Medieval meets modern as Stylist’s Anna Brech visits an atmospheric bolthole in the heart of the West Country...
If a hotel is to be judged by the standard of its welcome aperitif (and in my opinion, it always should be), the King’s Head in the Roman market town of Cirencester has it nailed.
It’s a hard-hearted soul indeed who would fail to be wooed by the in-room DIY gin and tonic kit, complete with Sibling gin – locally sourced from a young family team in nearby Cheltenham - and miniature wooden boxes heaped with orange peel, olive and walnut garnishes.
Sure, you can order a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar, but how much more fun to whip up your own and quaff it in the over-sized bath?
It’s all very Downton - albeit with a distinctly medieval edge.
Think the Dowager Countess clutching a gimlet in one hand and a shield in the other.
If that sounds unlikely, that’s because it is. But then every element of the King’s Head, a coaching inn that dates back to the fourteenth century, is a little unexpected.
The spa, for example, is tucked away in the basement vault, so you can book in for massages and facials surrounded by ethereal Cotswold stone arches that once upon a time lay close to a Roman road.
Treatments come from Lubatti (a skincare line founded by Jo Malone’s sister Tracey) and Cheltenham-based brand Monu, and the relaxation room is a delightful retreat heaped with lanterns and cosy sheepskin rugs.
Incongruous then, to find a small-scale chamber of horrors right next door - comprising a small but impressively gruesome showcase of torture items that staff say was unearthed in the attic during the hotel refurbishment (the King’s Head reopened after an extensive face lift, and archaeological dig, in late 2014).
And the surprises don’t end there. The basement area of the hotel is an enormous space, with enough twists and turns to keep any wannabe Alice in Wonderland entertained for quite some while.
As well as the spa, there’s a cavernous hall used for late night gigs and a state-of-the-art wine tasting cellar with a prize-winning collection of plonk from around the world. The Romans would no doubt approve.
This is a place that fizzles with the undercurrent of its own history without being overwhelmed by it. And that’s central to its appeal.
Yes, you can catch a glimpse of a beautifully restored Roman mosaic beneath glass flooring in the lobby – close to a painting that depicts a bloody uprising that spilled over onto the hotel grounds in Charles I’s era.
But you also have elements that are distinctly modern and luxe, such as the under-lit olive trees that flank the hotel entrance.
It’s this effortless blend of old and new that has put The King’s Head firmly on the map and when I arrive on a Saturday night, the bar area – all low, golden pools of light and chic leather sofas – is heaving with guests and locals alike.
The restaurant is busy too, and little wonder given the calibre of food on offer. Finely executed dishes include crispy sea trout with a moreish and creamy olive mash and a hearty ribeye steak sourced from Gloucester beef coated in béarnaise sauce.
Save room for the puddings, which come with the kind of precise design and elaborate flourish to rival a small film set. My cherry and macaron tower (right) made for a formidable dessert – and a gladiator appetite to boot.
If you still have space after that, head to the first-floor terrace – a prettily curated outdoor space - for an after-dinner French 75.
Back in the bedrooms, the hotel’s flair for aesthetics continues apace. Exposed brick walls and oak beams provide a raw edge that is softened by cashmere blankets and plush cushions that adorn the enormous, sink-in-and-you-may-never-get-back-up-again bed
I end my stay here soaking comfortably in the eerie stone glow of the vaulted hot tub; as with everything here, it’s a moment underscored by a pulse of medieval merriment.
Rooms at The Kings Head, Cirencester start from £120 bed and breakfast, kingshead-hotel.co.uk
Cirencester: where to shop and eat
This Cotswold market town is home to an impressive cluster of independent shops and restaurants. Don’t miss these hot spots…
Chef Bob is in hot demand thanks to his loving take on Euro-British cuisine, plus a delightful in-house deli. Don’t miss the salted cod beignets (please note: this is currently closed for refurbishment until after Christmas 2016)
Step foot in here and you’ll be overwhelmed by the irresistible aroma of roasted coffee and high-quality cocoa. Stock up on artisan chocolate goodies – oh, and a bundle of ground beans in whatever flavour and heritage you choose.
Love beautiful bespoke stationery and hand-printed cards? This place is your haven. There’s gifts aplenty and an exhibition space for affordable art upstairs.
A relative newcomer to Cirencester’s food scene, this sushi restaurant is almost always packed to the rafters and serves up bento boxes, tempura and noodle dishes.
Celebrating the best of local artists and craft-makers, the Brewery Arts Centre is a feast of one-off jewellery, prints, homeware and interior pieces. You can also bag a place at regular art and craft workshops that run on-site.
Photos: The King’s Head and iStock