“ The Kings. Restaurant, Hotel & Bar / The Square / Chipping Campden / Gloucestershire / UK / GL55 6AW / Tel: +44 (0)1386 840256 / Fax: +44 (0)1386 841598. „
WARNING - please note that since I wrote this, the hotel has changed hands and many of the little touches that made it such a special place may no longer be available. Everything in this review was true at the time of writing.
Staying at the Kings is like staying with friends - but only if you are lucky enough to have friends with 12 spare bedrooms, a bar and restaurant and impeccable taste in furnishings and decoration. I spend a lot of time in hotels and I'm a bit jaded to their charms these days - it takes a lot to surprise or charm me after 15 years of business travel. But the Kings is something special.
In a town like Chipping Campden it's probably not that necessary to try too hard if you run a hotel. During the summer months the place is crawling with tourists and most of the year there's a steady flow of visitors for the nearby research association or for the racing at Cheltenham. So you could bung in a load of cheap furniture, cover everything in chintz and throw a few tatty olde-worlde prints on the walls and do a pretty good business. Sounds like a workable business plan doesn't it?
So how come then, that Vanessa and Michael, the owners of The Kings have taken a totally different approach? They've created a hotel to compete with the classy little boutique hotels more commonly found in big cities with big-city price tags and plonked it into the Cotswolds at prices to compete with the other hotels in the area. Vanessa told me that it's not just a hotel - it's their home and so they fill it with stuff they want to have around them. It's a great philosophy.
When the couple bought the hotel - at that time known as The Kings Arms - it was a pretty rough sort of place. A bit of a 'spit and sawdust' pub with rooms over and a problem with drunken teenagers, drugs (in the Cotswolds? Shock and horror - it's worse than The Archers) and general neglect. Today you'll not find any hairy smelly kids with a dog on a string cluttering up the public bar. It's much more likely to be filled with hotel residents and locals having a drink before popping into the restaurant for a blow-out dinner.
NOTE - if you are interested enough to hunt down more reviews on this hotel, be aware that anything before 2006 will be referring to the Kings Arms and not to The Kings under its present ownership.
Where is it?
Chipping Campden is in the Cotswolds - the heart of the south Midlands (probably not a technically correct term but that's how I think of the area). It's to the South East of Birmingham, not too far from Warwick, Stow on the Wold, Stratford on Avon and so on. In Cheltenham Gold Cup week, it's near enough - at around 20 miles - to be filled with racing fans.
CC is a cracking little town that's got the air of just waiting for a Hollywood film crew to roll in and make another Jane Austin block-buster. The town has been a conservation area for decades so there are no modern buildings to 'jar' with the elegant old ones. Even the Co-op is discretely tucked away behind an old stone façade.
The Kings is slap bang in the middle of the town on the town square making it a great place to explore Chipping Campden from if you are lucky enough to be there for fun rather than work. The building dates to the 16th and 18th Century and has been listed since 1935. With so much history it would be easy for the Kings to go into a reverie of fusty dusty olde-worlde-ness like so many other small town hotels but some how the owners have resisted the obvious and created something very different.
~ But first of all, why were we there? ~
It's not every day that such a mixed group - one Russian, one Polish, one French, three Brits and four Germans - roll into town. But it's not as unusual as you might suppose. Chipping Campden is the home to one of the country's best established food research centres - the Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association. I'd arranged with the CCFRA to run a training course for our company and they had recommended the Kings. As the hotel has just 12 rooms and we needed ten of them, I'd booked about 6 weeks in advance to be sure of getting them and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. I'll also confess that I'd had a bit of a reconnoitre and picked the room I wanted in advance.
~ First Impressions ~
Since I'd already checked the hotel over before I booked it, my first impressions this time were tempered by the expectations I'd built up after seeing the hotel a few weeks before. I must confess I'd actually been really looking forward to staying here and also very anxious that my colleagues would love it as much as I expected to. From the outside the building is a typical honey-coloured Cotswold stone building that's three or four floors high. That probably sounds a bit vague but the layout of the upper floors is staggered and a bit of a maze.
Coming through the front door, the bar is on the right and the restaurant on the left and the reception area is dominated by two giant stripy sofas and large paintings hanging on the walls. You could be forgiven for thinking that you've stepped into an art gallery but nothing is for sale - these are all just part of the owners' private collection.
Directly ahead of you when you open the door is a small reception desk 'manned' by a cuddly fox hound and a fox. The real reception desk is tucked behind an oriental screen at the foot of the stairs. There's a 'visitors' book to leave your contact details and that's all we had to do to sign in - however, I'll admit that I'd guaranteed all the rooms on my credit card beforehand so maybe you'd need to give your card under more normal circumstances. You'll be asked whether you want a newspaper and what time you want breakfast - but be warned, the breakfast is all cooked to order so be sure to plan on enough time to enjoy it.
The hotel is full of individual touches - the paintings are all originals and the blend of contemporary art and classic old building works surprisingly well. All over the hotel you'll find strange individual touches and a lot of cats - not real ones though so no need to worry if you are allergic. Tall skinny ceramic cats line one of the staircases, a 'wedding' of cats decorates a restaurant fireplace and there are strange and unusual nick-nacks all over the place. If this sounds a bit cheesy like a pub with a zillion Toby jugs hanging from the ceiling then I've done a bad job with my description - the effect is one of having wandered into a contemporary art gallery or the home of a collector with broad taste. I absolutely had to stop myself from picking up the pieces and looking to see if there were prices on the bottom. I particularly fell for a frog in the bar that caught my eye - no, not the Corsican barman but a large gritty stoneware frog with big feet and a cheeky look.
~ Room 101 ~
First a quote from George Orwell's classic book '1984'
"You asked me once," said O'Brien, "what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world."
At the Kings it's quite the opposite - Room 101 contains some of the very nicest things in the world. I did know what to expect but even so the urge to run in, take a big leap and frolic on the bed was almost overwhelming. My bear spent 4 days in the room over-indulging on the free jelly beans on the bedside table and I think it was only the height of the bed off the floor that stopped him wrecking the room. The Room 101 bed is stunning - it apparently came from a castle somewhere and it's like the Cadillac of beds. I suppose it could be thought of as a giant 'sleigh' bed but to me it was like something out of the fairy story of the princess and the pea. The mattress is actually only a standard double but due to the slant on the head and foot of the bed, it seems so much longer. I'm going to take a guess that the total length of the bed must be close to nine feet (or three meters in new money). The bed is in dark red wood with fabulously carved feet and it's so high that you practically need a step-ladder just to climb in.
Please note if you look at the hotel website, you'll find a photo of Room 201 which is wrongly identified as Room 101. It's such a shame this site doesn't allow photographs - this bed will blow your mind.
~ The rest of the room ~
There's a built in cupboard and a big mahogany chest of draws that rattled the cups and saucers on my drinks tray each time I opened or closed them. There was a small console table with magazines and a copy of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones in case I need something to read. In the bay window which looks out over the car park and garden there was a round table that I used as a desk and two striped arm chairs that were upholstered to match the curtains.
The TV was a wall mounted flat screen - I'm not sure what channels were available because I didn't use it. There was a fireplace with ornate mirror over and another long mirror on one of the other walls. The two bedside tables are not that great and the shape of the bed means they are hard to use - in fact you have to get out of bed to turn off the lights because the bedhead is curved in such a way that you are lying a couple of feet from the wall.
On the chest of drawers the tray had all the usual coffee/tea/infusions/hot choc and biscuits and there was a small flask of sherry on the table. The jelly beans I already mentioned were on the bedside cabinet.
~ The Bathroom ~
My bathroom had a bath with a hand held shower over - the ceiling was too low to have a proper over-bath shower. The tiling around the bath was black and white tiles in a check pattern. The room was large with a heated towel rail - something I always like - and the toiletries were by 'The White Company' who are better known for linens. The towels were large, soft and fluffy. The bathroom window was clear glass so you can have a good look at the car park whilst sitting on the loo - or in my case, you can draw the roller blind. There's a spooky statue of a man in the garden that I'm convinced was keeping an eye on my window.
~ The Bar ~
The bar is painted in light tones with nick-nacks artfully placed around the room. There's a semi-private sub-bar at the back which we used one evening. It's a pleasant room but there's not a lot I want to say about it.
~ The Restaurant ~
On our first evening, a colleague and I ate in the bar. I think we were the only people there so the waiter kindly seated us next to the open fire. We each ordered two starters rather than a starter and main course - I had a 'timbale' of crab finished off with smoked salmon and a full shell-on crayfish whilst my colleague had the duo of smoked salmons. For our next course we each had a puff pastry tart with a field mushroom and gruyere filling. Both courses were excellent. We each had a large glass of wine and my guess is the meals were around the £15-20 mark. My bill is sadly so confusing that I'm not too sure what I paid for anything.
Breakfast every morning was quite an event. Our non-UK colleagues had never seen poached eggs before - cue a long discourse on the technical challenges of 'direct in the water poaching'. Not knowing about poached eggs, you'll not be surprised that kippers and smoked haddock were also well off their breakfast radar screens. Surprisingly most mornings most of us did have some kind of cooked breakfast. Yoghurts, fruit, cereals and toast were also available.
On our last night we held the course dinner in the private dining room which comfortably seated 14 and would be ideal for a small wedding or other celebration party. The food again was excellent and the wines (it was my budget so I confess we went for the house wines) were reasonably priced at around the £15-17 mark.
~ The Staff ~
By the time we left I really was starting to feel like part of the family. I never actually worked out how many staff there were but they were all - without exception - very friendly and helpful. They were a really memorable bunch - Vanessa who told me all about her plans to develop the place and the upgrades she was planning; her husband Michael who called all the ladies 'Mam' (which I rather like); Liz, who ran around moving oil filled radiators between bedrooms whenever we were cold and who made up all the bills early so we could get away promptly on the last morning; Liz's husband the barman/chef who kindly recommended the cheapest wines; the Corsican water who delivered the plates of lamb at the 'Last Supper' with a bleat of la-aa-aa-mb in a good impression of a sheep; the other French chap who manfully struggled up the stairs with one colleagues suitcase that was big enough to sleep four. There were more I'm sure but all were really super people.
~ Internet Access ~
For those who care, wi-fi is available for an hourly payment. I managed to get us a special deal because we used so much but the standard rate is £4.50 per hour. You can break that hour and sign in again to use up any balance.
~ Car parking ~
There's a car park at the back of the hotel for residents only - a good thing as there charges in the public parking at the front are silly.
Beside the car park there's a garden which will be lovely in the summer sure and there's an outdoor terrace with heaters. Sadly it was too cold when we visited for that area to be open.
~ So did we like it? ~
Like it? We loved it. The whole group is used to travelling a lot and to staying in hotels but this was universally acclaimed as 'something a bit special'. I can honestly say that - with the exception of one room that had a bit of noise from the kitchens - I didn't hear a grumble out of any of the people in the group. On two of the nights we all went on 'safari' checking out each others rooms an coo-ing over the furniture and decorations. Each room is different - they have different furniture, layouts, styles and some have baths, some showers and some both. If that matters to you, be sure to specify your preference when you book.
~ Is it perfect for everyone? ~
This isn't a hotel I'd recommend for anyone with mobility problems. There's no lift and as all the rooms are upstairs, wheelchair users will not get along with this hotel.
If you have 'boisterous' children, you might feel a little concerned about how much there is to break in this hotel.
If you want to leave really early in the morning, it might not be the best choice - breakfast starts at around 7.15 or 7.30. However, if you let Vanessa and Michael know, I'm sure they can provide a cold breakfast and arrange to make up your bills early.
The whole of Chipping Campden is a bit of a black spot for mobile phones - if you need to be 100% connected to the outside world at all times, you might want to choose another town to stay in.
But for anyone else looking for a clean, stylish and individual hotel in the heart of the Cotswolds, this one gets 10 out of 10 from me. And at a rate of £75 per night for single occupancy (or £95 for double) it was worth every penny. Special dinner bed and breakfast deals are also available.
The Kings. Restaurant, Hotel & Bar.
Tel: +44 (0)1386 840256
Fax: +44 (0)1386 841598
Lying in one of the most beautiful unspoilt towns in the Cotswolds, with its stylish, renovated, interiors, great award winning food, local beers, superb wines, 12 en-suite bedrooms, gardens & friendly service.