In A Word
Those seeking an indulgent romantic getaway filled with country strolls and a bit of pampering; those indulging in some country living, tweed-wearing and maybe a spot of air rifle target practice; or those out for jolly good golfing weekend with the boys.
When you pull up to a hotel and the valet asks you to ‘pop it next to the Ferrari,’ you know you’re entering a hotel that takes itself seriously. And Bovey Manor – sorry, Bovey Castle – is a very serious looking, 5 Star hotel. Set within a 275-acre Dartmoor estate, you have plenty of time to remember your etiquette lessons as you wind your way through the 18-hole golf course towards the house.
The reception rooms are where the real luxury is at. Art-deco lighting gives the hotel a glitzy 1920s feel, while the faint odours of crackling wood fires and the oak panelled walls keep it homely and neo-Elizabethan. These are not stately, do-not-touch areas but inviting places to kick back and relax. The library is a bright, floral room with sink into sofas while the bar room is furnished with 6 shelves of whiskey, Chesterfield sofas, butterfly collections, low key lighting and just outside, the tinkling keys of the baby grand piano. Exploring this 20th century house was a pleasure and swanning around, drinking whisky-sours and imagining ourselves as part of the ‘20s literary jet set took up the majority of our evening.
The icing on the country manor experience is the morning falconry display. Martin, the falconer, is a right character with an endless run of ‘ex-wife’ jokes and an in depth knowledge of the birds – owls, apparently, are a bit stupid. Who knew? The American Bald Eagle, though, is a bird that means business and being in close proximity to one is a pretty intimidating experience.
Upstairs is where the edges of Bovey Castle’s allure start to become a bit frayed around the edges: literally in the case of some of the carpets. But that’s something new owners, The Eden Hotel Group, will probably hopefully be addressing. Our 3rd floor room sat in the roof of the house, with the sloping walls adding to the snug country atmosphere. I say snug, but that juxtaposes with the spacious size of the room – it was an expansive double room with two huge wardrobes, dressing table and a sofa filled lounging alcove. Two great iron wrought windows gave us views onto the grounds of the hotel and its surrounding golf course. Finally, our double bed – well, two beds pushed together – meant that we lost each other in the duvet during the night and as much as I love my wriggly other half, it was a beautiful thing not encounter her flailing limbs throughout the night.
After the initial joys of space wore off we began to notice the tired nature of the room. Full of cream and pastels, it could have done with a bit of a repaint: scuff marks and liquid stains dotted parts of the walls, there was a mark on the carpet and the upholstered bed had a stain down one side. Tired is definitely the word. It’s the sort of thing I’d normally ignore in a hotel, but if you’re selling yourself on your indulgence, then I want to be damn well indulged.
The bathroom was also an expansive beast. You could probably get a whole family up and showered in record time in there. Zebra striped wall paper and patterned flooring meant for a pretty vibrant scrub first thing in the morning too.
Every member of staff that we met was warm and friendly. Bonus points go to the chipper valets and their plus fours. Our waitress in Smith’s Brasserie was relaxed and fun to be around.
Service could be improved in a couple of areas. Firstly, it took ages for our drinks to arrive during our evening meal. When you both begin to notice your lack of booze, you know you’ve been waiting too long. Secondly, not all the waiting staff seem to be clued in with the origin of some of the ingredients, and instead of going to find out, they appeared to make up a random answer. The bar staff do know their way round expansive cocktail menu and cigar cupboard though.
There are two dining choices at Bovey. At one end of the building there’s the Great Western Restaurant, billing itself as an ‘exclusive dining’ experience, classy but relaxed and its menu certainly sounds amazing with its ballontines of rabbit, whole grouse and banana soufflés. At the other end of the building is Smith’s Brasserie, a more informal dining experience with a ‘pub-grub’ menu. This is where Tasting Britain was sent to review.
Having spent the previous weekend in Paris, trailing Ernest Hemingway through the brasseries of Montparnasse, Smith’s Brasserie more than matched up in terms of atmosphere. Less clinical than your traditional brasserie, a window into the kitchen greets you as you walk in and the focal point of the room is a central fireplace, surrounded by a ring of comfortable seating, designed for post dining relaxing – but don’t forget there’s a whole manor house at your disposal just outside.
Having been shown to our table, we had plenty of time to browse the menu. It’s like something you would see at most gastropubs around the country: fish and chips, sausage and mash, non-specific chicken curry. We cast a metaphorical eye jealously down the hallway to the Great Western Dining Hall.
As I mentioned before, service was a bit sluggish to begin with. Our waitress was sparky and interesting, but somewhere between being transferred to the barman and the drinks actually arriving, our order took a bit of a scenic stroll. I think it should also be mentioned at this point the Bovey Castle slap a 12.5% service charge on everything. So, we paid handsomely to wait for our drinks.
To start I had the chicken liver parfait, while the wriggler opted for the Salcombe crab cocktail. She loves seafood. The parfait came with a toasted ciabatta and a rustic, spicy piccalilli sauce – a perfect match for the creamy, smooth parfait. I could have eaten a vat of the stuff. The crab, on the other hand did come in an almost vat like portion. A full plate of white and brown crab meat on a very leafy salad.
The main course was a harder decision, not because it was hard to narrow it down, but more because it was a menu filled with dishes so classic, that we’ve had them a hundred times: shepherd’s pie, fish-cakes, non-specific chicken curry. They’re all dishes that we love, but nothing stood out, and that’s not why you go to a hotel like this.
I plumbed for the sirloin steak with not once, nor twice, but thrice cooked chips. The steak itself was serviceable, but the tarragon infused béarnaise sauce was a delicious accompaniment. To go along with this we had the breast of corn fed chicken with mushroom, tarragon and crème fraiche sauce. Tarragon seems to have featured quite heavily in this course, but once again it was a stand-out part of the plate. I’ve not thought of doing tarragon with mash potato before. If there’s one complaint, the wriggler would have loved another generous splash of the sauce.
It got a lot more indulgent as we headed into dessert. The sticky toffee pudding’s sauce was as rich and tasty as any we’ve had and the chocolate fondant is a dessert so dark that it defies photography. It oozed chocolate volcanically, spilling its richness onto the plate: A satisfyingly sugary way to end the meal.
This is my first time reviewing for Tasting Britain, and as such I really wanted to love every part of Bovey Castle and start off with a wholly positive review. The building is undeniably beautiful and there are some fantastic, involving aspects to the hotel. It’s perfect for those looking for a golfing retreat or a spa weekend and the staff are happy to organise all sorts of activities for you; from cider making to horse riding to hot air ballooning. But for this to become a truly indulgent experience, they need to paper over the cracks. Service needs improving and the food in the brasserie needs to reflect the opulence of the surroundings, especially to justify that 12.5% service charge, which is added to an already expensive menu – the full English breakfast costs £20. And for the price there are other hotels in the area that are just nailing this sort of thing, like Glazebrook House Hotel.
It’s close, it’s got the cigar, but now it needs to nail some of the basics.