Anonymous review of Eckington Manor
Very precise instructions (turn right at the third pony) lead us to a farmyard on the edge of the Cotswolds. Around it are half a dozen buildings, and we're wondering which one houses the cookery school. Is it the bally-well-ancient timber-framed beauty of a mediaeval hall with a tiny formal herb garden laid out in front? Is it the handsome but scaffolding-festooned red-brick outbuilding opposite? Perhaps the pig stys? Parking up, we fix our culinary hopes on a converted Dutch barn, all clean lines, wood and glass. Entering, we find ourselves in a reception-cum-shop, appropriately full of choice edibles and kitchenalia, with stairs leading to the state-of-the-art cookery school above. The welcome we experience, from mother and daughter Judy and Jane, is so enthusiastic and friendly that, once we're in the privacy of our room, Mr Smith derides me for believing they haven't rumbled our reviewer status. I stick to the script: I guess some people are just genuinely nice.
We're sleeping in the bally-well-ancient part of the set-up, Eckington Manor , a boutique bed and breakfast in its own right, with two singles, three doubles, a connoisseur's honesty bar and a big sitting room that is has its poshness tempered by cowhide rug, dog-picture tapestry cushions and a leather piglet. In the gleaming country kitchen, used for events, there's a collection of antique farm tools framed on the wall; upstairs, we find a handful of not-very-agricultural design features, such as a turquoise devoré chaise-longue and a chandelier made of antlers. Room 5 doesn't need any design features. It has great 800-year-old beams A-framing the eaves, and a monumental, asymmetrical stone chimney-breast, on which hangs an outsized flatscreen television, pointing straight at the bed. We're here to learn the finer points of Indian cookery, not to snuggle under the duvet watching telly, but we end up doing both, and walking up a big hill. And going to the weirdest pub in England. But first: mackerel masala.
Eckington Manor Cookery School has one super-skilled chef, teaching everything from Indian, Thai and Italian to mastering an aga and bread-making, as well as special classes for men, youngsters and beginners. We're uncertain about how one person can be an expert on rustling up jalfrezi and ciabatta – even if he is from Birmingham, unofficial curry capital of the world. But we are proven doubting Thomases, because the class is just brilliant: engaging, fun, confidence-building and manageable. There are demos – deft fish filleting – as well as tips (try damp kitchen roll to anchor your chopping board), and chef's commonsense views on fat in meat (good), German knives (great) and oily fishbones (rubbish for stock). None of the class, largely young couples, have attended a cookery class before, and the difficulty level is spot-on. We make lamb meatballs, naan and a very nice Goan mackerel dish, and we all feel pretty clever. The meat we use is from the farm's award-winning livestock, and there are even views of the countryside from the windows, so it all lives up to the owners' 'eat local' ethos.
Staying the night – before and after our class – makes the whole experience exceptionally relaxing. Once we've wiped down our individual kitchen stations, hung up our stripy aprons and boxed up doggy-bag leftovers, we retire to Room 5 – what a treat to get into bed in the middle of the afternoon. Well, we have been working quite hard, slaving away over hot stoves… There's time for a bit of an explore later on, though. We drive to the Monkey House, a pub we've heard being celebrated for its magnificent old-fashionedness up there with the Red Lion in Snargate, Kent, and the Three Stags Heads in Derbyshire. When we mention our pilgrimage to Judy, her faintly quizzical response leads us to question whether it's a pub at all. Perhaps it is truly a place of abode for primates, suggests Mr Smith. ‘Or a strange Cotswolds slang for a brothel,’ he smiles. We find, with delight, that it is someone's house with a hatch serving cider, a garden with a flower-filled shopping trolley, and a tiny extension with a tall chimney and an open door, full of locals smiling and singing. No flatscreen television, or even electricity, at a guess. The only reason these metropolitan voyeurs don't stay long, is that we’re shy.
Back at our 13th-century lodgings (so wonderfully wonky that the beds have bespoke varying leg lengths), we settle for a supper tray, rather than driving miles to the nearest decent restaurant. We're expecting cheese and biscuits, and that's what we get, but in glorious Eckington style. It is copious and beautifully presented: hams, dates, tomato salad of red and yellow fruit, two mustards, three breads, four chutneys, posh black crackers and oatcakes. All that to accompany a fine selection of local cheeses. We eat alone in the warm, homely dining room – nothing at all like a hotel – and a feast that beats a burger in the village pub. In the interests of fairness, we checked out the Bell, Eckington's local, and it's friendly and clean and fine for lunch, but it's not as romantic as a wedge of Double Worcester, the honesty bar and that lovely bed just up the creaking stairs.
This part of the Cotswolds is less-trodden but still as lovely as the familiar Gloucestershire hills, and on the Sunday, we drag ourselves away from eating and idling to find windy, baa-lamb happiness up Bredon Hill, a short drive from Eckington. We stomp towards what we think is 'the top', crossing acres of farmland, grazing pasture and forest to reach a folly and a standing stone called the Elephant. It makes a bracing chaser after yesterday's gastronomic concentration and steadies us before the drive back home. Eckington Manor is a true find: there's the social, active, learning side; and plenty of private downtime in the beamed bedrooms. We arrived with all sorts of townie tiredness, and we're leaving with fresh air in our lungs, vastly improved spice skills, and several Tupperware containers of the finest curry money can't buy.