Peter Ormerod reviews Feldon Valley, near Lower Brailes, Oxfordshire
It's quite a claim. Feldon Valley describes itself as "the perfect Cotswold sanctuary" - which, given that hideaways amid some of England's most picturesque landscape are many people's idea of heaven, is bound to draw attention.
But spend a few hours here and it hardly feels like an exaggeration. In fact, it could be argued that this remarkable destination is undersold by its slogan: a sanctuary it certainly is, but it's much more, too.
Feldon Valley is just outside Lower Brailes in Oxfordshire, about a 30-mjnute drive from Banbury and 45 minutes or so from Leamington. But it feels far more remote, in the best sense. You could zoom past it and barely notice it from the main road. Yet turn into its drive and its charms soon unfold.
The whole place has been conceived and executed with great elan and panache. It is architecturally sleek and super-stylish, abounding in clean lines and sharp angles. But it also carries great warmth: wood is used extensively and expertly throughout, with vast glass panels ensuring a glorious sense of airiness. If anything, it is even more impressive after dark: the lighting is crisp, fresh and subtle. It balances impeccable sophistication with a sense of welcome, intimacy and friendliness.
To call Feldon Valley a complex is to make it sound unduly impersonal. It is perhaps best understood as a collection of attractions that can be enjoyed in part or as a whole. There is a restaurant, The Kitchen, whose executive head chef is Darren Brown, who earned a Michelin star in a previous role. The same building houses a fitness suite. A path leads to the Lodges, which opened earlier this year and offer accommodation of various sizes, but with the same sense of understated class. Ours was equipped with a full kitchen, two balconies and a plush bed with pillows so soft they'd make marshmallows jealous. And it all overlooks an 18-hole golf course, which is a delight even for those who detest the sport, its broad sweep of green affording widescreen views you could stare at for hours, with the Cotswolds undulating beyond and trees swaying and rustling. Pheasants scurry about and hares bound along. It may be quiet, but its beauty means it's never boring.
Each aspect is certainly worth a visit on its own terms, but the restaurant is likely to be the prime attraction for the more casual visitor. And deservedly so, for it offers a dining experience of a piece with Feldon Valley's blend of excellence and distinctiveness. It prides itself on supporting high-quality local suppliers, as well as using its own 'Ecology Island' to supplement its supplies with ingredients fresh from Feldon’s soil. The menu is inventive without being pretentious, abundant in striking flavours and textures. My dinner began with a tatare of Lanes End Farm beef, served with pickled mushrooms and mushroom ketchup; every mouthful was a revelation, the meat mellow and melting, its accompaniments lending earthiness and zing. My wife's watercress and Bramley soup was served with the striking addition of smoked eel; they complemented each other exquisitely, the sweetness, smokiness and pepperiness setting each other off delightfully.
Next for me was the lamb rump, which came with pencil pastrami, aubergine puree, baby leeks and green sauce. It is quite something to find meat treated with this kind of respect and delicateness; it yielded to the bite with just enough resistance, its moisture and flavour exploding on the palate, its accoutrements bringing a pleasing tang. My wife's Devon stonebass, potato terrine, crab sauce and savoy cabbage was a powerhouse of taste, the fish holding its own against the potency of the sauce.
My dessert of Lower Brailes honey parfait 'sandwich' with peach and honeycomb was far from the sickly, sticky thing it could have been in lesser hands. It proved an elegantly fun creation, all creaminess and crunch, a refreshing zestiness coming from the occasional shred of lime. The buttermilk pannacotta, cherry ice cream and poached cherries on my wife's plate made for a similarly invigorating combination, fruity vigour melding with cool richness. My Malbec had been a friendly companion throughout, proceedings being topped off with an espresso and a warming brandy as night fell.
Our lodge having proved predictably conducive to a great night's sleep, it was back to the restaurant the next morning for breakfast, which had everything one could hope for, from superfood berries to the classic full English. Praise is due especially to my poached eggs, which can often be a rather overlooked element of the feast but whose red-orange yolks were the highlight on this occasion. A word too about the staff, each of whom were models of the personable professionalism and smiling efficiency that suffuses the place.
For anyone who wants to get away from it all without getting too far away from anywhere, Feldon Valley is an ideal choice. Great family days out are close by, and the tranquillity of Feldon Valley will itself be a draw for those seeking a sedate break where it feels all is taken care of. A sanctuary indeed, then - but with a winning character all of its own.
* Peter Ormerod was a guest of Feldon Valley in August 2019. Visit www.feldonvalley.co.uk to book and for more information.