Cotswolds

Sunday Express, October 19, 2008

WHY YOU CAN’T BEAT A GOOD OUTDOOR BUTLER

DUNCAN CRAIG puts an innovative service offered by a country house hotel in the Cotswolds to the test

I SWUNG the shotgun skywards and fired off both barrels. Another clay pigeon sailed overhead, untouched. “Excellent shooting, sir,” said Andy, reloading the trap. “Just a shame the wind came up so suddenly. Perhaps I might suggest a nice cup of tea and some cake.”

As he scurried off to fetch the provisions, I had to smile. You can’t beat a good butler, I thought. A fruitless hour later, with my frustration growing, I confess I began to wonder if maybe you can.

My ignorance of the protocol was perhaps not surprising. Butlers ceased to be de rigueur decades ago. Today, they are extravagances enjoyed by few beyond the most ostentatious pop divas and Batman. But who doesn’t secretly yearn for their very own Alfred, long-suffering and superbly adept at ego massage? It’s a presumption Lords of the Manor has made with its latest innovative service for guests.

The Outdoor Butler is available for everything from picnic preparation for walkers to binocular conveyance for ornithologists. He will wash your wellies, scrub your Barbour and brush your dog.

He won’t quite jump through hoops for you but he will set them up on the hotel’s landscaped lawn for croquet and, presumably, cough politely and roll up his trousers if you cannon one into the lake. Beating is discouraged, if only because amiable Andy has the look of someone who can handle himself.

He certainly proved dexterous on our first excursion from our refined haven in the timeless, Miss Marple-esque village of Upper Slaughter. A short drive through a landscape of vivid green meadows and neat, yellowing walls of Cotswolds stone brought us to Salford Lakes for our initiation into the arcane world of fly fishing.

I proved a natural, catching, in quick succession, a tree trunk, the pontoon and my left shin

Andy, in matching tweed waistcoat and tie, observed from a respectful distance. I proved a natural, catching, in quick succession, a tree trunk, the pontoon and my left shin. My partner Eleen was less prolific, managing just one bite, an extremely well-built trout.

As she struggled to reel it in, there was a commotion from the bushes and Andy burst forth brandishing a net. He expertly scooped up the flapping fish before posing for a shamelessly staged photograph with his temporary master and “his” catch.

Then it was out with the picnic bag for a spot of lunch lakeside. Dragonflies hovered unobtrusively as did our man, swooping intermittently to top up glasses, slice or serve.

My wayward shooting took place at a sprawling farm turned activity centre near the 16th-century town of Moreton-in-Marsh. Owner Rob Ireland briefed us on the basics while Andy dispensed cartridges and cake. Eleen again took the plaudits, me the pep talks.

“Chin up, sir,” the butler whispered on one occasion as the shattered remnants of another of my partner’s clays rained down on the hide’s roof.

After a hard day’s underachieving, there are few places better suited to raising spirits than Lords of the Manor. This honey-stoned, 17th-century former rectory has undergone a £2million facelift in the past 12 months, its narrow, stone-floored halls and generous rooms elegantly co-ordinated in sober tones and enlivened by stylistic flourishes inspired by the eight acres of flowering gardens.

“Bringing the outside in was the theme,” explained manager Ingo Wiangke, custodian of the second best name on the staff (sommelier Fabrice Bouffant just shades it). His final touch was to replace a sombre portrait in reception with a risqué, abstract riot of colour. The message is clear: pomposity is best left at the door.

The 26 bedrooms are named after significant figures in the building’s history. We were in Witts, family name of the first rector and his descendant Francis, who converted the manor into a hotel in 1972. Cavernous yet homely, its focal point was a huge bay window with a length of luxuriantly cushioned seating overlooking the lawn and oak-shaded hills beyond.

For a white-knuckle palatine ride, opt for the cheese trolley

The climb-up bed was the size and depth of a pole-vault mat and at its foot reclined a vivid green chaise longue. We took pre-dinner drinks in the pin-drop silence of the bar, where a plate of exquisite canapés hinted at what was to come.

Even before the arrival in February of chef Matthew Weedon from the Michelin-starred Glenapp Castle in Ayrshire, the Lords restaurant attracted a host of non-residents. Now it’s a stampede.

The starters – Cornish crab salad, avocado purée, endive and crab mousse – were dazzlingly inventive and the mains mouthwatering, particularly the pocket-sized rib of Cotswold beef with Hereford snails and summer truffle sauce.

For a white-knuckle palatine ride, opt for the cheese trolley, boasting the cream of British and French blends, from smooth Arran Blue to weapons-grade Stinking Bishop. A word of advice: one in, all in. Lords of the Manor sums up its ethos with Samuel Johnson’s quote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an idler.”

In reality, there is far too much on its doorstep for unrestrained indolence, as it tacitly acknowledges with its Outdoor Butler. Andy’s local knowledge enriched our visit to nearby Stow-on-the-Wold, a former market town with almost as many antique shops as residents.

The same distance in the other direction brings you to Bourton-on-the-Water, known as “Venice of the Cotswolds” due to its tourist hordes (the pretty stone bridges and canal-like River Windrush may also have something to do with it).

As we came to check out, Andy was waiting in reception with Eleen’s now filleted trout. “Don’t forget the fish you caught, sir,” he said just loudly enough. Butlers, eh? A class act.

 

* INFORMATION: Lords of the Manor (01451 820243/www.lordsofthemanor.com) offers doubles from £195 per night (two sharing), B&B; £265 with three-course dinner. Outdoor Butler from £95 per day. First Great Western (08457 000125/www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk) offers return fares from Paddington to Kingham from £26.50. Rob Ireland Activities (01386 701683/www.robireland.co.uk) offers clay pigeon shooting from £50pp (75 minutes). Salford Trout Lakes (01608 643209/ www.salfordtroutlakes.co.uk) has fly-fishing from £19 (half day).
Cotswold tourism: www.cotswolds.info