I was recently invited to visit the Tudor Farmhouse Hotel and Restaurant in Clearwell, a gorgeous village which sits on the edge of the Royal Forest of Dean and Wye Valley. On first meeting the hotel’s owner, Colin, he admits few people find themselves passing through this particular part of the country. With the introduction of the second Severn Bridge in 1996, anyone heading down the M4 motorway is briskly diverted away from the Forest of Dean, so the area remains largely undiscovered by the weekend away brigade.
Yet the drive from the motorway to the hotel provides passengers with idyllic views across sandy bays and gorgeously glossy, green rolling hills. Someone should advise Tom Jones he was mistaken when he sang about the Green Green Grass Of Home; following my trip, I found his homeland’s neighbour, Gloucestershire, to be gloriously green in comparison to Wales which in my vast experience, is generally just muddy.
The hotel’s website’s directions were spot on, so locating the hotel was effortless, although I’d advise visitors on arrival to be aware that the car park is located at the back of the hotel down a long driveway. The hotel, which opened in the 1980s, has expanded over the years to boast 20 bedrooms. The rooms are located in a few different buildings with stone façades, slate roof tiles and flagstone flooring, all of which have been sympathetically restored. Local records note a large farm existing on the site as far back as the 13th century. However, the owners have done a good job at mixing the rustic property with newer touches. So while there’s burning stoves and uneven walls and floors, furniture is contemporary and WiFi is even available free-of-charge.
Despite the temptation to instantly escape into the hotel’s 14 acres of grazing land which has been assigned as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its rare grasses and wild flowers (maps are available from reception, be sure to grab one before you head out to ensure you help preserve rather than hinder the area), we quickly popped into reception, in the hotel’s main building, to check in. We were instantly greeted by the hotel’s charming manager who promptly lead us to our room. Our room actually turned out to be a suite which rivalled some of the most luxurious hotels I’ve ever had the privilege of staying in.
The Loft, had its own private terrace which overlooked the beautiful gardens at the rear of the hotel and was the perfect place to spy on the hotel’s gorgeous black and white cat, as well as the nearby, grazing ponies. There were high wood beams in the ceiling and light flooded through the velux windows. With lots of pine furniture and its delicate grey colour scheme, the suite had a lovely, modernised, farmhouse feel to it. Not only was there a sumptuous bed with crisp white linens but there was a superb little sofa, perfect for two. After three hours in the car, I was eager to relax on that sofa and enjoy some of the homemade biscuits and a wide selection of teas.
While the room was fantastic, the bathroom was even better and it made us gasp with glee. Only once have I seen a bathroom bigger than this and that was in the Middle East, where, let’s face it, everything is big but not necessarily better. Even if you cut The Loft’s bathroom down by a third, or even in half, it would still feel pretty generous in size. Hiding behind those double doors was not only a huge roll top bath but an excellent shower. Of course, there were fluffy towels and lovely robes which just topped it off. I was ready to move in, never to leave again.
Nevertheless, when night fell, I was enticed out of our cosy haven for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant which has gained two AA Rosettes. The chef, Blaine Reed, has created a menu that celebrates local produce. He even uses a local forager, Raoul, to source more unusual ingredients located within a 20-mile radius of the hotel. Avid gourmands can also schedule a trip with Raoul to explore the local area and get a lesson in how to forage (£100 for two people for a half day, rates can be negotiated for groups).
The dining room is split into two sections. We sat in the smaller of the two, next to a beautiful window through which we watched fireworks exploding over the dark, winter, nights skies of the village. Everything was just slightly skew-whiff, not the service, but the old, much-loved building. It’s tough to think of more romantic setting for a thoroughly delicious meal.
Reading the menu and wine list was a joy. It was a pleasure to find out about the producers that the hotel sourced everything from its beef and fish, to cider and perry. While the menu had a particular focus on local, the wine list had an excellent international offering, featuring a range of wines from all sorts of more unusual places such as Slovenia, as well as a few of the big players like Cloudy Bay from New Zealand. Though there was a nod to some wineries close to home too, including Wales’ very own Parva Farm.
We began our meal with a delicious Pinot Noir from the House of Esterházy, Austria. I love Pinot Noir, it’s light, fruity, but still pretty robust and it’s one of the toughest wines to make, so you have to respect anyone that tries. I’ve had the privilege to taste this particular wine at the London International Wine Fair in years gone by, so was pleased to see it make an appearance on this exceptionally well curated wine list. Its presence was a testament to the establishment’s love of wine; I have a sneaking suspicious that Colin is a wine enthusiast.
Reed creates spectacular plates of unapologetically pretty food. Before diving into our starters the waiter presented us with an apple and beetroot shot amuse bouche – glorious in colour, as well as taste – and a selection of heavenly warm, fresh bread with perfectly soft butter.
For starter I ordered goat’s cheese and basil mousse with roasted cashews, roasted yellow beetroot and pesto. It was a colourful delight. In terms of texture the mousse was creamy and exceptionally light, while the beetroot gave you something to chew on and the cashews a touch of crunchy pizzazz. My dining companion opted for chicken with black pudding, mango dressing and slices of apple; despite mixing the traditional British ingredients with exotic mango, the combination was interesting, the fruit adding a fresh, sweetness to the plate.
Mains were just as satisfying. I enjoyed Devon sea fish with a crab and leek risotto and tomato herb butter; while my fellow culinary adventurer feasted on sirloin of Wye Valley beef with creamed savoy cabbage and fondant potato. I adore seafood so it’s tough to serve me a fish dish that disappoints, though it has occurred. Thankfully this was not the case at the Tudor Farmhouse. The skin was crispy, the fish flaky, the risotto bursting with flavour and a vibrant red butter oozed everywhere for spectacle. The beef was as delicious, expertly cooked (still pink!); the cabbage and potato both a joy.
Before diving into dessert the kitchen sent out a pre-dessert, another shot glass but this time containing a jelly of lime and green tea – bright and fun! Dessert itself was even more impressive though. Despite not having a terribly sweet tooth I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy them as they delivered everything a good pud should. I opted for lemon treacle tart with treacle toffee ice cream. It was a sugar overload and I did struggle to finish it but the flavours were superb. I’m drooling just thinking about it. Then there was my companion’s dessert, the altogether evasively named Flavours of Autumn which we found out consisted of pumpkin ice cream, apple cider jelly and a blackberry fool. The latter was the highlight of the plate – creamy, sweet and zesty.
The staff were attentive without hovering and were able to enthusiastically and confidently talk about the menu which demonstrated that the kitchen works in harmony with the front of house. I found it hard to find fault with the restaurant, although I did suffer one disappointment at breakfast the next day. I had eagerly anticipated returning in the morning to enjoy the smoked haddock with poached egg but they’d run out! Realistically this was entirely my own fault by not getting out of bed earlier! Nevertheless, while my partner enjoyed his full English, I tucked into beautiful kippers (let’s face it, a real treat as I never cook them at home!) before heading out to explore the local area, and boy is there a lot to explore. Clearwell boasts its own beautiful church (St Peter’s) and a spectacular castle that’s available to hire for weddings, while a short drive away there’s Clearwell Caves, an iron mining museum with 600 acres of natural caves in which you can even hold parties for a few hundred people. The ruins of Tintern Abbey, which inspired Wordsworth’s famous poem, is also worth a visit. Despite it being open to the skies, the walls which were constructed over a 400-year period between 1131 and 1536, remain largely intact.
All in all, I’d suggest that Clearwell and the Forest of Dean are both well worth the detour. Not only is the countryside picturesque and idyllic, the night skies glisten with clear views of the stars and the local produce illustrates just how proud we should be of our British food industry. To top it all off, the hospitality was second to none.
Enjoy a three-course dinner with glass of champagne, one night’s accommodation in the best available room of your choice and breakfast for two, for £160 – a saving of up to £100. To book, call the hotel on 01594 833046 and quote GlamUK. Offer is valid until 26th December, 2012 – excluding Christmas.
Tudor Farmhouse Hotel & Restaurant, Clearwell, Royal Forest of Dean GL16 8JS
Tel: 01594 833046