Julian Dunkerton, co-founder of the Superdry fashion empire, has launched a new hotel in Cheltenham. Scott Manson gets the inside track….
“When things go wrong, it’s just the universe showing you some new options.” This motivational poster-style platitude was uttered by my partner, as we wound our way up from London to Gloucester on the first day of what was supposed to be a weekend touring the Cotswolds. Unfortunately, the weather gods had other ideas and 48 hours of non-stop torrential rain was forecast.
“We were supposed to be going to Bourton-on-the-Water,” she continued brightly. “Looks like it’ll be Bourton-under-the-Water.”
I gripped the wheel tighter and drove on in silence.
We were heading for Cheltenham, with the plan being to make it our base as we pootled around pretty Cotswold villages for a couple of days. Now it looked like we were stuck in the town. There was no horse racing to see and I was pretty sure GCHQ didn’t do facility tours. So what else did Cheltenham have to offer?
As it happens, a whole lot.
For starters, it’s got a wonderful newly refurbished hotel in the form of The George, which is perfectly placed in the centre of this handsome town. It’s the first and flagship hotel of the Cult Hotels group, owned by local-boy-made-good Julian Dunkerton – co-founder of fashion giant Superdry. The guiding principle for this and future hotels is that they’re design-led, with a luxe feel, but at both a price and a guiding ethos that are more in touch with our times.
That means repurposing characterful old buildings, rather than tearing them apart, and employing sensible approaches to hygiene such as an automatic check-in, a help-yourself pantry and stationing hand sanitisers throughout.
The property itself is a beauty. Five stout Grade II-listed Regency townhouses combined into one 46-room hotel, complete with a cosy diner in the basement where breakfast is served. As you’d expect when your founder is a fashion expert, the rooms have an impeccable aesthetic – from the fabulously tiled bathroom with its rainfall shower and Sprekenhaus skincare products to the superking-sized Hypnos bed, complete with 400-thread count sheets, this is the perfect boutique bolthole. The décor is fashionably grey with splashes of colour, and huge windows ensure that the room is flooded with light.
It’s the little touches too, like the superfast Wi-Fi, free parking at the back of the hotel and staff whose friendliness is only matched by their attentiveness. At breakfast, for example, we chatted to our server about a long car journey we had ahead of us that day and, moments later, he reappeared with pastries neatly packaged in a paper takeaway box: “In case you need something to keep you going,” he said with a smile.
Another plus is that, despite this being a town centre hotel, there’s little noise from either The George’s residents or the road outside. Some heavy window drapes no doubt taking care of the latter, while the sonic damping of the hotel’s thick brick walls adding to the feeling that our room is a little haven of peace.
Dinner that night was at the No 131 restaurant, just five minutes walk from the hotel. It’s part of the Lucky Onion group, operator of several fashionable restaurants, pubs and hotels and owned by none other than Julian Dunkerton. Yes, he really is becoming the Rick Stein of the Cotswolds.
Set in another of those stunning white stucco buildings that Cheltenham does so well, the place is fabulous. Chandeliers that wouldn’t look out of place in a Venetian palace, soft leather seating and some great artwork. We were particularly taken with the neon-lit religious cross that provided an amusing counterpoint to some of the sinfully seductive meals that we could see being ferried past our table. Get a window seat if you can, as the view across to the pretty Imperial Gardens is a treat. There’s a lovely mix of diners too, from hip young things clearly making this the first port of a call on a big night out to a family celebrating a daughter’s birthday – No 131 feels special, but not intimidatingly so.
Happily, the food lived up to the surroundings. Kicking off with Isle of Wight heirloom tomatoes, served with mozzarella, avocado and house pesto, this was a simple dish done well, and bursting with flavour. I opted for the zingy yellowfin tuna tartare, with black sesame, soy, avocado, mango and walnut. The clean brightness of the fish was perfectly matched with the sweet fruit and deep umami of the soy sauce.
The standout dish, though, was the hiroko marinated fillet of beef, a tender centre cut marbled chunk, crusted here and there from the fire of the grill, but still beautifully pink inside. It came with crunchy, fluffy fries, aubergine ‘caviar,’ spinach, baby carrots and miso garlic butter, and was so generously portioned that I thought I may not finish it. Unsurprisingly, I did.
Dessert was a simple affair. Since it was a summer’s day, it felt only right to make English strawberries the centrepiece of our meal’s finale, served with meringue, strawberry coulis and whipped cream. Oh, and so hard was it to tear ourselves away from this lovely spot that we added a couple of Amarettos to allow for extra lingering.
Between this meal and our fabulous hotel, the doom and gloom of earlier felt like a distant memory. As we walked out off No 131 for an evening stroll around Cheltenham, the sun emerged. My partner was right – the evening suddenly felt filled with new options.