“ Three Ways House Hotel / Mickleton / Chipping Campden / Gloucestershire / GL55 6SB / Tel: 01386 438429 „
In the past fortnight I've made two separate overnight stops at the Three Ways House Hotel in Mickleton - or as it's better known, The Pudding Club. In fact if you are trying to find the hotel there are no signposts for the Three Ways House but plenty for its alter ego. From about 5 miles away you'll start to see brown tourism signposts pointing the way to one of the Cotswold's most unlikely attractions - the fortnightly meetings of the Pudding Club.
In 1985, the Pudding Club was founded with the intention of stopping the 'demise of the traditional great British Pudding'. The fear was that the traditional puddings like Roly Poly and Sticky Toffee Pudding that made our nation what it was (i.e. obese and diabetic) would suffer at the hands of fancy schmancy new-fangled desserts like Black Forest Gateaux. God forbid! These were the days when sophisticated eating was a Saturday night at the local Berni Inn (a chain that ironically did go the way of the dodo) with a set meal of prawn cocktail starter, steak and chips and a big slice of BFG to follow.
Like endangered species without the WWF (that's the wildlife charity, not the American wrestlers) to protect them, puddings needed help, puddings needed publicity, puddings needed a bit of love and care - and so the Pudding Club was formed. Once a fortnight pudding lovers gather at the Three Ways from all over the country and even farther afield. Their intention is to have a dinner of a 'light' main course followed by seven different puddings - an 'all you can eat' experience for the sweet toothed and all for £26 a head.
Fortunately for me, neither of my visits coincided with a pudding night. I cannot abide these heavy, sticky monstrosities because they remind me far too much of school dinners. So if you, like me, can't stand them, hold firm, stick to your principles and when the dessert menu comes round be stoic and ask for something else. Because whilst the club meets only once every two weeks, pudding is always on the menu at the pudding club. But more of that later.
There's more to this hotel than sticky puddings so let's take a step back and examine what the Three Ways has to offer.
The Three Ways is in the Cotswold village of Mickleton. Anywhere in the Cotswolds is gorgeous - some villages are so achingly beautiful so that you are overwhelmed by the urge to sell your home and all your posessions and move to live in the little stone hovel that would likely be all you could afford. The area is much loved by tourists, especially American and Japanese and coach parties from the Women's Institute or the Allotment Society. In the days before digital cameras, the Cotswolds were the type of place where no matter how much you packed, you'd never have enough film for your camera. The whole area is exceptionally photogenic. However, in an area of great beauty, Mickleton is a little bit of an afterthought. It lacks the charm of Chipping Campden or the beauty of Broadway but if it were anywhere else you'd probably think it was a real cracker of a village (it's just the local competition is outstanding).
Mickleton doesn't have the same air of absolute preservation and authenticity and you will see houses that look as if they might actually have been built within the last 200 years or even the last 20. You probably couldn't fill a Jane Austin frock flick in Mickleton whereas you most definitely could in many of its neighbours.
It's a grand and rather imposing building built in the local honey-coloured stone. The car park is at the side of the hotel although you might also find parking on the road directly outside as well. The entrance takes you into a rather nice looking lobby with a highly polished wooden floor and a traditional wooden reception desk. From the reception, the bar sits to the left-hand side looking very chic but decidedly out of place. The Cotswolds are normally rather more 'chintzy and cheesy' by tradition so the bar is quite a refreshing change. If you don't want to eat in the more formal restaurant, the bar is a more casual and less expensive alternative.
After checking in, I took my key on its pudding-shaped key fob and trekked off down a corridor, through the lounge or sitting room (hoorah, that's where all the chintz was - it wouldn't be a proper Cotswold experience without it) and off to the lift to the second floor. Then I went along a few corridors and through a number of fire doors. This is what happens to all hotels based in older properties. The health and safety people go crazy forcing in fire doors every few meters.
My room when I found it was a pleasant surprise - small but with everything I needed and the luxury of the best radio & CD system I've seen in any standard hotel room. It was a Bose sound system and I was well impressed and I definitely noticed that it was nicer to wake up to Radio 4 on a swanky radio than on my hubby's nasty old clock radio. The next thing to impress me was the bathroom, or rather not so much the bathroom itself (which was really nicely tiled and had a good power shower) but the toiletries. Molton Brown no less. I LOVE their stuff. Clearly none of these toiletries were going to get used because they'd all be going home with me.
Back to the main room. I had a double bed with a pale blue/green bedcover. There were two small bedside tables, a butler tray with the kettle and lots of tea, coffee, hot choc and infusions. I had two small armchairs which were, to be honest, a bit squeezed in and a coffee table with, miracle of all miracles, magazines that I would have actually wanted to read if only I'd had time. The TV was a wall mounted flat screen which was in keeping with the high-tech radio. All of the furniture was in a really pleasant light oak a wardrobe and desk made up the rest of the furniture. I also really liked the view out over the garden and terrace with lots of tables and chair and sun umbrellas set amongst some very pretty formal flower beds.
Bizarrely for a hotel in the 21st century, the beds all have sheets and blankets rather than duvets. I found this very old fashioned and I did feel like my feet had been trapped under layers of oppressive bedding. Perhaps it's more in keeping with their older clientele but I have to be honest and say that I didn't like it.
When I stayed again a few days later I got a slightly larger room which I was later told was a 'superior' graded room. Aside from the size, the other differences were larger armchairs, a fancier bed (one of those old-style 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks' beds), a larger desk and a fantastic lighted mirror like something from an actor's dressing room. Style-wise, I actually preferred the smaller room as the superior one was a bit too 'twee' with its decoration and the bathroom, whilst slightly larger, had some rather nasty mock-travertine tiling that wasn't as nice as the simpler tiling in my previous room. However, both rooms were still 4 out of 5 for decoration and would have been 5 out of 5 for gizmos if it hadn't been for the WiFi.
If you are travelling on business you want WiFi even if you don't use it, you want it to be there. And as a big plus point, Three Ways gives you free WiFi. However, there's a good reason why it's free. The signal is so abysmal that keeping anything running for more than a few minutes at a time is a task to test the patience of a saint. Perhaps being aware of this, or maybe because a lot of their guests are leisure travellers and don't have their laptops with them, the hotel also provides a free internet terminal just behind the reception where guests can surf for free. I did both and I still torment myself with the question 'which is worse, no WiFI or bad WiFi?' and I think it's probably the latter.
FOOD AND DRINK
On my first stay I arrived late and my colleague had already turned in for the night. I was gasping for a drink and popped down to the bar to get a half of lager, which was charged at £1.60 which I considered a very fair price for a hotel bar. However, much as I admired the décor of the bar, I didn't feel that comfortable to stay there so I took my glass of to the much more traditional lounge to sup my beer and read the papers. This room is laid out a bit like a countrified 'gentleman's club' with lots of wing arm chairs and little tables.
On my second visit I booked dinner bed and breakfast, knowing that there wasn't anywhere else in the area to eat. My colleague had done this for her visit and said she thought the food was really quite good so in the interests of a more comprehensive review and a full tummy I thought I'd better try it out.
The restaurant seems to only offer a 3-course set meal, which costs £32 per person and includes coffee and fudge. If you wanted less, I'm guessing that you'd better eat in the bar where the menu seemed more flexible. I ordered scallops to start, which carried a supplement of £2.50 over the rest of the starters and for main course I chose monkfish after making sure I could get it without the pancetta that was supposed to accompany it. Whilst I waited for the scallops the waiter brought some bread - two slices of white bread with onion which was really good and a slice of something grey in colour that was a day past its best and fit only for the ducks. The scallops were disappointing because the were served with the most disgusting cold creamed spinach that tasted really nasty and bitter. In order to serve the spinach cold, the plate couldn't be too warm so the scallops ended up only slightly warm which isn't a good temperature for any food. I love scallops and I normally love spinach but something went horribly wrong with the combination. The main course was much better. Three pieces of monkfish sitting on top of a bed of fancy mashed potatoes and served with a bowl of really nicely cooked vegetables, although why a dish served on potato needed more potato was a bit of a mystery.
I was feeling very young at dinner and I would guess that there were few other diners who were below retirement age. And I discovered that older ladies aren't averse to getting a bit 'frisky' with the waiters. The poor Polish waiter was receiving a lot of cooing comments from one table with 'Ooh, with your nice slim figure it's obvious you don't eat many of these puddings' and so on. In his shoes I'd have been tempted to dump rather a lot of hot syrup on someone's lap.
I looked at the menu and shuddered. There were lots of sticky heavy puddings if you couldn't decide between them you could even have a selection of three different ones including chocolate pudding and toffee pudding. At risk of giving offence, and figuring it was my money (ok, the company's money) and I wasn't going to eat things I didn't like just to be polite, I ordered cheese. The cheese was great - a selection of 4 or 5 different ones including a brie that looked ready to jump off the table and run around the room (fantastic) with a couple of large biscuits and some bread which this time was perfect. There was also a really delicious onion chutney and some grapes to go with it. I loved this course and didn't feel I'd missed out by not going sticky.
After pudding it was off to the lounge for coffee and some intensely flavoured almond fudge. Despite being on my own I didn't feel at all awkward sitting in the lounge with a paper and some coffee whilst the old-folks had a good chat about their plans for the next day. The lounge also had lots of board games to amuse when it rains (which, being England isn't that rarely). If the weather had been a bit warmer or the evening a bit lighter I'd probably have taken my breakfast outside.
Breakfast is served from 7.30 am which says a lot about the clientele. This isn't a place for you if you need to be away early in the morning. At breakfast time the spread is an excellent buffet and lots of the food is locally sourced. There's a wide selection of cereals, yoghurts and fruit, as well as a hot buffet and if you want something that's not on the buffet like kippers or smoked haddock, they'll prepare it for you.
You might wonder what else there is to do around Mickleton - in fact I'm still wondering that myself. The hotel runs walking weekends throughout the year and has a guide who takes groups or they can provide maps for you to do it yourself. If you've got a car, then go out and explore the area, look at all the lovely villages, browse the art galleries and antique shops and mooch about. If you haven't got a car, then how on earth did you get to Mickleton? Rent a bike and go and explore.
On my first visit I asked the very nice assistant manager a few questions that she probably thought a bit odd and then I confessed that I'd be writing a review for a website afterwards. She kindly offered to show me some of their special 'themed' rooms so the next morning after breakfast I got a sneaky look at the 'Sticky Toffee and Date Pudding' room and the 'Spotted Dick aka Spotted Dog' rooms. In a hotel that otherwise takes itself quite seriously, these rooms are great fun.
The Sticky Toffee is designed to look like a bedouin tent with a cameleteer painted on one wall and a cuddly camel on the bed. You can draw special curtains round the bed so that it feels a bit like being in a tent. Great fun. The Spotted Dick (no, I'm just not going to make any attempt to explain that for any foreign readers) has a mural of two Dalmatians on the wall and the bed covers are spotted. This room also has a spotted bunk bed room off to one side, making it perfect for families. Both the special rooms also had extra-nice bathrooms. It's a shame I can't post any photos to show you - these rooms really are unusual.
I paid £86 for my first room although I think it should have been £92 so I'm a bit confused how that happened. For my second stop I paid £112 for dinner bed and breakfast. In each case these rates were for a double room with single occupancy. For other prices, check out the website at www.puddingclub.com - yes, that really is the hotel's website.
If you love pudding then don't hesitate, this is the place for you. If you want a mid-sized Cotswold hotel at a fair price and you've got a car to get around, this could be a good choice too. But if you want to do any work and need good telecommunications, this is best avoided. The mobile phone signal is awful and the WiFi is pitiful but actually, that could be just what you need and to be fair most hotels in the area will have exactly the same problem. A bit of enforced peace and quiet could do you the world of good.
AN EXPLANATION FOR MALU
If I don't explain I know I'll get a message asking me about the title. For the non-Brits among our readership, being 'in the pudding club' is like 'having a bun in the oven' - both are slang for being pregnant, but quite nice gently euphamistic slang rather than anything rude. But still, it's a good idea to be very careful about asking anyone if they are in the pudding club.
SO AM I IN THE PUDDING CLUB?
No way - a bit tubby from too much food but it's all flab and nothing more sinister than that.