DRIVING long distances becomes second nature if you get behind the wheel on the other side of the Atlantic, but things are a bit different over here — and 400 miles on our roadworks-plagued M-ways and A-roads can feel an awful long, long way.
Back in the day, the drive from the Pennines north of Manchester to the delights of deepest Cornwall in a powerful, custard-yellow sports fastback didn’t seem too big a task to tackle in one day.
But times change, along with traffic volumes, and it seems eminently sensible to split the journey and relax with a meal and a stopover around half way, rather than riding the odds and maybe landing yourself with an eight-to-ten hour marathon.
There are a good many rather very nice hotels not far from the M5 around the Gloucester/Bristol area, which is also a very nice part of the world and a good way towards a West Country destination for me, but a brief, one-night rest-stop doesn’t really call for a high-price payout. So when it comes to a budget bed for the night, I’ve found Premier Inns are always worth a look, providing the no-frills basics for a good night’s sleep and maybe a decent breakfast.
The one I’ve now used a few times is at Barnwood, just outside Gloucester itself, a bit of an excursion if you take a wrong exit road from a couple of roundabouts (guilty!), but within easy reach of the motorway as well as the city and its wonderful old docks area.
The staff there are unfailingly cheerful and helpful and I’ve always found the rooms to be clean and perfectly adequate, with extra supplies for making a brew available at reception any time day or night should you feel the need.
The big plus point is the Wheatstone Inn next door, where manager Emma Lawrence runs a pretty impressive operation after a major re-furb has made it a place for locals as well as families on the move and business travellers passing through.
It’s really handy for the mega breakfast you can get to set you up for the rest of your drive, but it really shines in the evenings, when Emma and her kitchen and front-of-house staff handle a flood of customers which would scare the living daylights out of many a town centre restaurant.
OK, we’re not talking Michelin stars here, but this is a Chef and Brewer serving good, honest pub food with an extra touch – take a look at the group’s menu online to get an idea of the scope, with individual chefs putting their own stamp on what by any standards is a pretty varied menu, which you can vary even more on request.
The curry, I’m reliably informed, is particularly good, while my smaller appetite the last time I was there was well catered for with a couple of starters, followed by a sneaky dessert I couldn’t resist. Couple that with Fizz Friday, when a bottle of prosecco will set you back just £9.95, and the fact that Tesco Clubcard vouchers can be used at four times their face value, and you have the ingredients for quite a satisfactory evening.
The rest of my tribe on that major trip were also more than happy with their choices, and other diners, too, seemed all smiles. Most people seemed content to dine fairly early and trade was more than brisk, with no fewer than 130 covers dealt with in the space of around three hours!
For that sort of performance, you need up-to-the-mark staff, and as a seasoned pub, restaurant and hotel watcher, it was a pleasure to see a good team in action – it’s always good to know that when it’s your turn, your food is going to arrive on time and in the right order.
That was in no doubt whatsoever when we were looked after by a delightful lady named Michelle, who took a rather complex order for a full table and committed it to memory without taking a single note – and then delivered it spot on in every detail. Not a one-off, either, because she did the same with tables around us and was also great company to have around, especially as service wound down and there was chance to relax and chat.
And relaxation is what a stopover is about, so the Wheatstone is already on the agenda for next time, which is going to be very soon.