When LittleStuff stayed at Marwell Hotel
A few weeks ago we were invited to visit Marwell Hotel in Hampshire – marketed as “one of the most child-friendly hotels you will find”, it seemed like a no-brainer for a night away during the holidays – particularly as it has Marwell Zoo quite literally right outside the door!
So the six of us set off down the motorway (Marwell is just outside Winchester in Hampshire), all set and ready to arrive in plenty of time for a leisurely explore before our dinner – we had booked the children’s sitting (between 5.30 and 7 p.m.), so that we could comfortably eat as a family without the worry of disturbing other guests. Traffic was heavy, and I called en route to make sure the children could still be accommodated in the dining room – I was assured that whatever time I arrived would be fine, which was nice, if a little baffling. In my experience, the children’s sitting is a much noisier and more informal affair in a hotel, and is cleared ready for the adult sitting later. However, I wasn’t going to argue!
Finding the hotel was simple, and if the first impression from the car park was underwhelming, once inside the lobby it really is a lovely space. Light and airy with a mildly African vibe. The reception desk staff were friendly and helpful, and check in was quick and painless.
We were in a rush to go and change for dinner, though, so we headed straight for our rooms, and immediately understood the clever lay out that gave the tardis-like impression of a small hotel that had room for so many.
The hotel is split between four lodges, all connected by glass corridors, keeping the hotel ‘inside’ the forest, deep in the trees. It’s a great idea, and you certainly don’t feel like you’re in a large hotel with 68 bedrooms – it’s so spread out within the trees that it’s deceptive, and the frequent sight of the forest is lovely.
Those corridors are so soulless! Some effort has been made to keep up the African theme, but giraffe print around the edges of small signs was no way to counteract the feel of the hospital corridor we were walking through – not helped, I’m guessing, by the dull weather and cold pre-Spring bare trees we could see through all that glass.
Our rooms were adjoining (the key fobs were on hunks of natural wood, which was a nice small touch), so we simply entered through one and left the connecting door open for our night’s stay.
the rooms were… fine. Nice. Unremarkable, but pleasant. Spotlessly clean, decent bedding, and nice opening French doors which would be a joy in the summer.
A joy, that is, until you realised that the small balcony outside ran along the entire length of the building with no break or barriers – so Mr Tonks from No.32 could wander down the row and come in any time he liked. Needless to say we kept the doors locked the whole time we were there!
Mostly we were struck by how unremarkable the rooms were – there were no pictures on the walls at all, and the small African touches – animal fabrics on the chair, the head of the curtains, African wood around the bedhead and mirrors – were rather lost in the empty personality of the rooms.
Slightly unexpected in what we anticipated would be a rather more exotically-themed hotel – having the zoo outside, I’d imagine it would be a simple matter to get some great photographs of the animals and have them on the walls, at the very least. But, as I say, it was perfectly fine, and certainly had everything we needed, so we got on with changing everyone into the dinner shirts and dress and headed to the restaurant – making it to the door (back down the glass corridor, though the still-lovely reception, and across to the other side) at just on 7p.m. Phew!
The restaurant was pleasant – again, small touches had been used to keep the African Lodge theme, but not enough to make it feel full of personality. It was fine, but with nothing to suggest that this was a high end fine dining experience.
Again the service staff were good – warm, patient and helpful. The menus (adults for us and the 14yr old, child’s menu for the 6, 10 and 11yr old as they recommend up to the age of 12) were passed out… and things began to go a little downhill.
The restaurant is a clearly serious about its food – but not really what a tired hungry family after a long drive was looking for.
The children’s menu was good – smart versions of burger & chips, macaroni cheese and chicken goujons were all good choices, and the children were happy with their orders.
The adult menu took the teen by surprise, but he was happy to experiment.
Bread was served, and we sat and chatted quietly while we waited for the first course – as the restaurant was almost empty (one family just finishing up, two more arrived after us; the room sat maybe 60) we expected it to arrive pretty smartly. However it was 40 minutes after ordering, we were served.
The food was delicious, but to be honest were so hungry by this point we’d have been happy with chips in paper! Expecting the delay to have been a blip, we enjoyed the Amuse Bouche and waited eagerly for our main courses.
And we waited.
A full hour after our first course we were served our mains.
First out came the children’s food – here’s the famished 11yr old’s burger and chips:
Apologies – I stoopidly left the camera in our room, so took some phone shots quickly.
Anyhoo – that’s his dinner. It’s now almost 8.30, and he’s had nothing since lunch. The burger is just over 2 inches wide. Delicious… but gone in two bites, while he sat eyeing everyone else’s dinners.
The 6yr old fared better – she had plumped for macaroni cheese, which was enough for her tired body, and all that she needed by that time of night.
Then the adult plates arrived – we had all chosen the Hampshire lamb – herb cutlet, shoulder pastilla, almond crusted sweet bread, goat’s cheese, black olive mash, port and fig puree (£18.75). All utterly delicious (except they didn’t ask how we wanted it cooked and it arrived rare, so the husband’s went back), and achingly pretty on the plate. But still not enough to feed a tired hungry family… does that make us uneducated and ignorant of the fine food?
Of course not. My husband and I love to treat ourselves to a great meal out. But what I wanted from a self-proclaimed family-friendly hotel was a genuinely family-friendly meal. The long service times and Nouvelle Cuisine would have been fine if we had come alone for the adult-sitting – but we had clearly booked a family meal in the children’s sitting. In actual fact it was now well into the evening, our youngest child should have long been in bed, and the ‘sittings’ system simply didn’t exist.
Other hotels we have visited the child’s sitting is stopped serving at 7, and no children are allowed in the restaurant by 8, in order to allow a more grown up atmosphere for the adult guests.
But we were sitting on not-very-good wicker/bamboo chairs with music being piped overhead (which got increasingly annoying and repetitive); the setting simply did not match the food. There was no plush elegance, no luxury, no style – nothing to suggest we should expect anything other than gastropub food.
Don’t misunderstand me – the food really is truly excellent. It’s just… wrong.
We decided to go the full three courses, thinking there was no way we could go wrong with ‘rhubarb and custard’…
Every tiny little sliver on that plate was a mouthful of heaven. Simply… amazing. It was confit, brûlée, white chocolate, raspberries, mascarpone (£6.50). It was marvellous. Tiny, but marvellous.
We finally left the room at almost 10, and returned to our rooms to fall into bed, tuck the children up (even the 14yr old was ready to sleep), and fell into bed ourselves not long after.
The following morning I took the children for a swim whilst we left daddy having a snooze – we had planned to go and find the outdoor play area, but the weather thwarted us, and the general consensus was that swimming would be much better anyway. We splashed and played for an hour, then it was back to get dressed and head for breakfast.
Breakfast was a continental buffet style of pastries, cereals & yoghurts, followed by a ‘full English’. We did overhear the table next to us asking if she could have a vegetarian sausage as there was no vegetarian option on the menu. When reassured by the waitress that she would ask the chef, a table on the other side piped up that it would have been nice to be offered the vegetarian sausages herself for the last couple of mornings… ooops.
Check out was simple, and once again the reception staff were unfailingly warm and helpful. But Marwell Hotel just feels like an odd fit.
The layout and design of the hotel is excellent – we loved the idea of being actually ‘in’ the trees, and we loved the connection of the ‘African Lodges’ theme with the zoo.
It’s clearly trying to be a family friendly hotel – which it is ideally situated to be. But there’s not enough thought in the small practical details currently.
The fine food is excellent – but not with children, and if you want to create a fine dining experience, then the atmosphere and decor of a room have to match, which it really didn’t.
The bedrooms are pleasant – but basic, and with a distinct lack of character. If you’re going to theme then, then do it fully, not in tiny apologetic touches that you stumble over.
What it felt like was a hotel that had been designed by an architect and an interior designer with a Grand Scheme in their mind. Those plans were then plucked at by the accountant until they were stripped back to the bare bones.
It’s a nice enough place to be, but it’s missing ‘something’ that could make it really great.
The current ‘Family fun!’ offer is the best value deal currently – £79.00 a room, two adults and up to two children, including Breakfast and use of the leisure facilities.