms in the newer annexe. The booking lady promised me she'd make sure she 'picked us a good one'. She then took credit card details to guarantee the booking and asked if we'd like to have our confirmation by mail or email. And that was it - £238 total for 2 nights dinner, bed and breakfast which seemed like a bit of a bargain.
Our friends Linda and Graham who live in Wales were also looking for a venue for a weekend away for Graham's 'special' birthday. They wanted slightly different dates from us (we were booked for Friday and Saturday nights, they wanted Saturday and Sunday of the same weekend) but also liked the look of Tortworth and so they booked a slightly different DB&B deal which cost them an additional £20. I was surprised it was more as normally hotels seem to struggle to get anyone in on a Sunday night so I'd have thought Sat/Sun would be cheaper than a Fri/Sat deal.
Finding the Hotel
We left the M5 at J14 and headed in the direction of Wotton. After a mile or so the turn off to Tortworth was clearly marked. There's not much else in the area - just the hotel and Leyhill Prison. There's a long driveway up to the house which actually passes part of the prison. There are multiple car parks but the hotel advise visitors to park up directly next to the main entrance until they know where their rooms will be. Then they advise on which of the many car parks to use. As we were in the main house, this wasn't a problem. We just emptied the car of our bags and then parked up next to the Orangerie restaurant.
As we drove up the driveway the house stood like some gothic pile from an early horror story - but in a positive way if you can imagine what I mean. It's actually a Victorian mansion that's Grade 2* listed and it must have been amazing when it was just a family home. There's a stone archway to drive through and then a turning area where I suppose visitors' carriages would have deposited them at the entrance hall. High glass doors opened onto a high ceilinged entrance hall with a beautiful mosaic flooring and then we passed through another set of high doors into the reception. It's hard not to gasp when you step into the reception area which reaches up three high storeys with a fabulous grand staircase winding up three floors around the room. The reception desk is a large L-shape with lots of space
behind and there were comfy chairs and a large table with flowers scattered around to make the room look a bit less intimidating. There's a doorway (a very high wooden door that makes you feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland after she shrunk) which opens onto one of the two restaurants called Moretons - more of that later.
We spotted a large number of guest arriving for a wedding the following day so we put a spurt on to get ourselves checked in before they made it to reception. Everything was very straightforward. It took just a couple of minutes to be asked if we wanted a wake up call (no), newspapers (yes) and to confirm what time we'd like to have dinner. If you are on a DB&B tariff they ask you to call ahead before you arrive to choose your dinner time on both days which seemed a bit odd before we arrived. However, in retrospect, we realised the logistics of trying to get quite so many guests fed in a timely manner meant they really did need to have a rough idea of when people would be using the restaurant. There's not a lot else in the area so my guess would be that a lot of people eat in. The receptionist gave us a map to show us where our room was which seemed a bit extreme until we realised that with 190 or so rooms, they must have guests that head off down a corridor and are never seen again. We also asked to know which room our friends would be in the next day and were shown where that was as well.
Finding the Room
We turned right off the lobby and found the lift tucked in a corner. This was the smallest, slowest and oddest lift I've used in a long time and other than taking our bags up when we arrived, we resolutely took the stairs from then on. Taking the stairs to the second floor shouldn't be much of a trek but it's worth remembering that the ceilings throughout the ground floor are more than twice as high as you'd normally find so the walk to the second floor feels like it's a lot further.
Stepping out of the lift we passed through a couple of fire doors and along a corridor that smelled a tad institutional - a bit like my college room when I was a student. We opened our room with our key card and once again gasped in a decidedly un-cool way; the room was absolutely enormous. I wondered if we'd need to leave a trail of white pebbles to find our way from one side to the other. The first part of the room was an area with a desk and a dressing table, a tea and coffee tray and a tray of wine and soft drinks. This then opened up into the main part of the room which had a high gabled ceiling, a sofa, two arm chairs, a table, a chaise, a TV cabinet and finally, a double bed. I thought we had a big room at home but ours would have fitted in twice over. The bathroom was large but quite basic - a white bath with a shower over (plenty of power), a loo and a sink unit. The toiletries were fairly swanky but there wasn't anything very memorable about the bathroom.
Whilst enormous, the room wasn't perfect. We'd brought a bottle of champagne with us but the room had no fridge (don't know why - our friends had a mini bar in theirs) so I suggested trying the windowsill. However the window had no outside sill and we had to open the window and balance the bottle inside in the hope that it would stay fairly cool in what was a remarkably warm room. I only spotted one radiator and by all rights a room that big should have been really cold, but it wasn't. My other bug-bear with the room was the lighting. Other than in the desk area the lighting at night was so poor that we discussed whether we should have brought head torches with us. There was just one standing lamp and two bedside lamps and even during the day time, you had to pick the armchair nearest the window in order to read a newspaper. And finally the bed - what a nightmare; it was so soft that if one person moved, the other was rolled towards them. I like a hard bed and I slept really badly on this one. I can't complain too much - we spent half our honeymoon in bunk beds!
After unpacking we headed down for dinner in Moretons. It's a fantastic room that leaves you wondering if someone left a nought off the prices because it's just so grand. For both dinners and breakfasts we got excellent tables so I don't know whether our upgrade had ensured that or if we were just lucky. On the first evening we were in the main room of the restaurant at a table next to the window. The ceiling is so far away I had to put my glasses on to appreciate the painted decoration. The walls are lined with library shelving and there's a high stone archway between the two main sections of the restaurant.
The menu isn't stunning or very long and this seems to have been designed to maximise the efficiency of serving a large number of people. We were given menus, asked if we wanted drinks (yes please, 2 diet cokes) and just moments later, bread was brought to the table. The menu had half a dozen starters and a similar number of main courses. The prices were £18.95 for two courses or £24.95 for three with an explanation that anyone on DB&B was entitled to three courses. Considering that we'd paid only £14 per night extra for dinner for the two of us, the DB&B deal definitely offered excellent value.
We both ordered a duo of smoked fish as starters and for main courses I ordered a vegetarian pasta dish and hubby had sea-bass. The starters arrived really fast - certainly no more than a couple of minutes after we ordered and we were still waiting for our drinks when we'd finished the starters. By the second night we'd realised that all of the starters were cold dishes that could be laid out in advance or soup that could be dished up as needed. Undoubtedly this was part of a plan to ensure they could process diners quickly and efficiently but to be honest, I don't want to be processed - I want to be served.
Main courses arrived perhaps ten minutes or less after the starters had been cleared and we'd only just received our cokes by that point and I was gasping with thirst this time instead of with surprise. My pasta was good and there was plenty of it and the tomato and basil sauce didn't taste like it had come out of a jar - definitely a good thing. Hubby's sea-bass was served sitting atop a pile of mashed potatoes and with a sauce which seemed to be the standard way of doing fish as my salmon on the second night was served in the same way. A bowl of vegetables came with the main courses. The dessert menu - as we'd come to expect - appeared almost instantly after the main courses had been cleared. We ordered apple flan and Baileys cheesecake. I was surprised to see that coffee and mints would have cost just an extra £1.25 which seemed very cheap.
From start to finish our three course meal had taken about 50 minutes which we both felt was much too quick. Consequently on our second evening we worked flat out to slow the service down, even going so far as to ask the restaurant manager to get the waiters to take their time. And I can't fault them - once we'd asked, they really did take care not to rush us and we were in for a couple of hours. On the second evening I had a prawn cocktail (yep, a bit of retro-ironic 1980s Berni Inn inspiration) which was lovely and a salmon steak so large I thought it might have been a whale. Wine in the restaurant was very reasonable - particularly considering it was a 4 star hotel. The bottle of white which we ordered was one our friends buy from the supermarket for around £7 a bottle and this was marked up to £16.95 - not an unreasonable mark up.
Breakfast at Tortworth is stunning - you could stay all day and not run out of things to choose from. There's a table full of cereals and yoghurts, another of juices, one more with fruit salads and other fresh fruit and an enormous hot buffet table with plenty to choose from. In addition to all of this, there's a good choice of 'cooked to order' dishes. On our first morning I ordered the smoked haddock with a poached egg and on the second morning I ordered vegetarian sausages. They weren't quick but that's fine - at least I knew they really were cooked to order. With up to 400 guests to serve (if all the rooms had two people in them) the capacity to cope with breakfast was impressive - lots of staff bustling around, plenty of busy people clearing, serving and generally running around. We did wonder where all the staff came from because Tortworth really is in the middle of nowhere and we also commented that it was remarkable that so many of the staff were British when so many hotels these days seem to survive only by exploiting Eastern European students.
In addition to Moreton's restaurant, there's another restaurant just outside the main building in the Orangerie. This is like a mini-Crystal Palace - very pretty at night when it's all lit up. On the Saturday the Orangerie was tied up with a wedding party so we weren't able to go in, but it looked lovely. There are also a couple of bars - one just off the reception that serves morning coffee and afternoon tea as well as alcoholic drinks, and a second
Pictures of Tortworth Court, Wotten-under-Edge
The Atrium bar and cafe
small bar with a snooker table. There's also the Atrium, an outside courtyard that's been converted into an indoor room by the addition of a glass roof. This isn't open all the time but the wedding party used it for part of the afternoon and evening and according to the hotel's website, you can eat light meals in there as well. There seemed to be a function suite that was also tied up for the wedding where the end of the evening disco was taking part.
If the need for a bit of exercise should strike you, there's a small indoor pool and a gym but with 30 or so acres of gardens and woodland - including an arboretum with more than 300 different trees to check out - you also have the option of just wandering around. Despite the lousy weather we had a bit of a wander and found weird things like a small pets graveyard with the house dogs and cats going back to the early 1900s. From the ridge beside the hotel you can actually see the M5 and, whilst the faint background noise would put me off buying a home there, it's not enough to annoy you for a couple of nights in a hotel. Indeed, despite sleeping with the windows open to combat the fearsome heating, we found it very quiet. It probably helped that there was no reason for anyone to be walking around outside our room. We were right above a large marquee which they apparently use a lot in the warmer weather but we quickly checked that it wasn't going to be used whilst we were there.
There's also a spa/beauty centre which we didn't visit but the price list seemed pretty reasonable - not significantly marked up compared to what you might pay at a local beauticians.
There's little info about the old days of Tortworth - I'd have expected lots of stuff about who owned it, what went on there, what it was used for and so on, but strangely they aren't trying to cash in on the history. What the owners are justifiably proud of is that great job they've done to restore the building. What they have done to Tortworth Court is nothing short of miraculous. As recently as 1999 it was the kind of place that would have been at home on the BBC's Restoration programme and if you'd seen the photos you'd probably have not voted because it just looked too far gone to be helped. There are photographs in the corridors on the ground floor that show a building that was not only falling down, but had been used as a dump for rusty old cars and trucks. Many millions were spent on putting this place back together, converting outbuildings and building modern extensions.
The hotel needs to be big to stand a chance of getting back the money that was spent on the renovation and the management seem to be taking a really pragmatic approach to trying to keep the place full. They could so easily take the approach that it's a big grand place that people would pay a lot more to stay at and they could get snooty about who they let in - but they haven't done that. They could charge through the nose for every little extra but they don't. Our deal was great value and even though it was mid-March, the place was buzzing. The principle of the place seems to be one of affordable luxury - live like a prince, pay like a pauper. Well maybe not a pauper - but it's certainly within the affordability of a lot of people.
My friend Linda had a long chat with the mother of the bride who told her that the wedding had been an absolute bargain. When I heard what they'd had included in their package - wedding breakfast for 50 or so, wedding lunch for 350 and an evening event for 500, plus 50 rooms, all the function rooms, the ceremony and so on - I assumed the price would have been £20k or more. In fact they'd been quoted £11.5k and when they went to pay the bill, the hotel had knocked off another £1500 to say thank you to the party for filling up the hotel and for being so much fun. I'm willing to guess you won't get that at a Hilton! She also told her that the staff in the leisure centre had closed off the pool and taken her disabled son in to enjoy the place on his own with two of the staff staying with him throughout. She said it was the first time her son had been so happy since his accident.
This hotel could easily put on airs and graces and spend half the year with 25% occupancy. They aren't like that and I take my hat off to them for making their beautiful hotel accessible for not much more than a B&B.
Tortworth Court is part of the Four Pillars hotel group, which I'd not previously come across. They have just 6 hotels running in a band from Tortworth across to Oxford. There are two Oxford hotels, one each in Abingdon and Witney, one at the Cotswold Water Park and finally, the jewel in their crown must be Tort worth - the only one that really looks like something special. Having experienced their pleasant and friendly approach to hospitality, I'd be more than happy to try out some of the others in the group.