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Lost for words in Shakespeare Country

Welcombe Stratford-on-Avon bedroom

Roger St Pierre enjoys a Welcombe at Stratford-on-Avon

Judging from the bigger than ever crowds of Japanese, Chinese and American tourists thronging the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon and the neighbouring countryside this summer, it was an astute move to re-brand this history-laden section of what for years was known as ‘Heart of England’ as ‘Shakespeare country’.

Visit the Great Bard’s birthplace, the cottage that belonged to his wife, Anne Hathaway, the school where he was educated, and take in a play at the riverside Royal Shakespeare Theatre – that spawning ground of so many wonderful thespians. Add in a supper cruise down the languid River Avon – Avon, incidentally being an old Celtic word for… river (so it’s ‘The River River’!) – stir in superb shopping and side trips to a host of museums, a lovely butterfly farm and several nature reserves, factor in the mediaeval charms of near-by Warwick and its grandiose castle, along with the neighbouring picture postcard honeyed-stone towns and villages of the exquisite Cotswold Hills and you have a fitting location for a wonderful incentives’ programme.

Then throw into the mix a massive, rambling former railway hotel, built of warm red brick in 1866, in Jacobean style and on a palatial scale around its own 18-hole championship golf course, and boasting a sensational spa, and you’ll understand why the marketing people at Menzies Hotels – one of the UK’s fastest growing chains – regard the Menzies Welcombe Hotel, Spa & Golf Club as their flagship.

Grandiose it might be; pompous it is not. Drawn from a dozen mainly European nations, there’s a young team that makes up in enthusiasm and attentiveness for what it may lack in experience.

At breakfast, I ordered “Full English, with two poached eggs, please” from our charming young Spanish waiter. In what truly was a Manuel of Fawlty Towers’ moment, the lad re-appeared 10 minutes later with a huge plate groaning under the weight of the biggest big breakfast I have ever encountered – with two of everything, including a brace of fried eggs, plus a giant dollop of scrambled egg and, on a separate plate, my two poached eggs!

Portions sensibly returned to a more manageable size at dinner, eaten in a grandly huge wood-panelled dining room, which might have called for hushed tones but was certainly not forbidding. Unusually for such a large establishment – there are the house guests from 78 guestrooms plus numerous function groups to be catered for – the cuisine proved to be of consistently gourmet standard in the contemporary British fine dining manner; maybe a little over-fussy in presentation but a triumph in terms of marriage of flavours.

A table in one of the bay windows gave a dramatically sweeping view across the colourful geranium-laden Italianate parterre gardens and tiny brook to the immaculately manicured greens of the golf course. A post-prandial drink in the comfortable bar and so to bed – and what a bed! - a full king-size plus four-poster and boasting the most comfortable mattress I have slept on for as far back as I can remember. The room itself was generously large, nicely decorated and furnished – with some 19thC antique furniture and some lovely paintings – though with a definitely hotel rather than country house feel to it.

Sadly, we did not have time to make use of the expansive spa but a whistle-stop tour through the light and airy facility revealed a generously sized pool, heated loungers and foot spas, a range of treatment rooms, four thermal experience rooms and tropical and polar storm showers, as well as a hyper-modern gymnasium. There are outdoor all-weather tennis courts and, with 157 acres of grounds, lots of room for team building and other activities.

Menzies Welcombe boasts 11 function rooms, ranging from executive-style boardrooms to a grand suite that can accommodate up to 250 delegates. A lavish 16-page conference and events brochure evidences that they take the corporate sector seriously.

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