Lucy Silver follows in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn to Thornbury Castle in South Gloucestershire - and finds regal luxury needn't cost a king's ransom
You can say what you like about King Henry VIII, but there’s no doubting the man’s taste.
He had some dodgy habits, and his attitude towards women was so bad it would make your average gangster rapper blanche. But when it came to choosing a nice spot to stay, he clearly had impeccable taste.
In 1535 the rotund monarch did what any self-respecting man of means should do, and took his lady, Anne Boleyn, away for a break in the country.
He settled on Thornbury Castle, a beautiful fortified manor house in South Gloucestershire, between the Severn and the Cotswolds – where the hunting and eating was good for him, and, for Anne (possibly) the delights of Bristol and its amazing shopping was a quick carriage ride away.
Henry had previously snaffled the castle from its rightful owner, his distant cousin Edward Stafford, the third Duke of Buckingham, who he typically had bumped off, fearing this tasteful member of the then-Cotswold set had designs on his throne.
The royal couple stayed for 10 days, and by all accounts had a rip-roaring, bodice-ripping time. Though perhaps not good enough to save Anne from losing her head a year later.
The ghost of poor Anne and her temperamental hubby are everywhere at Thornbury – not least in their chamber, where romantic souls can indulge their taste for history and the good life by spending the night in one of the biggest four-poster beds you are ever likely to see.
It’s a heady cocktail of luxury and history, and it hits you as soon as you arrive, sliding into the castle grounds from Thornbury’s pretty high street – a riot of hanging baskets and proper old fashioned shops. The entrance is not just straight out of the history books, it is pure Disney: a turreted archway leading to a tidy courtyard surrounded by battlements and turrets. It was so authentic we half expected to be greeted with a flight of arrows fired by archers on the roof – or at least to be greeted with a ‘friend or foe?’ But no. Instead, there was just the cawing of crows from the next door churchyard.
Leaving our less than regal car with a cheery valet (and wishing I’d bothered washing it before leaving Oxford), the boyfriend and I followed the signs to reception and came face to face with... a suit of armour!
It looked very genuine, down to the visor, though was probably a little snug around the hips to have fitted the portly Henry. Having assured ourself it wasn’t the concierge, we found the reception desk and were greeted by the biggest smile by a lovely man called Sam who carried our bag and showed us to our own royal chamber. Crossing the courtyard and up a spiral staircase, we reached our room, encouragingly named the Henry VIII suite.
Though not the room were the Tudor tyrant actually sojourned, it looked every inch the part – with stone walls of Cotswold stone around leaded windows, a polished dark wood floor, cosied up by a lavish carpet, a scattering of antique furniture, a desk complete with decanter of complimentary sherry – and, oh my, a four-poster bed draped in curtains and with a roof decorated in little silver stars. It was the stuff of fairy tales and having launched myself onto it in a most unqueenly manner, I had no intention of leaving. Until, that is, I heard the gasp of surprised delight coming from the bathroom.
Running into the bathroom (yes, it is big enough to sprint across), I squealed too at the sight of an enormous – and very un-Tudor – jacuzzi taking pride of place in a very modern bathroom.
Forget the shower, this was a time for luxuriating in my own private spa, with a cheeky glass of that sherry!
Before dinner there was just enough time to check out the hotel grounds, which include clipped lawns and the country’s oldest Tudor garden – an immaculate walled plot of flowers, bushes, herbs, and clipped hedges concealing secret seats and romantic hideaways.
From the gardens, the castle looked even more dreamy – it’s warm stone walls punctuated by octagonal towers with big welcoming windows, and crowned by fabulous chimneys of ornate twisted brickwork. And being a hideaway rather than a tourist spot, there was not a soul but us to enjoy it. If there’s one thing Thornbury Castle prides itself on, it’s food. And, like everything else, dinner here is done with elegance and a disarming friendliness which immediately put as at ease in what could have come across as stuffy and intimidating to those – like us – who do not mak a habit of spending nights in random castles. We were first shown to a seat in the lounge where we were brought drinks and menus, and then some delicious appetisers – including the loveliest melt-in-the-mouth cheese gougères. Delish!
Beaming head chef Mark Veale greeted us personally as we were shown us to our table in a cosy corner of the wood-panelled dining room, where we shared one of the best meals I have eaten – with a starter of seared Orkney scallops served with cauliflower and crisped pancetta, followed by sea bass with lobster and salmon ravioli, buttered sea kale and little jug of bisque dressing. It was pretty, perfectly cooked and packed with flavour.
I shouldn’t have done, but I also went for a pud, choosing an amaretto souffle, which was every bit as good as it sounds, and came with a lovely big dollop of ice cream. Thornbury may be all about fine dining, but pretentious it isn’t – and at £50 a head for three courses, it was amazing value. And very filling. So filling in fact that all I could think of doing after was climbing (not jumping this time) onto that four poster bed, gazing at those pretty little stars – and sleeping – dreaming dreams of kings, queens and big fat puddings.
We left in the morning, born-again lovers of all things Tudor, I imagining myself a latter-day Anne Boleyn.... though with bigger hips, a lot bit more colour in the cheeks – and a smile!
Sadly Anne never got to return. I don’t plan to let any man, king or otherwise, stop me from going back. Even if I, too, have to stick my neck out.
Lucy stayed at Thornbury Castle, near Bristol (0844 482 2152) thornburycastle.co.uk
The Sunday night Stay and Dine package costs from just £75 per room when spending a minimum of £100 on food and beverages. Arrive from 3pm and settle into a beautiful bed chamber before a night of food and beverage heaven with a full English breakfast the following morning. thornburycastle.co.uk/special-breaks/
A wild mix of nature and culture in Gloucestershire's Deep South...
WITH a perfect mix of gorgeous scenery, dramatic riverside views, rich wildlife, and an enviable cultural life, South Gloucestershire is the perfect bolthole for a weekend in the country,
The fact that it’s also on the doorstep of bustling Bristol and Roman and Georgian Bath, make it the ideal place to while away a couple of days – or more.
Thornbury, with it's stunning castle, is the obvious spot to base yourself. This old market town is small enough to have retained its rural character but with enough shops, cafes and restaurants to keep the visitor busy.
Dominating all views here is the shimmering presence of the River Severn, which here broadens into it’s vast estuary before emptying into the Bristol channel – more than 200 miles from its source in the Welsh mountains, which can also be glimpsed across the vale.
The best place to get up close and personal is Severn Beach. An expanse of tidal mud and sand backed by a paved embankment. It’s the perfect spot to burn off a few calories after indulging in one of Thornbury Castle’s full English breakfasts or cream teas. It also takes you beneath the area’s twin landmarks – the graceful spans of the Severn suspension bridges, pictured.
For a full on encounter with nature, head upstream to Slimbridge Wetland Centre wwt.org.uk, where the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust manages a world-class nature reserve on an expanse of the Severn floodplain.
A magnet for twitchers, the sight of thousands of migrating birds coming and going is one of the planet’s great wildlife spectacles – the avian equivalent of a safari in the Serengeti. Sightings this week include avocet, pictured, teal, grebe, sand martin, warblers, kingfisher, blackcaps and crane. So don’t forget your binoculars.