Thornbury Castle review

Weekends Away: Thornbury Castle

Weekends away: Thornbury Castle

A night at one of Britain’s most atmospheric hotels

The history that seeps out of the thick stone walls of Thornbury Castle is palpable as you make your approach up the driveway. The weather was not kind on our visit and the Tudor fortress with its oriel windows and formidable tower made an imposing sight against the slate grey sky.

We pulled up outside the discreet entrance, the heavy wooden door shut to keep out the elements, with the rain now coming down in stair-rods. After checking in, we had a quick snoop around: next to the reception is a grand drawing room. A family was taking afternoon tea by the roaring fire. Next to that is the library. Back through the reception, you’ll find the dining room.

Tudor portraits stare down at you from every panelled wall. There’s no mistaking the building’s origins. While Thornbury’s history can be traced back to the 11th century, it was in 1510 that the third Duke of Buckingham, Edward Stafford, received a licence from Henry VIII to build a fortified stone castle on the site.

It was a brave, or more accurately, foolish, man, who would want to build such a display of wealth and power. And no surprise, Henry coveted the castle. When Stafford was later found guilty of treason, Henry took possession of the property.

He stayed there with Anne Boleyn for some 10 days – escaping an outbreak of plague in nearby Bristol. His daughter Mary also stayed at the castle. She later inherited it, as did her half-brother Edward VI but while he spent vast sums of money on Thornbury, he is not known to have stayed there.

The castle’s fortunes rose and fell with subsequent owners. It was given a facelift in the 1850s by eminent Victorian architect Anthony Salvin, and the property was turned into a restaurant and hotel in the 1960s. It is now a luxury retreat, and is a part of the Relais & Chateaux portfolio, always a good sign.

You can stay in the actual room King Henry slept in. While our suite didn’t have that claim to fame, it was no less grand. Reached via the courtyard and up a stone staircase, the huge room boasts a fourposter bed, a dressing room and cavernous bathroom complete with roll-top bath. On a practical note, the size of the suite makes it ideal for a family (over nines are welcome) and comfortably accommodated the two single beds for our kids, which were made up later in the evening.

We settled into the green velvet sofa with a glass of sloe gin, before heading to the library to play board games. Particularly welcome was the fire, which we could cosy up next to. We were also later seated by the fire in the dining room, under a portrait of the tyrannical King Henry.

The menu (three courses for £75) offers four choices for each course. We tried a delicious slow-cooked duck egg with Iberico ham and black pudding, and confit chalk stream trout with crab and pink grapefruit. For mains, the lamb rump with braised neck and yews curd was a wonderful dish. Pretty on the plate, it combined a range of textures and flavours that worked well together. A chocolate fondant is always a popular menu staple and was done well here. The service was attentive and friendly – and of a consistently high standard throughout our stay.

The rain had finally stopped on our walk back across the courtyard to bed. The immediate grounds are lit up for the night and seeing the building outside is certainly atmospheric. And there’s nothing quite like sleeping in a four-poster.

Breakfast is a proper affair, served in the dining room with white tablecloths and dishes are cooked to order, rather than your usual buffet. The English breakfast was a treat, and the children’s slice of French toast was delicious, although another slice would have been welcome.

We ventured outside to check out the gardens. The castle is set in 15 acres and includes a rose garden, a kitchen garden and a labyrinth, which is fun for a game of hide and seek.

You can try out archery and axe throwing, or drive a little further afield for falconry and clay-pigeon shooting. You could even book a helicopter tour to see views of Bath, the Cotswolds and Stonehenge.

Images: Thornbury Castle

Our plan for the day was to visit Bristol, just 20 to 30 minutes’ drive away. Our first port of call was the harbourside to see SS Great Britain. The work of Victorian pioneer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the vast steamship impressively conveys the stories of  its passengers making the epic voyage to America and Australia. The cramped cabins of the poor contrast sharply with the opulent dining rooms of the upper class.

There is also an interesting exhibition on Brunel, with the story of his life presided over by a giant 3D head of the man in his top hat and smoking a cigar.

Nearby is one of Banksy’s famous pieces, Girl with a pierced Eardrum, and you can take a walking tour of the city’s famous street art. We also headed to the aquarium – it’s impressive, particularly the tank of colourful tropical fish.

A spot of shopping was on our radar. We wandered the streets of upmarket Clifton with its boutiques, galleries and independent stores. Then went for coffee and cakes in one of the many cool cafes. We drove over Brunel’s famous suspension bridge – and back again, the rain somewhat obscuring the views – and vowed to come back another time for a summer evening stroll instead.

Thornbury is also on the doorstep of Bath, with its stunning Georgian architecture and Roman Baths to gawp at. And you’re not far from the Welsh borders, either, so the location makes it an ideal base for overseas visitors looking for a highlights tour of the UK.

For us, it was an ideal weekend getaway, offering a relaxing break where you can also tap into the artsy vibes of Bristol.

Images Visit Bristol: Banksy ‘Mild Mild West’, photo by Morgane Bigault / Clifton Suspension Bridge, photo by Jim Cossey. Clifton, Destination Bristol.

Room Rates at Thornbury Castle from £299. Castle St, Thornbury, Gloucestershire, BS35 1HH. Children aged over 9 welcome. Pets welcome.

More info on Bristol:

More weekend inspiration: the spa city of Bath.