Thursday 1 November 2012

Artist Residence

Artist Residence, Penzance, Cornwall

It has been an epic five hour train journey from Paddington to Penzance, and we feel exhilarated when we see the huge stone sign welcoming visitors to England’s southernmost station, like Sinbad on his first voyage away from home.

Picking our way past the fishing tackle shops and boat hire huts that line the picturesque quay, Monsieur 2 spies the imposing edifice of St Mary’s Church, a landmark for historic Chapel Street where our hotel, Artist Residence, is located.

Longing for a decent cup of tea, we march gung-ho towards the steeple, but then can’t find Artist Residence. Seeing our confusion, a friendly local guides us to a smart white townhouse with bold red door. Voila, we have arrived.

Flo, our friendly receptionist, checks us in and gives us a copy of the hotel’s own sightseeing map. It’s illustrated, and the coolest tourist map we’ve seen to date. Monsieur 2 squirrels it away for closer examination later.

Walking through a light, bright cafe-cum-gallery space towards the bedrooms, we see vintage clothing, arty accessories, and other local produce for sale. Artist Residence is clearly very much part of the community, which we applaud.

“Artist Residence is very much part of the community, which we applaud”

But the encore has to go to the decor. It’s as though they’ve hauled booty from the seas’ quirkiest of ships, given it a lick and a polish, and curated the entire hotel with it.

 "The encore has to go the decor, though – it’s so fabulously fun”

Our room, one of 11, is named the Picture Gallery – it has a high beamed ceiling, a pristine white backdrop, and bold graphic prints hanging from its walls.

An installation of colourful lovebirds in twisted reeds is a clever alternative to flowers, and an artists’ trestle table set with tea tray, and complimentary mineral water benefiting the Lifeboats charity, adds a homely touch. It’s fun, imaginative, and wonderfully unexpected.

“An installation of colourful lovebirds in twisted reeds is a clever alternative to flowers”

I make tea, whilst Monsieur 2 mulls over the map. He announces we should go for a walk.

Chapel Street is lined with landmarks, including an early 19th century Methodist church, the town’s original Assembly Rooms and an Egyptian House decorated with hieroglyphs.

On Market Jew Street we stop to admire the statue to local lad Sir Humphrey Davy, the famous scientist who, amongst other things, invented the miners’ Davy lamp. We amble past the station and along the hillside to watch the sun set over St Michael’s Mount – a spectacular island castle just off the coast. We’ve missed the crossing to it today, but we’re rather hungry and upon consultation of our map, we know just where we’re heading.

The 17th century Admiral Benbow pub has an eccentric interior – figureheads, ship’s wheels and myriad maritime ephemera from shipwrecks of yore.

It is here that we park ourselves for a beer from the St Austell brewery, and locally caught cod and chips. It’s delicious, but Monsieur 2 nearly chokes on his when I tell him that the very room we are sitting in was once the prow of a Portuguese man o’ war!

“We are in Cornwall. This is no time for meagre portions”

A soak in the free-standing roll-top tub is just the perfect tonic after such a long day, and as I lie back, Monsieur 2 meanwhile settles into an armchair to read some of the thoughtfully-chosen art and local history books provided. We couldn’t be cosier!

Nicely relaxed, we turn in for the night. I love the bedstead made from unvarnished planks of wood but Monsieur 2 says he’s worried about getting splinters, so I wrap us up snugly in the gorgeous feathery duvet to allay his fears…

Tuesday, 09.18
Waking to the sound of seagulls, we fling off our covers and race for a drench shower before breakfast; we are ready for adventure and have appetites to match.

The cafe’s been set up beautifully with funky mismatched vintage china and modern Alessi jars and cruets, and the food is great.

We help ourselves to cereal and fresh juice, then order eggs Royale for me and pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for Monsieur 2, followed by doorstep slices of toast, spread thickly with Cornish butter and home-made preserves. We are in Cornwall. This is no time for meagre portions.

As Monsieur 2 stands, he turns to admire the very cool urban art on display by Cornish artist Mat McIvor. He shuffles. I smile to myself – he has loosened his belt, and thinks I haven’t noticed.

Apart from the absolute individuality of this place, what we love about Artist Residence, is how wholly supportive they are of Cornwall’s artists.

On the recommendation of the staff we’re just back from a visit the Exchange Gallery up the road – we very much liked what we saw. And that’s just as true of Artist Residence – what a fantastic, friendly, bohemian and chic place it’s been to stay – a real piece of treasure in Penzance.

For more details, ideas on what to do, and booking info, see the review in full on

Thursday 27 September 2012

At The Chapel, Bruton, Somerset | les Deux Messieurs

Friday, 16.00

An in-the-know local friend has raved to us about At The Chapel, a ‘restaurant with rooms’ in Bruton. From outside, little suggests that there’s more to this restrained building than meets the eye. But as we enter, we see bakers at work and displays of beautiful breads and cakes through a large picture window. Blow the diet – we’ll be trying some of those later!

Double doors open into a dramatic central space – the former chapel – with soaring ceiling and a centre-piece cascading chandelier. We’re warmly greeted and checked in; “Settle into your room and then come on down for cocktail!” we’re told – these are our kind of people.

We’re shown upstairs to Room 2. A massive stained glass window imbues the room with softly diffused light. The bed is super-king size, simply clothed in white. The walls, too, are white; colour comes from a bold modern artwork and coloured panels in the window.

A long wooden counter runs along one wall and we spot a tray with ice, limes and glasses ready for us to make welcome drinks. The stylish seating area with a shaggy rug, sleek modern armchair and lamp that would look at home in any design museum.

We’re shown how to use the touch-screen remote control that operates the TV and sound system; there’s a cordless iPod dock too that impresses music-loving Monsieur 2. The combination of minimal, monastic decor with cool modern furniture and state-of-the-art technology ticks all our boxes.

Time for cocktails al fresco on the terrace. The hand-built flint walls and climbing vines remind us of Tuscany, and there’s a beautiful view over the rooftops of the town.

The cocktail list is replete with classics, and a few bespoke creations. Our dry Martini and Moscow Mule are expertly-made, and huge – we imagine we’re in Sex And The City.

After a leisurely stroll around Bruton, we change and head back downstairs, stopping to admire the impressive sculpture above the bar.

The sun’s still shining outside, and we decide to make the most of it, stepping back out onto the terrace for pre-dinner drinks, Cosmos this time. When we’ve finished we order some Prosecco and a plate of antipasti to go with it; it’s wonderful, especially the smoky roasted peppers which have been cooked in the pizza oven.

We’re shown to our table in the dining room. Now night’s fallen and the lights have gone down, the room is dark, sexy and buzzy – it’s exciting! We take ages to choose from the mouth-watering menu, while nibbling on fantastic sourdough from the bakery.

We love what we eventually settle on; Monsieur 2’s chicken liver pate has real depth of flavour while my salad of perfectly pink wood pigeon with figs and bacon is cleverly composed.

Main courses are equally accomplished. My Lyme Bay sea bream with tomato salsa, fennel and courgettes is light, fresh and a really beautiful piece of fish. Monsieur 2’s huge rare rib-eye steak is gorgeous and he particularly likes the punchy peppercorn sauce and super-crisp fries. We finish with perfect puddings, a sinfully rich chocolate Nemesis and baked New York-style cheesecake with strawberries.

We drink a bottle of crisp Albarino from At The Chapel’s excellent wine list, and like it so much that we order some to take home with us from their wine shop! Service throughout is spot on – courteous, enthusiastic and attentive. We stumble up to bed happy.

Time to sleep. The bed is so comfy, with massive squashy pillows; we’re out for the count in minutes.

Saturday 07.40
Waking up to sunshine peeking round the curtains, we make a pot of Teapigs tea (with fresh Somerset milk from the fridge) and reach out of the door for the breakfast tray that’s thoughtfully provided – a croissant, baked during the night, with butter and home-made jam. They’re without doubt the best croissants we’ve ever tasted. What a start to the day!

We shower in the huge wet-room – so much space to splash around in! – with the fab REN products provided. There’s a massive bathtub too – this bathroom has definitely been designed with deux messieurs in mind.

We head down to the restaurant for breakfast, Monsieur 2 immediately ordering another of those delicious croissants. The menu’s concise and covers all the bases – cereals, pastries, eggs, bacon sarnies…

Monsieur 2 fancies poached eggs which aren’t on the menu but are rustled up for him – and perfectly. The room’s busy with locals, guests – and a rather famous TV presenter!

After one last cup of great coffee, we decide to head off; we could happily stay here all day but we’re going to visit beautiful Bath, just eleven miles away.

Everything about our stay has been simply perfect, from the stunning room, to those cocktails Carrie would kill for, the delicious food, wonderful service and thrilling atmosphere. The thoughtfulness and generosity that characterise how At The Chapel is run completely redefine what ‘luxury’ is.

Our time here has been a pure quality experience – and that’s something money just can’t buy. Not to mention, we have rather fallen for the owners’ Newfoundland dogs.

Our rating: We’ve given this gay friendly boutique hotel in Somerset, South West England, top marks – a full 5 star rating.
View more on At the Chapel and what to do in the area at

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Broadstairs: An ulcer, a fugitive, and some seriously sinister steps

 Broadstairs may take its name from a series of steps leading to an 11th century cliff-top shrine, but it’s another, rather sinister set a few bays further in Broadstairs, that inspired one of the world’s most gripping thrillers – John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps.

Buchan began writing his famous novel in 1915 while recovering from a stomach ulcer in North Foreland, Broadstairs.

Close to his cliff-top villa, cut through the chalk cliff, lay a set of stairs leading to the beach. It was the perfect backdrop to a tale of enemy spies invading, complete with caves and secret tunnels.

There were 78 steps in total, but Buchan reduced them to 39 for the title of his book.

The stairs remain deliciously eerie today – the upper entrance is hidden by vegetation, and the lower, beach-based entrance is only accessible at low tide.

Of course, it is Charles Dickens who is most commonly associated with Broadstairs – it was his favourite holiday destination: “You cannot think how delightful and fresh the place is and how good the walks,” he once said. Dickens introduced a number of  other literary figures to Broadstairs, including Hans Christian Anderson and Wilkie Collins. Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and D H Lawrence also have connections with the town. There must be something in the water.

Where to stay in Broadstairs – read our review*
* Mention our name on booking, and receive a complimentary cocktail on arrival

Tuesday 25 September 2012

The Merchant's House, Frome, Somerset

View all our reviews on our website:

Saturday, 16.45
Arriving in Frome by bus from Bath (just a 30 ride away), we walk up the pretty cobbled road of Catherine Hill until we reach Whittox Lane. John Whittox was a wealthy local merchant (Frome was once a prosperous mill town) and in 1696 he built the huge Queen Anne property here that’s now known as The Merchant’s House.

We’re met by the owner, Gina, and shown through to our room, although not via the grand front door as we‘d hoped. The lobby area’s more modern than we’d expected of the property, with no period details, but Gina tells us that it is due for re-decoration.

Our room  - one of two - is much more like it though. There’s a large carved bed and matching wardrobe, as well as a kidney-shaped dressing table with stool which, Monsieur 2 observes, is "very Downton Abbey".

By one of the huge sash windows which look out onto the rolling landscaped garden there’s a classic roll-top claw-footed bath, too. The overall effect is quintessentially English without being chintzy - we like it.

Picking up on our evident interest in architecture, owner Gina kindly offers to show us round. After falling into disuse in the last century the house was completely refurbished, under the guidance of English Heritage, by its previous owner - our favourite gay multi-millionaire financier Ivan Massow.

The rooms are beautifully proportioned with high ceilings and mural panels, and formerly bricked-up windows have been painstakingly reopened - Ivan did a great job.


Back in our room, we freshen up in the little bathroom at the smart butler sink and change for the evening - the reason for our stay is a trip to the theatre in Yeovil to see one of our favourite comedians, Sandi Togsvig,

We arrive back to find that fresh milk has thoughtfully been left out for us - perfect for a bedtime cuppa. We like that there are a couple of jars of biscuits in the hallway to help ourselves from too - much nicer than the stingy plastic-wrapped servings in some places we’ve stayed!

Climbing into the very comfy bed we notice how nicely old-fashioned it is, with a traditional sprung mattress and broderie anglaise eiderdown which all add to the stately home feel of the room. We’re also pleased to see carafes of water on our bedside tables - a welcome homely touch.

Sunday 07.50
Waking bright and early we make a cup of tea and run ourselves a delightfully deep bath.

There’s a whole range of lovely locally-made lavender products (our room is even called the Lavender Room) and a leisurely soak a deux is a really relaxing way to start the day.

Breakfast is served in the kitchen - and what an impressive kitchen it is, running the full length of the house. With its warming AGA and flagstone floors, Downton Abbey’s Mrs Patmore would be right at home.

We settle in at the table and are brought pots of tea and coffee. There’s cereal, piping hot toast and real butter, fresh fruit salad, pastries served warm from the oven, local cheeses and charcuterie, and home-made jams. It’s a very English take on a continental breakfast!

Time to explore Frome. It’s quiet as anything on a Sunday morning but is thriving at other times, with an artisan market at weekends featuring local food and craft producers and numerous music and arts festivals throughout the year. We enjoy roaming the higgledy-piggledy streets of the hillside town and stop to marvel at the open stream that runs along Cheap Street!

After lattes in a local coffee shop it’s time to head home; we pick up our bags from The Merchant's House and head out through the beautiful garden to make our way to the station. We’ve enjoyed our stay, it’s made a nice change to spend the night somewhere traditional, cosy and homely rather than the more polished places we usually choose. We’ve also really appreciated Gina's very attentive, personal service.

Our only real reservation is the heavy premium for a single night's stay, which we didn't feel merited; our room was £160 for the night but would have been just £120 if we'd stayed for two or more. We understand the economics of businesses needing to drive longer stays but it felt oddly corporate given the otherwise family-run feel of the place.

We enjoyed our time with Gina at The Merchant’s House, and recommend it for travellers seeking a warm welcome, a great breakfast and a distinctively English experience. But avoid the supplement and make the most of it - explore Bath, Stourhead and the pretty surrounding towns - and stay for a two-night break, rather than one.

N: Merchant's House Frome
A: Frome, Somerset
T: Book through Unique Homestays: +44 (1) 637 881 942

Friday 7 September 2012

Smell the Coffee of Old Clerkenwell

You may think that Starbucks owns the rights to caffeine, but coffeehouses flourished in London from the 1650s. One of the most notable was in St John’s Gate, the former southern entrance to the Priory of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, a monastery that gave care to the poor and sick, founded in around 1145. Very Da Vinci Code.

The monastery was disbanded by Henry VIII, but by 1700 the gateway had become a coffee house, run by no other than the young William Hogarth’s father.

The classically educated man served coffee and encouraged customers to speak Latin – eventually going bankrupt and being sent to prison – while the budding child artist quietly sketched the characters he saw from a corner. They saw Handel, actor David Garrick, and writers Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson pass through their door.

Visit St John’s Gate today, and you'll find the Museum of the Order of St John, which gave its name to the St John Ambulance Association -  an organisation that, to this day, looks after people’s personal safety and health. Rest assured, you won't be expected to speak Latin, but you will find plenty of history, not to mention coffee shops.

Where to stay in Clerkenwell - read our review

Wednesday 5 September 2012

The Neo, B+B, Brighton

We never need an excuse for a trip to Brighton, but when a friend of ours lands a part in a play at the famous Theatre Royal we know we have to be there for opening night, and since we’re invited to the cast party we decide to make a night of it and stay over. A quick look online turns up The Neo, which appears to tick all the right boxes.

It takes us 15 minutes to walk to The Neo from Brighton station, which is just outside the city centre.

On the way we pass colourful fruit and veg stalls, a stern statue of Queen Victoria, and a myraid of quirky boutiques. It's all so marvellously British, and sums up the eccentricity of this lovely seaside resort. 

And so it continues inside The Neo - the first thing we see when we enter is a huge stag’s head mounted on the wall – we love a bit of taxidermy!

As we check-in, we're surprised to be told that The Neo’s unstaffed between 9.00pm and 8.30am, but we are given our own front door key and we can come and go as we please.

We’re shown up to our room - No. 5, a well-proportioned double on the second floor.

A feature wall is papered in a striking black and metallic Japanese floral pattern, complementing black Chinese furniture, and the bed has a dramatic headboard in pale suede. Sash windows let abundant daylight in and the overall effect’s very smart and inviting.

It’s a hot day so we decide to freshen up in the minimally-chic, black mosaic-tiled shower. The shower head’s a bit loose and leaky but with some contortions we both manage a good hot soaking.

There’s no faulting the big fluffy towels though, and we like the waffle bathrobes too. We’re also impressed by the huge double-ended bath – taps in the middle! – surely designed with deux messieurs in mind.

Glad-rags on, we head out for a bite to eat. A ten minute stroll along the prom takes us to the Brighton branch of Little Bay, one of our favourite London mini-chains.

We’re shown up a staircase to a fabulous cantilevered balcony where our table awaits. We sip cocktails – my Margarita is excellent – while we wait for our food to come. Little Bay's prices are incredibly low – except for a few specials - starters are under £3 and main courses under £6 – but there’s no compromising on quality.

My goat’s cheese in filo pastry starter is wonderful; but with his sirloin steak and goose fat chips Monsieur 2 has the better main course - my plaice fillet stuffed with crab is good but needs seasoning.

There's a good choice of wines by the glass, and our bill for two with drinks and a tip is under £40! If only we’d left time for dessert, but the theatre beckons...

Show over, we head off to the cast party at stylish cabaret pub 112 Church Street (we love its little patio garden) before hitting the gay scene. Most of Brighton’s most popular bars are along the seafront, and we end up in bar/club Legends until the wee small hours.

Stumbling happily back to The Neo, we collapse into the splendidly comfortable 5’ bed. It’s been a long night and we need our sleep!

Waking bleary-eyed we head down to elegant sun-filled breakfast room ready for a fry-up. But disaster – we had been told, but had forgotten, that breakfast’s only served until 9.30, which strikes us as rather early especially for somewhere aimed firmly at holiday-makers rather than early-rising business people. A waitress takes pity on us and manages to rustle us up some granola, orange juice and a pot of coffee. Phew.

Back in room 5 we decide that a long soak in that giant tub will put us right. We can't remember when check out is and no-one’s answering the phone at reception so we take a gamble on it being around 11 o’clock (it's actually 11.30) and relax and splash around until it’s nearly time to go. Perfect!

Waved on our way by the receptionist we head for the train; walking along Queen’s Road, the main route up from the seafront to the station, we spot Cocoa, a lovely French cafe-patisserie where we enjoy wonderful coffee and some ham and cheese croissants - oh how we needed that carbs-and-fat fix. We also can’t resist taking away a few of their incredible macaroons which are the best we’ve tasted anywhere, including France!

We're smiling as the train pulls out of Brighton; we’ve had a great time in one of our favourite places, and even if The Neo wasn’t quite as plush and the service not quite as attentive as it is in some places we’ve stayed, it was a good-value base for a night, we’d be glad to recommend.

N: The Neo Hotel (Bed and Breakfast)
T: 01273 711 104
A: 19 Oriental Place, Brighton, BN1 2LL
Our rating: ***+