A former monastery near Coventry is now a grand hotel where Liberace would have felt at home. By Mercy Breheny
I don’t think I’ve ever spent the night anywhere as historic as Coombe Abbey, and I’ve certainly never had a fried breakfast in a 12th-century monastery before. Situated in Coventry, a five-hour train ride away from Edinburgh, it’s a bit of a trek for a Scot on holiday, but it transpired it’s a mini-break location entirely worth the four-rounds-of-Scrabble journey.
Nestled in 150 acres of beautiful grounds, Coombe Abbey was a monastery from the 12th century until the 16th century. It has a slightly schizophrenic appearance from the outside as a wing was added in 1682, designed by Captain William Winde, the architect responsible for Buckingham Palace. The result is ecclesiastical business at the front, Georgian party at the back, complete with formal garden created by Capability Brown and a rather impressive manufactured lake.
The vibe at the hotel is high camp rather than trad country house. The interior is theatrical, rather than historically accurate, with all manner of curious furnishings bundled together – some genuine antiques and some more recently fabricated props. You can pretend you’re in an enchanted fairytale castle or a guest of Liberace. We opted for the latter.
Our room had no shortage of chubby cherubs mooning us from the rafters and featured a claw-foot slipper bath as well as a pedestalled, canopied bed (the sound of guests falling off their pedestals in the middle of the night might be the source of at least some of the Abbey’s well-documented hauntings.) I say room, actually we had a suite, with a beautiful study attached. With heavy, dark, antique furniture, Chinoiserie nicknackery and jade-coloured flock wallpaper my partner and I felt duty bound to lark about and take pictures of each other pretending to be important as we frowned over the leather-bound visitors’ book.
From our leaded windows we could peer directly onto the lake, where dragonflies hover above yellow lilies and swallows dart about hoovering up the insects.
Right outside the hotel we discovered wildflower meadows, weeping willows, wooded trails, ponds furnished with gliding swans, and a Victorian pet cemetery (what would the monks say?)
With a seemingly endless collection of reception rooms, the hotel regularly plays host to weddings and conferences. As we explored the maze of flying buttresses, candelabras and churchy ephemera, we encountered the strange seams where Vivaldi clashed with Bing Crosby, and toilet-seeking visitors drifted from tympanum to telamon, as one function backed on to another.
Rather sweetly the hotel requests that guests dress smart/casual to dine in their Garden Room Restaurant so our eyes were not assaulted by garish sportswear in the genteel surroundings. At lunchtime the restaurant is bustling with silver-haired patrons enjoying the hotel’s afternoon teas – a proper old-fashioned affair with a three-tiered cake stand groaning with sandwiches and fancies which I jealously eyed as we made short work of our sirloin steaks.
The seasonal menu features all the locally-sourced delicacies you might expect at a nice hotel, but we can never resist a plate of steak and chips.
Since we were only taking a short break my other half and I were happy to idle our time away in the beautiful grounds. If we had fancied an excursion we could have nipped off to Warwick Castle for the day or visited Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden.
Coombe Abbey itself doesn’t have a gym (when did you last see a monk on a treadmill?) but guests are welcome to use the facilities at a neighbouring one (Virgin Active Warwickshire Health and Racquets Club). We found that not only do they have a 27 metre pool, steam room, sauna and hot tub but to our delight (we’re funny that way) the gym is equipped with serious kit for people who like to work off a buffet breakfast that’s far from monastic.
• B&B at Coombe Abbey starts from £89 per person per night, Brinklow Road, Binley, Warwickshire CV3 2AB, tel: 02476 450 450, visit coombeabbey.com; Mercy travelled from Edinburgh to Coventry with Virgin Trains, see www.virgintrains.co.uk/ for details, prices are around £122.30 each way in October.