Magazine article The Spectator

The Springs Hotel

Magazine article The Spectator

The Springs Hotel

Article excerpt

TWO THOUSAND years ago, the Ridgeway path passed through our hamlet of Little Stoke, along the River Thames, across the fields and into the village of North Stoke. As a child I would walk along the path every day to catch the school bus. I never went into the woods beyond, but I knew that somewhere inside them lurked a three-star hotel.

For 20 years I'd heard stories about this mock-Tudor mansion. It has a swimming pool shaped like a guitar, built by Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, when he briefly owned the house. There was a lake filled with swans. Mark Thatcher spent the first night of his honeymoon there. Michael Caine, the local celebrity, popped in for breakfast, and Kevin Maxwell, the local miscreant, for lunch. Occasionally we would surprise honeymoon couples frolicking under the willows by the river; once at our rather sober midnight mass a rollicking group of guests appeared, punch still in hand. But otherwise we never met anyone from The Springs Hotel.

Two years ago we noticed more activity in the wood. Dumper trucks started emerging from the trees. The local farmer had quietly sold the water meadows on the far side to be made into a golf course for the hotel. Now every time we wandered too far along the Ridgeway, we'd bump into huddles of Pringle-jumpered golfers. As there hasn't been a golfer in the family for three generations, we still weren't enthused. Nor were the other villagers when they found out they'd have to pay a sizeable membership fee to hit a few balls round their back yards.

Then last month my parents' friend Vi decided we were all being ridiculous. She was going to be the first to drive up the wooded, fairy-lit path. She came back, triumphant. The Springs did a very good Sunday lunch. So my parents booked a table last Friday night.

As my father parked his old Volvo away from the Rolls-Royce and next to a golf buggy, we saw a sign on the oak door 'Golfers, please take off spikes.' The mockTudor theme was carried on inside, with an 'oak-panelled lounge', large open fire and slippery new leather seats. The wine waiter appeared, beaming. We asked for a bottle of the house champagne. 'Ah, a beautiful choice,' said the man quite sincerely. He was right, and later we added a good Chablis Premier Cru Lablin et Fils 1995 from the short but comprehensive wine list.

We read the brochures while eating some rather good hors d'oeuvres of plump prawns with mustard on choux pastry. The golf course, built by former Ryder Cup captain Brian Huggett MBE, is in `an officially designated area of outstanding natural beauty' which I'd never appreciated. `Within it lie three lakes and challenging wetland areas.'

The menu sounded equally ambitious. The first starter was `pearls of melon wrapped in Parma ham with an orange syrup and fruit sorbet'. Next were `towers of crab', `pithiviers of duck', `pressings of chicken' and `symphonies of lemon'. Was the chef auditioning to be the next People's Poet Laureate? The restaurant was like sitting in the front row of Covent Garden. Stretched out before us was a floodlit lake, where mist swirled in the reeds and several birds hovered front-stage. `Where are the swans?' I asked a waiter. He immediately rushed off. Three minutes later two white swans and four cygnets glided into view. 'I just gave them a quick telephone call,' the waiter winked. Then we saw another whitejacketed employee shivering in the wings, throwing bread.

The surprise of The Springs wasn't the hidden lake, or the ye olde charms swinging from the beams, it was the waiters. …

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