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The Talbot Inn, Ripley

There is simply nothing better than picturing the perfect week-
  end or mid-week break in our beautiful and quintessentially
  English countryside — such as Oxfordshire and Surrey...”

FOR SOME THAT IS SUFFICIENT, but a real treat is to complement the pastoral pleasures with other interests and, of course, a good hotel with excellent food. Now you have the perfect ingredients for a memorable break.

Guess what? We know just the place — The Talbot Inn in Ripley, a large village just over a mile from the M25. This traditional 15th century coaching inn was a staging post to change carriage horses on their way to the South Coast — those staying included Admiral Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton.

The Talbot Inn, Ripley
In fact, if you too want to play boats, join Ratty in his 'messing about in boats' in Henley or go just around the corner to visit a motor museum that genuinely interests the whole family or even, perhaps, visit the RHS gardens at Wisley. The list and possibilities are endless.

The Brooklands Motor Museum is far more than its name implies — for instance, missed a trip on Concorde? The first supersonic aircraft to carry 100 passengers is on display there and you can learn all sorts of fascinating facts as well as go aboard and take a virtual flight. While Concorde is very special, it is just one of many aeroplanes on display together with a fantastic collection of bicycles and motorcycles of all ages. Obviously there are cars aplenty from the alluringly beautiful monsters that used to thunder around the extraordinarily steep racetrack, to the emotive machines — remember that wonderful old film Genevieve? — that regularly join the annual 'London to Brighton run'.

However, it is the atmospheric setting of the original buildings that adds so much to the enjoyment, from the workshops to the Clerk of the Course's office, the drawing offices with all the old kit to the original loos dating from 1907. A perfect time capsule that has provided many a film and television programme with the perfect backdrop.

But back to another atmospheric setting: the village retreat of The Talbot Inn, with its relaxed style and attentive, friendly staff.

The fabric of the building has been recently and sensitively restored to the extent that the twisting stairs and low beams upstairs create some mildly hazardous surroundings for the bedrooms in the original inn. And woe betide anyone staying in the room named 'Horatio' who, weary eyed, stumbles into the bathroom first thing — the beam is even lower than perceived! However, it is the character and personality of a traditional English country inn that is all part of the charm…

Cleverly, modern is sympathetically mixed with ancient and, as with all the hotels in the Merchant Inn's collection, those wanting the ease of a conventional new hotel room can plump for a room in the purpose-built wings. As the hotel serves both the leisure and business fraternities, complimentary WiFi sits easily alongside traditional real ales and log fires. Modern also fits in with the inspired and stylish dining room in the original building — a part of the ceiling is lustrous copper; very effective and fits in well with the beams. This room has been extended with an unashamedly contemporary glass conservatory opening onto an attractive partly-paved garden for barbeques and summer dining. A simply lovely light, cool and sunny garden room that was very popular with the diners, many of them obviously local and regulars.

This is much more than a mere gastropub, with a modern British menu more akin to fine dining which is only to be expected when you discover the menu is overseen by twice Michelin-starred chef Rob Clayton. Head chef Ian Richards leads an enthusiastic and talented team in the kitchen producing outstanding and mouth-watering food.

The scallops with mushrooms and herb salad and the sea bass with grilled chorizo were both perfectly cooked. Pastry chef Siobhan Baker — the 'puddings lady' — produced a Pimm's jelly with cucumber coulis and lemon sorbet that was inspired. In fact it was all so good that before we left we had lunch the next day! We really love our food and it truly was some of the best food we have eaten anywhere.

We have stayed in another Merchant Inn and the concept seems to be a very successful combination of retaining the essential character of the pub or inn and then adding in all the facilities and luxurious comforts to make for a reliable and attractive place in which to stay.

This may indeed be a small but rapidly growing chain but there is still evidence of small, individual touches such as the homemade shortbread in the bedroom that add to the welcome. The pièce de résistance is to add excellent food from short menus hitting all the right buttons, but at a sensible price that goes back to the origins of the pubs and inns. — Bonnie and Tim Stevens