The Vicarage, Holmes Chapel, Cheshire: hotel review | Travel
You might imagine that rural Cheshire is home to many bucolic inns and tasty gastropubs. Not so. It may be well-heeled, green and pleasant, but the area is dominated by large pub operators and good food is surprisingly hard to find. The scene is flashy yet conservative.
You can feel that tension at the 26-bedroom Vicarage, the first property from the family-owned Flat Cap Hotels (it aims to operate five properties by 2019). In the trade press, it has sold itself as an off-beat, design-led spiritual cousin of the Hoxton and Pig hotels, bringing a contemporary edge to Cheshire. Yet, this pub-with-rooms near sleepy Holmes Chapel is advancing cautiously.
It has an adept chef, Steven Tuke (ex-Oddfellows in Chester), but much of the menu is a safety-first roll-call of parfait, paté and smoked salmon. Yes, there are Goose Island craft beers at the bar, but also dull traditional ales (Marston’s, Jenning’s). And while it recently opened six impressive, upmarket suites (try No 24, with its exposed beams and roll-top bath), the older, standard “comfy” rooms are far more functional.
But my standard room was fine. I liked its monochrome colour scheme and lack of clutter. The basics were sound (invigorating shower; strong wifi), and it had some nice touches: homemade cookies, posh local teas. There are soundproofing issues, however (I was woken by next door’s alarm), minor instances of wear-and-tear that needed addressing and – looking at the utilitarian bathroom flooring, its marked old door and its noisy fan – some cost-cutting on the detail at odds with the Vicarage’s stylish image and upmarket Duck Island toiletries.
The Vicarage’s suites (from £140) offer better value than its standard rooms – rack-rate £120.
In contrast to my bedroom, the wider, sprawling pub-restaurant (complete with games room), gives full vent to the Vicarage’s much-vaunted “quirky” styling. Areas around the entrance (Grade II-listed, 17th-century), have been handsomely retro-fitted with wood panels, flag floors and logburners. The main bar and conservatory are awash with bric-a-brac, from polo mallets to toy animal heads, while the ceiling beams are covered in heraldic, fantasy imagery. Is someone here a Game of Thrones fan?
Somehow, it all looks less wacky than that sounds. Dark background colours and dusky lighting mean that these eccentric flourishes do not overly dominate. Instead, the bar area is suffused in a warm, agreeably clubby glow. Chairs are comfortable, tables large and well-spaced, the service is excellent and even on a Wednesday evening the pub is busy.
The food menu is underpinned by local and regional ingredients, such as breads from baker W Mandeville, where – pop pickers – One Direction’s Harry Styles once worked. You may arrive keen to walk or cycle in Cheshire (routes available at reception), but, apparently, many international visitors travel to Holmes Chapel to get a look at Harry’s buns. So to speak.
Despite the menu’s formulaic tone, Tuke’s modish plating and technical rigour bring a touch of class to his dishes. Honey-glazed Williams’ chipolatas are a winning snack and his mackerel pate was sure-footed. A stand-out main of guinea fowl with kale, pearl barley, charred carrots, black pudding oat “bon bon” and a sticky red wine jus, was a very accomplished plate of modern pub cooking. Next morning my eggs benedict continued the standard (the breakfast pastries could be better, mind).
If you are keen to explore Cheshire and eat well, the Vicarage is a sound base. Bag one of its suites if you want to turn a weekend away into something special. This is a promising start from Flat Cap, in a county that needs more of its independent ilk.
• Accommodation was provided by Vicarage Freehouse & Rooms (doubles from £120 B&B, 01477 533393, thevicaragecheshire.com). Train travel between Manchester and Holmes Chapel provided by Northern, from £6 return
The Swettenham Arms is a good, old-fashioned Cheshire country pub with a beautiful lavender garden. Sir Bernard Lovell, founder of Jodrell Bank Observatory, used to live next door.
Macclesfield’s Treacle Market is a treasure trove of handmade goodies, delightful produce and plants. It only runs once a month but it’s worth it even just for the buskers.
One of the best is at Alderley Edge, which has brilliant views across to Manchester. If you fancy a steep hike, Mow Cop folly, 355 metres above sea level, has stunning views over the Cheshire plains.
The Bluedot festival of music, science and art takes place at Jodrell Bank Observatory (7-9 July) and features Orbital, Alt J and the Pixies. There will also be live science experiments and gigantic artworks.