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Top 10 Pre-Christmas Escapes

by Adrian Mourby

We all complain that Christmas seems to go on forever. It certainly starts too soon. Even before the bonfires of 5 November have fizzled out is done, department stores will be playing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Paul McCartney will be Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time" yet again.

The soundtrack and the pressure to commemorate all your relationships with the perfect gift are equally oppressive.

For the last few years around the beginning of December I always run away for the weekend. The idea is to escape to somewhere picturesque where there were no shops, no tinsel no So Here It Is Merry Christmas at all. Or to flee somewhere like Bath, Chester or Stow on the Wold where shopping is a part of the tourism and a pleasure.

I’d really recommend getting away for the pre-Christmas weekends. You’ll come back refreshed and ready to hear "And so This is Christmas" belted out in every shop you visit.

So here are my suggestions of where to take that all-important pre-Christmas break.

Your sanity deserves it.


Showing below are all 10 records in "Top 10 Pre-Christmas Escapes"

Great Fosters (Hotel)

Stroude Road, Egham

Great Fosters, Stroude Road, Egham, Surrey

If it weren’t for the distant hum of the M25 you would never guess you were anywhere near Heathrow Airport on arrival at Great Fosters. In fact you might be forgiven your taxi had delivered you to the 16th century by mistake.

The 1500s were when Henry VIII and his younger daughter Elizabeth are said to have used the mediaeval tenement known as “Fosters” as a hunting lodge. Elizabeth I’s coat of arms is above the main porch, inscribed with the date 1598, which was presumably when she visited.

The main building is a masterpiece in Tudor brick with very tall chimneys and a large oak door. To enter one passes through a very low “wicket” in the door, a small aperture to ensure that only one invader can enter at a time. Once inside, the sooty hue of Great Hall’s plasterwork confirms that the centuries of open fires at Great Fosters. Before reaching reception, turn left into the Anne Boleyn Room. Today it’s a typical hotel drawing room with large sofas but its name derives from the coats of arms on the ceiling which were those of Henry VIII’s second wife, the ill-fated mother of Elizabeth I. On the way to your room take in the main staircase which is a brick tower tacked on to the main building in 1600 with the coat of arms of the Earls of Northumberland at its head . Quite what all these historical figures were doing at Great Fosters is not recorded but it’s clear that the house is steeped in history. The three sided moat, now part of the gardens is even believed to date from Anglo Saxon times.

What a place to run away to when Christmas gets too much – or indeed to stay at the night before an early flight from Heathrow. In keeping with the age of the house, the bedrooms are not large. They are down long, irregular and oak-panelled corridors. Most have mullioned windows and are accessed with real door keys rather than cardkeys. Downstairs the house has a number of fireplaces and many, many cozy places to sit.

Like so many English country houses, Great Fosters was owned over the centuries by a range of baronets, colonels, minor earls, squires and honourables. In 1930 it was bought by the Yorkshire politician Sir Harold Sutcliffe who oversaw its conversion into a hotel and installed a resident director, Major Jeffreys to run it. The major requested a larger dining room and was rewarded by Sir Harold’s purchase of a massive Elizabethan tithe barn. The barn was dismantled at Ewell Manor, near Epsom and reconstructed at Great Fosters to serve as part of the new hotel. Today it is still the main function room.

The hotel is still owned by Sir Harold’s descendants and it has the feel of a family home. Out in the gardens there is a 1920s archery pavilion and a swimming pool that was built in the 1930s with old ramshackle changing rooms known as boxes. They are unique - and unchanged as listed buildings. The signage still reads "Men’s Boxes" (to the right) and "Ladies’ Boxes" (to the left). A rare touch of the 21st century can be found in the swimming pool - Fever Tree Tonic umbrellas. Otherwise Great Fosters is all about disappearing into the past.

The Running Horses (Pub with Rooms)

Old London Road, Mickleham, Dorking

The Running Horses, Old London Road, Dorking, Surrey

Lying close to the busy A24, on what was once the road from the Surrey Hills into the City of London, there stands an old coaching inn. It used to be called The Chequers but in 1828 it was renamed “Running Horses” after two racehorses – Colonel and Cadland – that tied in the nearby Epsom Derby.

Back in the nineteenth century the inn was a favourite place for stabling horses that were racing at Epsom and until recently, there were training gallops nearby up on Mickleham Downs. The inn’s stabling block has gone now, having been incorporated into the main building to provide a spacious dining room but the equine connection remains; the pub’s two bars are named Colonel and Cadland in the horses’ honour. Their portraits adorn the pub’s sign, one horse on each side.

Upstairs the racing theme continues in six delightful bedrooms named after famous English racecourses. They have big beds, sloping ceilings and sturdy old furniture that are.

Running Horses is a popular lunch spot for locals and it is also enjoyed by walkers who come here to yomp around on nearby Box Hill. The National Trust publishes a number routes for walkers in the area, including one that includes a stop at this very pub.

Running Horses is a warm, welcoming place to retreat to for that ever so slightly healthy winter weekend in the country. There’s even a real fire to greet you in the bar at the end of your walk.

Barnett Hill Hotel (Hotel)

Blackheath Lane, Guildford

Barnett Hill Hotel, Blackheath Lane, Guildford, Surrey

In 1905 Frank Cook, grandson of the celebrated travel agent, purchased a hilltop in Surrey with the intention of building himself a fine house.

Frank was the oldest son of Thomas Mason Cook who had expanded the original Cook temperance travel business to promote middle-class tourism to the Middle East. So influential was Thomas Mason Cook that he was described as “the second-greatest man in Egypt” after the Khedive.

Tragically while arranging for the German Emperor Wilhelm II to visit Palestine in 1898, Thomas Mason Cook contracted dysentery and died. So it was left to Frank and his two brothers to out-earn their father and famous grandfather during great Edwardian travel boom. It was during this prosperous time that Frank Cook built himself a modern country house near Guildford. It stood on the top of Barnett Hill above the village of Blackheath. This was to be a spacious Queen Anne style house with a hallway and staircase whose ornate ceilings still impress today.

The creation of this 26 acre estate cost Frank Cook £35,000, a substantial fortune, although at the same time Sir Julius Drewe, founder of the Home & Colonial Stores was spending even more money - £50,000 - building himself a 20th century castle in Devon – and the W H Smith family of newsagent fame were building Bovey Castle on the other side of Dartmoor.

All these projects were on an impressive scale. Frank’s grounds were so extensive that a team of 14 was required to maintain them. In 1928 Thomas Cook & Son sold their business two years later to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (Orient Express). Frank died three years later, a millionaire.

As so often happened in the 20th century, Barnet Hill enjoyed mixed fortunes once its founder had passed away. After the outbreak of World War II, his American widow donated their home to the Red Cross who cared for bomb blast victims in its grounds. Then in 1944 it became a Red Cross training centre. In the 1970s its use lapsed before it was recently taken up by Utopia Leisure who have preserved the old public areas while creating a sequence of cool-hued modern bedrooms on the first floor.

The dark-panelled dining room is a calm and charming place to spend an evening and the grounds, laid out in a series of terraces and walled lawns, are very restful too.

There’s even a delightful ornate brick-built gazebo where up to four people can dine or two can have a romantic tryst. Lovers of one of Britain’s finest gins may also be pleased to know that Silent Pool is just nine miles away. It’s a surprisingly understated distillery for such an impressive gin. And there really is a silent pool next door.

The Chequers (Pub with Rooms)

53 High St, Marlow

The Chequers, 53 High St, Marlow, Buckinghamshire

The celebrated sixteenth-century Chequers Pub in Marlow on Thames recently opened nine comfortable guest bedrooms on its upper floor.

This historic site actually comprises two old inns separated by an alley that has been closed off by a heavy door. Chequers, with its spacious new dining room, is on the right of the passageway while the Churchill Tap, something much closer a traditional British alehouse, stands to the left.

Since 1897 Chequers has belonged to the Brakspear company whose history dates back to 1711. That was the year that William Henry Brakspear began brewing at 65 Bell Street in nearby Henley on Thames. In 1897, the ever-expanding company purchased The Chequers for £1900. Now it is now one of 32 pubs with rooms that Brakspear owns. While on the ground floor Chequers maintains its original layout (and the Tap maintains its original beams which are said to have come from an old Navy frigate) the bedrooms above are much more modern. A stairwell depicting images of elephants and tigers leads to nine rooms that feature big generous beds, industrial chic wardrobes built of powder-coated scaffolding poles and reclaimed timber shelves, and bathrooms with rainforest showers. If you’re fortunate enough to get Room 1 there’s a freestanding rolltop bath alongside the shower.

This is a great pub to hole up away from the Christmas shopping if you like craft ales, plenty of wines by the glass a specially selected gin menu. It’s also a fine place for lovers of steak, with quality cuts of 100-day aged grain-fed Australian beef cut to order on a butcher’s block in the main dining room.

Meanwhile outside on Marlow’s High Street Christmas shop ping goes on. This is a lively town with an independent toy shop and plenty of boutiques for clothes-shopping. Walk down one side of the street to the river Thames – the chain bridge above it is a miniature of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge that crosses the Danube in Budapest– and return up the other side and you’ll be ready for an ale or two and a cozy pub supper.

The Porch House, Stow-on-the-Wold (Pub with Rooms)

Digbeth Street, Stow-on-the-Wold

The Porch House, Stow-on-the-Wold, Digbeth Street, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

The Porch in Stow on the Wold dates back to the 940s in the reign of King Edred of Wessex. A document seen by the owners claims that Duke Aethelmar had built a hospice for lepers on this site and the Guinness Book of Records therefore recognises it as the oldest public house in Britain.

For centuries it was this Cotswold stone inn was known as The Royalist but in the sixteenth century the Shellard family renamed it Porch House for some reason (it is not certain why). In 1630 a young boy by the name of John Shellard disappeared in the pub and was never seen again though his ghost has been spotted on occasions. Other reminders of this extraordinarily long history include an Anglo-Saxon shoe found on the premises and a letter from a royalist commander written during the English Civil War. There are also geometric markings above some of the fireplaces to deter witches.

For centuries after the departure of the Shellards, Porch House reverted its old Royalist name but now it is one again known as the The Porch. Nevertheless if you google pubs in Stow these days you’ll the pub on Digbeth Street under both names.

Inside the main entrance a number of old rooms have been combined into a labyrinth of low ceilings and cozy spaces. Off the informal reception with its bookshelves and log fire, there’s a stately dining room, a “snug” with tweed and leather sofas, a conservatory, bar with dining and some small courtyard gardens. The twelve bedrooms are up two small staircases. They have even lower ceilings, sofas, big beds and rolltop baths. Add in seven working fireplaces throughout the pub and The Porch House becomes one of the warmest places you’ll escape to this winter.

Staying in Stow is something I recommend in the run up to Christmas, not so much to escape from the Christmas rush but to embrace it. Shopping is quirky and even inspirational in this pleasant Cotswold town which is the home of Scotts of Stow those nice people who send you so many catalogues through in the post. Scotts have two shops in the town centre, one for outdoor gifts and one for indoors. Add in Crocks, the kitchen shop that has absolutely everything, and several art galleries and antique shops and you’re bound to find that elusive gift to complete your contribution to Christmas Day this year. And in between forays to the shops you can call back in at Porch House for lunch, a cup of tea or G&T. And there is supper in what is always a well-festooned dining room this time of year. As to be shown the inglenook fireplace with its incisions that were intended to deter witches . According to Nicky, the general manager, such symbols were carved over fireplace lintels to make sure evil could not get down the chimney and wreak havoc below. Doors and windows could be shuttered but you couldn’t close a fireplace in winter.

It may sound far-fetched but if your pub has been around for over a thousand years who knows what strange things have happened in midwinter.

The Greenway Hotel & Spa, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The Greenway just outside Cheltenham is refurbishing but can only do it gradually as this 21-room country house hotel is often full. The new dining room is a great improvement with a wooden floor replacing carpets, some lovely embossed Italian wall paper in Morris's Strawberry Thief pattern and silver cushioned spoonback chairs. The bar now has tall tables at which you can stand, lean or sit on high leather-backed bar stools. This is a much better use of space than the old armchairs. And new rolltop baths are being added in all the bedrooms, perfect for luxuriating in. As an unashamed fan of The Greenway for its food and its warm welcome I was delighted to visit recently and find nothing spoiled and everything improved. The log fire in reception has been burning since the beginning of October and certainly makes arriving on a chilly Friday evening exciting.

Come the morning there are extensive grounds to walk around and a bracing ascent of Crickley Hill if you’re feeling energetic. At the top of the hill the Air Balloon is a pub that surely gets its name from the altitude to which you have just climbed. If you want more exercise still the hotel can hire bicycles for guests at £5 an hour. Cycling into Cheltenham is a mere 20 minutes on flat roads. Here, especially among the boutiques of Montpelier and the expensive stores of The Promenade there is some fun shopping to be done.

When you return, have a dip in the hotel’s outdoor hot tub which is at the Elemis Spa, the only heath club I’ve seen that’s decorated with champagne bottles. Definitely my kind of place.

The Townhouse (Pub with Rooms)

16 Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Townhouse, 16 Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

If you’re looking for a theatre break before Christmas, this hotel – literally a gentleman’s townhouse – provides the perfect base. It’s a mere three-minute walk from the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. Moreover it sits opposite the old half-timbered grammar school - King Edwards - that William Shakespeare is believed to have attended and is adjacent to New Place, the site of his grandStratford retirement home. In fact as you walk to the theatre on a dark wintry night, you are passing alongside Shakespeare’s garden. It’s thought that his land extended all the way to the river Avon on which the memorial theatre now sits.

Visit New Place if you possibly can. The house Shakespeare bought and extended was, sadly demolished in 1759 but its lines have been recreated in a huge illustrative garden. This is the nearest thing you’ll find to a Shakespeare theme park in Stratford. The Townhouse itself has a grand Strawberry Hill Gothic facade with the kind of ogee windows and crenelated parapets that became fashionable at the end of the eighteenth century. Looking at it from the side however you can see the half-timbered seventeenth-century building that the Hunt family of Stratford lived in for over 200 years. The Hunts were wealthy lawyers in the town and able to afford to gentrify their house in the new style.

Opening as a hotel only in 2010, the Townhouse is a friendly and fun place to stay with just 12 bedrooms, framed quotes from Shakespeare on the walls and two staircases, one grander than the other. The lesser of the two was built by the Hunts for servant access while the larger -under a lovely roof lantern skylight- was designed for the ladies of the house to descend elegantly. Today this staircase rises to a landing with a huge mirror that seems to double the size of the whole hotel.

On the ground floor there a small but busy bar that segues effortlessly into the restaurant. Here the set menu, available from 5pm to 630, is ideal if you’re going to the theatre. My advice is have two courses before you leave for the show and ask if you can have dessert in your room when you get back. I’ve done this before and it’s lovely, celebratory way to end a night at the theatre.

Sopwell House (Hotel)

Cottonmill Lane, Sopwell, St Albans

Sopwell House, Cottonmill Lane, St Albans, Hertfordshire

The master stonemason Edward Strong developed Sopwell House as his country residence in the eighteenth century. This was a plain, well built mansion without the baroque flourishes of St Paul’s Cathedral or Blenheim Palace, both buildings on which Strong had worked in his long career.

Later the house was extended during Queen Victoria’s reign and in 1900 one of her grandsons, Prince Louis of Battenberg, rented it. The Prince rose to be a Royal Navy admiral and eventually First Sea Lord while his four spirited children enjoyed holidays from school in their family’s Hertfordshire retreat.

The youngest of those children was Louis Mountbatten, known to history as the last Viceroy of India and Prince Charles’ adopted uncle. In 1986 the house was bought up by Abraham Bejerane whose AB Hotels also include The Arch in London and the Crowne Plaza Five Lakes in Essex.

Expanded in most directions with a spa, restaurant and brasserie and now 192 bedrooms, the old Sopwell House is only recognisable as Mountbatten’s home from certain angles today.

By far the best part of the new development, in my opinion, is in the mews block which has recently been redeveloped into its own enclave with electronic gates that admit guests into a beautiful garden of water features, yew tree hedges and pleached hornbeam trees. Within this cozy community, the original estate cottages – and a few more modern additions – have been divided up into small comfortable suites decorated in slate, leather and wood. Some even have flame effect gas fires for curling up in front of. Slices of Battenberg cake in your room on arrival are a nice touch. The distinctive, checkered design of the sponge cake was variously known as “Domino Cake” , “Neapolitan Roll” and “Church Window Cake” before being renamed in 1884 in honour of the marriage of Princess Victoria and Louis of Battenberg.

In the main house there is a split level restaurant in purple, green and dark wood with a succession of handsome young men in dark suits to open doors for you. There is also a newly-extended spa that should be nearing completion early in 2019.

The Chester Grosvenor (Hotel)

Eastgate, Chester

The Chester Grosvenor, Eastgate, Chester, Cheshire

Here’s a novel idea. Instead of running away from Christmas shopping for the weekend why not head off to somewhere right in the middle of the shopping?

Very few hotels are located slap bang in the middle of a major shopping street these days and even fewer are as glamorous and comfortable as the Chester Grosvenor. Or with a restaurant with as high a reputation as Simon Radley (named after the executive chef). This hotel dining room has held a Michelin star since 1990 along with 4 AA Rosettes. Add in the 700 bins under Head Sommelier, Derek Scaife and it’s a wonder anyone leaves the Grosvenor at all.

A hotel has stood on this site inside the walled city of Chester since 1784. It opened as the Royal Hotel, a rather grim and functional three-storey brick structure. In 1815 the Grosvenor family bought and renamed it; they later demolished the old hotel and in 1865 rebuilt in splendid mock-Tudor style. Immediately outside the Grosvenor you’ll find the usual chains but also a welcome range of independent retailers like Pyramid for glassware, Eva Chester (women’s clothing) Lily Vintage (also clothing) Cork Out (wine) Weasel & The Bug (toys without batteries) and The Hat Place(speaks for itself).

Famously haunted – in fact one of the most ghostly cities in Britain – Chester can offer visitors a medieval monk who is occasionally spotted wandering through the cathedral pews, a vengeful ghost called Jenny who drowned in the waters of the River Dee many years ago and still lurks beneath the water, ready to grab the ankle of any passing man and drag him down to a watery grave and quite a few weeping chambermaids who died centuries ago. In Watergate Street, half-timbered Stanley Palace is home to three ghosts.

With carol singers in the half-timbered streets, Chester in December and a few ghosts of Christmases Past Chester really can feel like Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol.

The Spread Eagle Hotel (Hotel)

Cornmarket, Thame

The Spread Eagle Hotel, Cornmarket, Thame, Oxfordshire

Anyone with a view to getting away from the city to somewhere a little out of the ordinary should consider a weekend at The Spread Eagle in Thame. This historic coaching inn lies ten miles off The Ridgeway, an ancient British route which runs for over 100 miles across Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire.

The eighteenth-century Spread Eagle sits in the middle of Thame, just 13 miles east of Oxford. For hundreds of years this imposing redbrick inn was known simply as The Eagle. In the early nineteenth century it gained a certain notoriety from housing captured Napoleonic officers in its cellars. (French other rankers were housed in the less salubrious Birdcage pub opposite). Then in 1922 the somewhat eccentric John Fothergill (1876 – 1957) took over The Eagle and renamed it The Spread Eagle. “At the ripe old age of 46,” he wrote. “I found that I must do something for a living, so I was counselled to take an inn.”

Fothergill was a minor Bloomsbury character, formerly a very handsome chap, drawn as a youth by the libidinous Augustus John in 1906 and a favourite of Oscar Wilde. After studying at Oxford he helped run a London art gallery that sold Walter Sickert’s paintings. Then, after a lifetime of doing very little but being adored, he took over the landlordship of the Eagle Inn in 1922, claiming that Dora Carrington had painted the new pub sign for him.

How much of what followed is true in difficult to determine as Fothergill’s memoirs, Confessions of an Innkeeper, are flavoured by his growing sense of indignation and frustration. His aim to create a fine-dining hotel in the country was ahead of its time and pretty much involved the eviction of farmers who frequented the old Eagle. In their place Fothergill wanted the Mayfair set who arrived but not in sufficient numbers to keep him solvent. Nothing in John Fothergill’s background had led him to become an innkeeper. For this reason of this he had very little idea how to be a host and could be “perfectly beastly” to people he felt weren’t right for his establishment. Most infamously he was known to add an unspecified charge of a few pounds to a bill. If any of his guests queried it, they would be gruffly told that it was “Face Money.”

Face Money was invented one day when Fothergill was shaving to provided afternoon tea for 39 unattractive people. In his memoirs, he wrote, “I noticed they were almost all ill-shaped, ugly or ill-dressed. I came into the office and complained at having to work for such people at 1s. 2d. a head. Charles Neilson said, “That’s easy – put up a notice, ‘Buy our masks at 1s. each or pay 6d. extra.’ So I went in and told Phyllis to charge 6d. face-money each for the worst cases. Thus for the first time in history, seven people without knowing have left an inn having paid 6d. each for not being beautiful. Surely this was a more praiseworthy action than the usual one of charging people extra because theyare beautiful, well bred and dressed?”

The Spread Eagle barely turned a profit because of Fothergill’s habit of alienating those who could pay but who were not to his liking. He did however turn Thame into a destination for fashionable Bohemian Londoners in the interwar years.

Evelyn Waugh mentioned the hotel in Brideshead Revisited and gave Fothergill a copy of his novel, Decline and Fall dedicated to “John Fothergill, Oxford’s only civilizing influence.” Fothergill was a visionary with Raymond Blanc’s level of ambition - Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, is only nine miles away – but that flair was allied to Basil Fawlty’s hostility towards “riff-raff”. After ten bitter years in Thame he gave up. The last straw – according to stories told by the staff today – was that in the 1930s a splendid lady – of the kind Fothergill courted - arrived with her chauffeur in tow. Both were served with the same meal but whereas Her Ladyship enjoyed it, the servant complained that he did not. At this point John Fothergill decided he had had enough. Today some silver painted furniture, a bar decorated with oversized library style bookends and a lot of wood panelling are all that remain of Fothergill’s vision.

There are however interesting elements of the hotel in its pre-Fothergill days. The breakfast room is said to have been an old cockpit, which explains the large window in the roof through which gamblers could watch the fighting birds on which they had bet. And there is of course a ghost, though thankfully not Fothergill’s. He would give the wrong sort of guest a very bad time.

Go for lunch after you’ve read Confessions of An Innkeeper or if you’re staying ask for one of the rooms at the front overlooking Cornmarket and the Birdcage Inn. It’ll be a memorable experience.

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