Let your taste buds run riot at the boutique Fishmore Hall, with its luxurious rooms and unrivalled views
I AM enjoying homemade biscuits and afternoon tea in the guest lounge at Fishmore Hall, on the outskirts of Ludlow. Hard to resist, I know, but I am conscious of not devouring the lot, as I am due a six-course tasting menu at the hands of head chef Andrew Birch, and do not want to spoil my appetite.
I had enjoyed a delightful drive here across country (well, once I had left the M5), following the scenic A4117 through Cleobury Mortimer and over Clee Hills. This is captivating countryside, with sheep grazing a landscape once famed for coal mining as far back as medieval times. The highest hill in Shropshire, Brown Clee now lies silent as wildlife flourishes in the disused quarries.
The historic town of Ludlow, with its narrow alleyways, historic castle and bustling market square, is a mecca for tourists and foodie lovers, drawn by the reputation of its fine restaurants, one being here at Fishmore Hall, a delightful, privately owned boutique country house hotel situated a 10-minute stroll north of the town centre, off the A49.
Turn right into the driveway, and you are met by an impressive Georgian facade in the shadow of attractive trees and established shrubbery. Fishmore Hall has been awarded 3 Red Star status by the AA. Hotels with this award represent the most outstanding examples in each star category and signify the best in the British Isles.
The impressive entrance leads to a large hallway with an open bar and dining area to the right, and a reception desk to the left by the staircase. Having checked in, I am shown to the ‘Luxury’ room number 7 – my lucky number, as it happens.
On the first floor, this is one of fifteen contemporary styled bedrooms, and exudes comfort with its bespoke bedding menu. There is a walk-in wet room with large waterfall shower head and washroom, complete with Molton Brown toiletries.
The light and airy bedroom contains an impressive double-ended bath and mirrored back wall. The room benefits from two large sash windows, one overlooking the rolling Clee Hills, the other the town of Ludlow.
The huge bed has crisp linen sheets, and it is even possible to choose one’s favourite pillow from the hotel’s pillow menu. The wardrobe houses fluffy bathrobes and slippers, and a tray complete with tea and coffee, crockery and cutlery. On the wall is a flatscreen television with Freeview, (there is also free WiFi).
A mini bar is stocked with local goodies including Radnor Hills Elderflower Pressé, Ludlow Vineyard’s cider, Tyrells crisps, and a variety of nibbles from the Ludlow Fruit and Nut Company. Everything, it would appear, has been covered, down to the finest detail, to make one’s stay as comfortable as possible.
After a shower (yes, I avoided the bath), I head downstairs to the lounge for a Bombay Sapphire and Tonic, and am presented with the menu. I opt for the six-course tasting menu, showcasing the best of seasonal dishes. Andrew Birch and his team aim to source the majority of their ingredients from within a 30-mile radius of the hotel here amidst the Shropshire Marshes. Being landlocked does have its own issues though, resulting in the seafood coming from the Isle of Skye and Brixham.
Originally from Swansea, Andrew brought with him a wealth of experience to Fishmore Hall. Previously senior sous chef of the 3AA Rosette and Michelin-starred Montague Arms in Hampshire, he was awarded Welsh Chef of the Year in 2004, Young Chef Apprentice of Britain in 2005, Young Chef Apprentice of Europe in 2005, and was a finalist in the Roux Regional Scholarship in 2006. He joined owner of the boutique hotel, Laura Penman, to re-launch Forelles restaurant for Spring 2015.
Andrew joined a hotel with its own set of accolades, including that of runner-up for Best Hotel in the Heart of England 2015, Sunday Times Best Value Rural Hotel UK 2010, and The Observer Food Awards 2009 Best Sunday Lunch. Owner Laura was awarded a prestigious Caterer Magazine Acorn Award in 2009, in recognition of her excellence in the industry for someone under 30.
Fishmore Hall was virtually derelict nine years ago when Laura first laid eyes on it. “We knew that we could transform its splendid faded glory into something really special,” she says. “The views alone made it worth it, with countryside stretching out from every window, and the towers of Ludlow Castle peeping up from behind the trees. This is what we had been looking for – somewhere to create the type of hotel we would want to stay in, with luxurious rooms, indulgent bathrooms, and a menu that makes the very best of this very foodie part of the UK. It took 22 weeks of banging, hammering and head scratching to create what Fishmore is today, and we are thrilled with the result.”
I am seated in the recently built orangery at a corner table of the 3AA rosette restaurant, with its large French windows overlooking the terrace and garden, with striking views westwards towards the Shropshire hills. To many people, it might appear alien to see single occupancy at table. I recall wandering into an Italian restaurant on New York’s 75th Street. I was in the city for a couple of interviews whilst writing a biography on the Pet Shop Boys, and was contemplating not much at all whilst rolling a hard boiled egg on the counter when a couple asked me where I was from, whether I was alone, and would I like to join them for dinner. I have never encountered this pleasantness either before or since, and recall a most enjoyable dinner and company. As a travel blogger I have dined alone in many restaurants across the globe, and never has it bothered me, for I am always in the company of notebook and pen, with Twitter on the go.
Back to my table, where a single-stemmed pink tulip is illuminated by the light of a flickering candle, itself adorning the crisp white tablecloth. Four other tables are already occupied by smartly attired couples. The mention of said smart attire reminds me of another anecdote. I have been in London twice in the past couple of weeks, firstly for the French Press Awards, where Essential Journeys was a finalist in the ‘Travel Blog of the Year 2015’ category. The second occasion was to attend the International Media Marketplace, where I met up with many a press and PR person. I caught an early train, and as it pulled away from Newark station, a sudden jerk caused my Latté to spill down my white shirt. When I tried to button my jacket, the dark stain was still clearly visible. London. 07.30. Where do you obtain a new shirt? I crossed the road to St Pancras International, where I found a small parade of exclusive shops. Twenty minutes later, my wallet £80 the lighter, I was wearing a salmon pink shirt, ready for my 23 back-to-back 15-minute appointments.
Anyway, I digress no more. The first course of the tasting menu is spiced diver caught Scottish scallops on a bed of cauliflower, apple, coriander and cumin. No time to run out of superlatives just yet but, my word, it has been many a month since I have tasted such exquisite seafood.
The first dessert is a white chocolate cheesecake with dices of Yorkshire rhubarb. I take after movie hero Humphrey Bogart who, I believe, had a passion for cheesecake. A pity he missed out on this one.
Fishmore Hall is without doubt a perfect place for a weekend break or lazy midweek sojourn, and being dog friendly, you can bring the family. The luxurious rooms are immaculate, the service superb, the staff friendly, discreet and efficient. As you will have gathered, at its heart is Forelles, but it is also possible to enjoy fine dining in the more casual setting of the Brasserie. And do not forget those Sunday lunches, when the menus vary depending on the time of year and what is best at market, although you will almost definitely find roast rib of Herefordshire rare breed beef, the hotel specialty, with two courses for £24 and three for £29.50.
Gourmet Package – With a superb reputation for its food, Fishmore Hall offers a two-night package which includes chocolate-covered strawberries in your room on arrival, followed by the hotel’s famous 6-course Taste of the Marshes tasting menu, with matching tasting wines with each course. You can discover the delights of Ludlow, before returning for a full Fishmore afternoon tea, followed by dinner from the a la carte menu. (Excludes Sunday and Monday nights except Bank Holiday weekends where this break is unavailable). Standard room £550 per stay, Superior room £600, Executive room £650, Luxury room £700 per stay, subject to availability and including full English breakfast.
Short Cooking Demo with Chef – The hotel has put together a short kitchen ‘shift’ with Andrew Birch, where guests can get a few tips to help with the home cooking. Spend two hours putting together the finishing touches to your favourite dish, learn how to make your own petit fours, or perfect the crust on your bread. £75, includes two hours for two people with Andrew and all ingredients (not available on Saturday, Sunday and Monday).
As I check out, I speak to a couple in the car park with their dog, who tell me this is their ninth visit, as they love the ambience and the food. Each time they opt for a different room experience. That, to my mind, speaks volumes of exactly what you can expect here at Fishmore Hall.
Visit www.fishmorehall.co.uk or telephone 01584 875148
- All images ©Michael Cowton/Essential Journeys