Catherine Beattie discovers a quintessentially English countryside hotel in the beautiful Cotswolds.
The Old Swan and Minster Mill is an upscale boutique hotel in a lovely little village just west of the Prime Minister’s constituency in Witney, Oxon. Popular with couples and families for short breaks and weekend visits, it offers a choice of accommodation, great gastro-pub meals, friendly service and a myriad of leisure activities.
Set on a mile of the River Windrush within 65 acres of re-established gardens and water meadows, the hotel occupies two adjacent properties with shared facilities and leisure amenities. The Old Swan – a 600 year-old coaching inn, and Minster Mill, a former conference centre built on the site of an old working mill on the banks of the River Windrush
The historic Old Swan – the pricier of the two – has 16 characterful guest rooms and suites, each one different, some with four-poster beds and most with oak beamed ceilings. All are traditionally furnished with modern bathrooms and quality toiletries.
Minster Mill’s 44 well-appointed bedrooms are smaller and more contemporary and include rooms with private riverfront terraces and fire-pits, family (interconnecting) rooms and several dog-friendly rooms. The Mill also has several reception rooms in the gardens alongside the river, ideal for private parties or business meetings.
Since becoming part of the de Savary hotel portfolio in 2010, this quintessential English hotel has been substantially refurbished to the five star standards of entrepreneur and yachtsman Peter de Savary’s previous hotels, such as Skibo Castle in Scotland and Bovey Castle in Devon. Peter’s wife Lana is overseeing the ambitious on-going improvements, including a new £1m spa and the conversion of some smaller bedrooms in the Mill into guest suites.
The bespoke new Windrush Spa is due to open in June 2016 and will replace the present treatment rooms. It will be exclusively for guest use and feature five indoor treatment rooms and several gazebo tents on the terrace for treatments when the weather is good, indoor/outdoor swimming pools, sauna and steam room and relaxation areas.
We arrived at the Old Swan for an overnight stay on a cloudy July afternoon. Friendly staff directed us to the hotel reception at Minster Mill a two-minute walk away. Leaving our bags, we crossed the road and walked down a lavender lined path through a spectacular cottage garden to obtain our key.
Our spacious oak beamed room at the Old Swan combined old world charm with modern comforts. We had a huge bed dressed with masses of cushions, plump pillows and a feather light duvet, comfortable armchairs, a flat-screened TV and quality oak furniture. Access to our room was via a steep creaky wooden staircase, which was fine for us but might be difficult for less able visitors.
After a reviving afternoon tea, the weather brightened up so we went out to explore and ended up playing a game of petanque with some other guests. We were surprised at the range of things to see and do; 65 acres of glorious gardens, friendly ducks, rescued chickens, a children’s activity area, a spa, a fitness room and a mile of private fishing – plus on-site tennis, croquet, badminton, giant outdoor chess and petanque. This is great walking country with a selection of walks described in a useful hotel booklet. Bicycle hire and horse riding can also be arranged. Old Minster Lovell is conveniently close to local attractions like Blenheim Palace, Oxford and other pretty Cotswold towns. Bicester Village, the popular designer outlet shopping centre is a short distance away.
The gastropub food was a highlight of our stay. Dinner was an appetising choice of starters and seasonal dishes featuring mainly local produce. Chef Kai’s pan-fried Oxfordshire rump of lamb was a triumph, served with dauphinoise potatoes and perfectly cooked green vegetables, accompanied by a chilled Marlborough sauvignon. The seven dessert options were irresistible. Waistlines and calories were forgotten as we tucked into favourites like sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream and crème brulee. A generous sized pot of coffee served with the chef’s homemade tablet fudge was the final pièce de résistance.
We slept soundly and late in our vast soft bed, but made it down the steep creaky stairs in time for coffee and a tasty buffet breakfast. Then I was off to the spa to have my feet pampered and polished, while Alec (a professional engineer) wanted to view the hotel’s Archimedes screw turbine. The Old Swan and Minster Mill is the only UK hotel using this green and reliable energy source, which is powered solely by the River Windrush and provides a direct energy feed to all the Minster Mill buildings. Acting like a modern waterwheel, it harnesses the power of the river to rotate the screw and generate electricity.
Meeting up after later, we joined a short group walk around Minster Lovell. Graham Kew, a local author and publisher regaled us with fascinating tales about the village and its picture perfect thatched cottages and gardens. We walked as far as St Kenelm’s Church, through the old graveyard to a field with a ‘kissing gate’ leading down to the river and the ruins of Minster Hall, a 15th century manor house, steeped in history, legends and ghosts.
Legend has it that Lord Francis Lovell, one of the hall’s owners, was avoiding capture by Henry VII’s agents and lived in a secret room within the hall for a number of years, Only his trusted manservant knew the location and secretly brought him food. When the manservant fell ill and died, Lovell was left to starve. Two hundred years later when repairs were being carried out within the manor house, the hidden chamber was discovered and in it the skeleton of a man sitting at a desk.
Gloomy legends aside, we felt revitalised by our short stay at the Old Swan and Minster Mill. We’re planning to return visit in the winter, when we can enjoy the Old Swan’s cosy interiors and blazing log fires after an exhilarating walk or a trip to Bicester Village for some designer bargains.
The Old Swan and Minster Mill
Old Minster, Minster Lovell, Witney, Oxfordshire OX29 0RN
Tel: 01993 774441
Short break stays are available throughout the year.
Visit www.oldswanandminstermill.com for further details and latest offers.
An all-inclusive two night VIP Pre-Christmas Getaway, includes two nights of accommodation, breakfast and dinner, a complimentary gift wrapping service for all items purchased at Bicester and two complimentary massages after a day’s shopping. Priced from £245 per person including VAT. Available until 23 December.