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The Lambert Arms, Aston Rowant, Watlington, Oxfordshire

“It’s a rare surprise — and pleasure to discover something
  is better than perceived from its website and brochure.
  One such ‘find
is The Lambert Arms...”

THE PHOTOGRAPH OF THE LAMBERT ARMS didn't, at least on first acquaintance, inspire as much as its location near both the M40 and Oxford ticked all the right boxes. Adding to its appeal, however, was the fact that the highly-respected Michelin-starred chef, Rob Clayton (of The Priory Hotel in Bath fame), had put together the menu. And we were sure that someone of that stature would not risk his reputation by backing a lame duck...

Our attention suitably grabbed, we then discovered that the former pub was one of the six Merchant Inns that have been given a new lease of life. These hotels are all located in semi-rural areas but they benefit immensely from being situated in highly accessible positions, with modern annexes housing additional bedrooms and conference facilities.

In addition, at the Lambert Arms there is a fully equipped gym/fitness centre and a spa offering pampering from facials to massages.

The Lambert Arms

The original mid-Victorian building was actually very attractive inside with a good atmosphere in the various quiet sitting areas, dining room and cosy bar. Outside the original building, a grassy courtyard has been framed by newly built wings in which the bedrooms, the state-of-the-art gym and pampering spa are all housed.

The most prominent feature of our bedroom was the gigantic television with plenty of channels and in-house films. Also on the large side were the bed, shower and bath. All the usual features were present except the normally over-priced mini-bar — instead there were two complimentary bottles of water in the room. A far better idea!

It was good to see that there were a couple of specially adapted rooms for the disabled, together with rooms reserved for those of us who like to be accompanied by one of 'man's best friends'. All too often it is extremely difficult to find a dog-friendly hotel and to find one that offers such a comprehensive set of 'services' for a pooch is indeed worthy of note.

The hotel is apparently full most nights but if they sense there will be some space they operate a flexible pricing policy where bargains — particularly on Sunday nights — can surprise.

The ease of finding the hotel along with its high standards and the delicious food matched with keen prices will appeal to a wide public. Whilst obviously not enough locals patronised the Lambert Arms when it was an out-of-village pub, they now — not surprisingly — flock to the bar and restaurant. The locals are also heavy users of the spa facilities, so it is wise to book, at least until the planned expansion is completed. Certainly we can more than recommend a massage by Annabel — I literally floated on air for at least a week and my skin was incredibly rejuvenated. It was probably the most relaxing and pampering massage I have ever received.

Returning to the subject of chefs, never accepting anything for granted we started our dinner with the most difficult to cook item on the menu: scallops. With a full dining room and with the close attention that scallops demand, it would be all too easy to slip up. We needn't have worried: our scallops were cooked to perfection! After that we relaxed and the meal was excellent both for the quality and value. In fact, the prices related more to pub meals but the results were very much in the territory of restaurants aspiring to gain a Michelin star.

The food, both in the bar and restaurant, is superb, imaginative, modern British food with a choice of both pub 'classics' and fine dining. Set in comfortable, friendly and quintessentially British surroundings, what more could you ask? Those comfy surroundings were much appreciated as we were pleasantly exhausted after our annual visit to nearby Waterperry where possibly the biggest, and almost certainly the best, arts and crafts fair — Art in Action — is staged.

Is the Lambert Arms trying to be the first fully booked hotel and restaurant for Christmas? From our experience, it deserves to be. And, along with the other hotels in the group, there are some more than tempting offers. — Bonnie and Tim Stevens

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