I’ve come across a number of atmospheric inns claiming to be the oldest one in Britain, but who’s arguing a decade or three when you’re staying in an authentic ancient hostelry? Part of the building that is now The Porch House in Stow-on-the-Wold is thought to go back to 947 AD, which makes it pretty old in my book.
In its early days, the building was a hospice founded on land belonging to Evesham Abbey. Over the centuries, it has been regularly reconfigured and played various roles, but as you walk through the front porch today and into a cosy room with squishy sofas and flagstone floors, you instantly feel you are stepping back into the golden age of the great British inn.
Previously called The Royalist – a reference to the Battle of Stow in the Civil War, of which more later – the hotel has been sympathetically refurbished by Brakspear Inns, scooping the AA award last year for New Pub of the Year – if indeed an ancient hostelry can ever be classed as ‘new’.
There are 13 rooms of varying sizes, but all decorated in the same natural colours and equipped to a high standard with a mix of period furniture and artefacts. These are offset with modern trimmings such as a Nespresso coffee maker (no biscuits though, which rather spoilt my initial delight after a long drive!), free WiFi, and locally-made toiletries – a refreshing change from ubiquitous hotel freebies.
We chose a Superior room overlooking the front of the hotel for our winter break (from £129 per night in Jan 2016, to include full English breakfast for two). The hotel is set back behind a small green facing onto Sheep Street but we heard little traffic noise. Room prices start at £89, with the largest Feature rooms costing from £159. Just bear in mind that this is an ancient building with quirky dimensions and layout to match, which of course is what attracts most of its guests in the first place.
Guests can choose to eat in the attractive Dining Room with exposed woodwork and two enormous, working fireplaces – first-come-first-served so pre-book to avoid disappointment. Starters and desserts average £8 each and main courses come in at £13.50 to £22. As you might expect, most of the produce is locally sourced, and we certainly enjoyed the Old Spot pork chop and Todenham Farm steaks. Food is also served in the spacious Conservatory behind the bar and, in good weather, in the garden. We found the young staff to be helpful and unfailing friendly, the accent being on relaxed informality, in perfect keeping with the surroundings.
As for Stow-on-the-Wold itself, if you like independent shops, this is the place for you. Not a Boots, Smiths or Tesco to be seen. The mail order catalogue for Scotts of Stow will be familiar to readers of the Sunday broadsheets and they have two shops on opposite sides of the large main square – one for household items, the other for luggage, gardening and outdoor clothing.
But we also loved The Crock Shop almost opposite The Porch House, which carries a mind-boggling stock of kitchen gadgets, crockery and a whole host of other items that you can’t imagine how you ever lived without, all at attractive prices. A brilliant browse for both sexes and all ages.
Just opposite The Crock Shop, we discovered the lovely interiors shop of Piper Chatfield, with an array of small furniture, lamps, ornaments, and mirrors that proved too much temptation – a good thing we had the car with us! And then there are Stow’s many antique shops and galleries, the fashion boutiques and hand-made chocolate shop, who all greet browsers with an old-fashioned welcome and a smile.
It’s well worth investing a pound in the Town Trail leaflet to identify all the historic buildings around The Square. The cross in the market square was erected as a reminder to medieval market traders to deal honestly, but a new plaque at the base commemorates the Royalist surrender to Parliamentary forces after the Battle of Stow on 21 March 1646. Some 200 Royalists were slaughtered in the square and another 1500 imprisoned in the church overnight – look out for the headstone in the churchyard to their memory, and for the two ancient yew trees framing the porch as though growing from the stonework.
At the other end of the square, stocks still stand on The Green where sheep once grazed in an area made rich from the medieval wool trade. There are lovely walks around Stow and the nearby twin hamlets of Upper and Lower Slaughter, but in an off-season short break, we didn’t stray far, happy to potter round town and relax in our historic lodgings. Mission accomplished!
The Porch House