23 Jan 2013

Travel: Runnymede-on-Thames

AIR, water and road traffic flies, floats and rolls beside the strategically located Runnymede-on-Thames hotel and spa. Although its face is arguably blighted – the blank facade from 1974 oddly leaves the impression of a slap head forehead – a recent refurbishment of the four-star saw it given a good cosseting of character (and soundproofing) within.

In view of a working lock taming what in winter is a threatening surge, but by summer, a barely rippling silver stream making picnics on the hotel’s launch a pleasure, the horizontal skyscraper occupies a site once haven to an inn. Ironically, given water’s proximity, it caught fire six decades before, enabling the modern version…
Ducks are the ubiquitous motif. A ‘badelynge’ of the bathtime versions (‘skin’ tones available in ‘politically correct’) graces a flight of stairs, while mugs in bedrooms feature beaks. Meanwhile moulded versions are static in Wellington boots on the approach to the 13-suite conference centre at the hotel’s heart.
After introducing me to the hotel’s robot (a childhood whim remembered in adulthood by one of the owners from a family who also owns The Grove, Hertfordshire and London’s Athenaeum’) my guide from Gateshead, Jessica Cockburn, already talks about leaving; Heathrow’s Terminal 5 being but a five-minute cab ride away. “Some guests fly in just for meetings,” she says. Leisure travellers are more likely to journey to Windsor and Legoland – this is a very family friendly hotel, incidentally. Boasting over 1,000 subscribers, the hotel’s gym, for those more athletically inclined than I, is also a major attraction which saw use as reception for Team Great Britain on their return from the 2008 Summer Olympics. Historians can also make their way to the water-meadow where King John was thought to seal the Magna Carta.
But, for the gastronomically inclined, The Lock perhaps refreshingly adheres to the mantra, ‘nothing fussy or complicated’. Its previous incarnation was as a sports-themed pub which took the name of the first lock keeper, Charlie Bell. However, Camden-based Conran Design Group upgraded stained glass for clear, adding zinc tables and Anglepoise-style lamps. Sparky staff sport hotel-issue jeans and bring bread in rustic tins. Here, Head Chef David Coutts (previously at The Grove and Bluebird, London) cooks quite retro seeming dishes, including a ‘seasonal fondue’ menu. Ordered from a portable blackboard, smoked duck salad starter provides a few good meaty morsels among an abundance of fresh leaves, pomegranate seeds and fresh orange segments, while coq au vin basked in a lustrous reduction.
Whether you fly, flow or roll to it, the runnymede-on-thames strives to be all things to all people and is well worth a transitory escape from the rigours of modern life…