PETER Ranscombe revisits a former church centre to find it beautifully transformed into a luxury hotel
THE last time I stayed on Kirk Street in Dunblane was for an away day in 2006 with members of Augustine United Church from Edinburgh. Back then, the building was known as Scottish Churches House, a retreat centre used by generations of Christians from throughout Scotland and beyond.
The centre closed in 2011, ending 50 years of service, but the site has now been transformed into Old Churches House, a small hotel that boasts 11 bedrooms, a restaurant and even a 17th-century chapel left over from its days as an ecumenical centre.
It’s not just the name that’s changed – towards the end of its life, I remember the accommodation at Scottish Churches House as basic to keep costs down for visitors. The centre has been given more than just a lick of paint to turn it from a retreat into a hotel, with our room featuring two single mattresses which joined together to form a massive super king sized bed, which was extremely comfortable.
Old Churches House is made up of a row of 18th-century cottages and so some of the room shapes in the hotel can be quite interesting. Our en-suite was bijou, but that didn’t affect the power from the shower, which delivered an excellent wake-up call.
Food at the house has changed too – one church minister recently reminded me that nuns provided the cooking the first time he stayed at the centre. Porridge may still be on the menu but that’s where the similarities end.
The Dining Room restaurant serves lunches and dinners throughout the week, including a Sunday roast and snacks during the day. Words like “hearty” and “homely” sprang to mind as the dinner dishes arrived, with generous portions and comfortingly familiar choices on the menu.
My fish-loving wife was left disappointed by the tiger prawns and mushrooms in chilli and garlic, tasting neither the chilli nor the garlic, while a dominant piece of salmon masked the other flavours in her steamed Scottish seafood dish. But cullen skink on the second night made up for it, executed in textbook style, while the bangers and mash hit the spot too, complete with venison sausages from David Bennett & Son, one of the butchers in Dunblane.
I hit the jackpot straight away, with the black pudding and apple dumplings putting a smile on my face and the rib-eye steak provided a tasty treat. Two other dishes stood out for me, though – a chocolate and mint mousse from the specials board brought together two of my favourite culinary words, while Perthshire pork braised in apples, tarragon and cider topped with a black pudding mash skilfully balanced some potentially overpowering flavours into a very competent dish.
The wine list from Forth Wines was simple and straight-forward, concentrating mainly on competitively-priced New World bottles, although I was very pleased with the Chilean pinot noir, which stood up to both the steak and the steamed seafood in a tomato broth.
While the dinners were enjoyable, the afternoon tea served in the Kirk Lounge blew me away. Caroline Earnshaw, the hotel’s in-house baker, created some delicious scones, which were served with strawberry jam and clotted cream, alongside finger sandwiches and a selection of tiny cakes. At the savoury end of the scale, the rib of beef sandwich with horseradish was definitely worth a mention in dispatches while, among the sweets, the Battenberg cake warrants a return visit.
The Kirk Lounge is a reminder of the hotel’s previous use, with the library’s shelves full of theological books, while some of the artwork on the walls is a throw-back to Scottish Churches House, if my memory serves me correctly. Fusion Group, which took over the running of the building, now plans to renovate the chapel in the grounds behind the hotel so that it can be used for baptisms and small weddings.
After all that eating, it was time for a walk. Armed with some of the many leaflets from reception, we stretched our legs along the river, which was obviously in very good condition judging by the two female goosanders and the heron that we watched fishing in the water. Burning off more calories, we headed up to the Laighills, where there was plenty of space for a couple of birdwatchers in amongst the dog walkers and Saturday morning fitba match.
In honour of the building’s previous incarnation, we headed across the square on Sunday morning to Dunblane Cathedral, where associate minister Rev Sally Foster-Fulton was preaching about the need for a healthy dose of common sense.
• Dinner, bed and breakfast at Old Churches House (tel: 01786 823663, www.oldchurcheshouse.com) starts from £100 for two people. Price valid until March.