Great Fosters hotel is just minutes by train from London, yet the medieval rooms and countryside setting make it feel a world away from the hustle and bustle. The peaty, smoky scent of open fireplaces is better than any air freshener could be and hints at the years of use, then revealed in the ornate ceilings turned dark golden from historical smoke. On seeing the scale of the building and gardens, it’s no surprise that this was once the home of royalty.
Each room comes with its own unique decor and history
Guests are housed in one of three buildings at Great Fosters: within the historic main building or in the Cloisters and Coach House, the latter two offering more contemporary rooms and suites. We stayed in the main building, where each room is given its own title relating to its unique decor or history. The building itself dates back to 1550 as a royal hunting lodge. Each historic room is exactly that – original features appear in each one, from the detailed tapestries in the former drawing room, now the largest hotel room in the house, to gilt furnishings of the Italian chamber.
Our room, Panel II, was covered on every wall with original dark wood panelling and was large enough that the impressive four-poster bed appeared entirely at home, not overbearing. A dark wooden dressing table caught the light that came through the leaded windows, a television was cleverly hidden behind a panelled door and the open fireplace gave the room that pleasantly smoky, slighty peaty smell.
The beautiful bathroom
In the long, light bathroom, yet more authenticity: the toilet was a converted commode, complete with seat cover – the plumbing was entirely modern however, much to everyone’s relief. Molton Brown toiletries, a double sink, huge robes and a deep bath added the final luxurious touches.
Food and drink
A delicious summer salad, made from veg sourced from the hotel garden
Provenance is the watchword in the restaurants at Great Fosters. There are two options, the Tudor Room, an intimate setting (only 20 covers) for tasting menus, and the more modern Estate Grill, opened a year ago and the owner of two AA rosettes. UK-sourced food appears all over the menu: vegetables are picked on site, chicken is an unusual free-range breed from Essex and the lamb is from Cumbria. It’s particularly notable in the Estate Grill with its lengthy list of UK-sourced meat and fish. The river Exe mussels are a popular choice, though the charred cauliflower risotto was what we went for: a dense and delicious starter that would’ve made an equally good main course.
Anyone for dark chocolate mousse with pistachio ice-cream?
For mains, the Josper-grilled chicken was tender and spiced with the lightest hint of lemon, while the steak brioche burger was a hefty undertaking, served with thick, crispy chips. Each came with a side and the mashed potato stole our heart – creamy, rich and lightly whipped. Finding space for dessert was a necessity when the menu features dark chocolate mousse with pistachio sponge and crème caramel with ginger sorbet, but we had the mysteriously named snow eggs, which arrived as a bowl of the softest unbaked meringue with vanilla custard and caramel.
Breakfast is slightly more casual, with a buffet of fruit, fresh pastries, cereals and jams and honey from the on-site apiary, plus a side menu of hot items including a chunky, cinnamon-spiced slab of French toast.
Out and about
A snapshot of Great Fosters' incredible gardens
Once you’re at the hotel it’s debatable whether you’ll think it worth heading further than the grounds – the sprawling greenery features a maze, a moat and a miniature walled garden and if you peer across the moat you’ll also spot the white hives of the apiary. Catch a sunny day as we did and you’ll want to spend a few hours wandering around or finding a spot to admire the swans from – they’re calm and at ease with guests, even sunning themselves on the paths of the maze.
There's plenty of room to frolic here
Before you arrive at Great Fosters though, you’re likely to pass Egham, particularly if you come by train. The small town is home to the Holloway university of London campus and also has a little high street dotted with the occasional boutique, a few cafes and lots of very good charity shops. If you’re not averse to the odd rummage you can turn up a really decent selection – on our visit we got an unworn pair of leather sandals, a Fenwick handbag, a vintage looking Carvela clutch and a lovely almost-new J Crew jumper. There’s also an excellent bookshop we could’ve whiled away an hour in and an independent chemist that stocks independent brands plus the European beauty names such as Avene, Weleda and Dr Hauschka at decent prices.
A horse enjoying the sunshine at Runnymede
Just outside Egham, there’s real history to discover – Runnymede, the place famous for the signing of the Magna Carta was signed is only two miles from the hotel (10 minutes by car) and it’s a site of impressive natural beauty. The riverside meadow in which the foundation document of constitutional democracy was said to have been signed is full of wildflowers and there are plenty of benches down by the river from which to watch the narrowboats and birds. It’s a beautiful spot for a walk, and if you’re keen on history you could hunt don the ruins of a 2,000 year old monastery not far away in Ankerwycke. After a good dose of nature, head to the Rose and Crown, Thorpe, for a hearty roast dinner in a proper, wood-panelled, dark-beamed pub setting.
Getting there and away
Great Fosters is easy to get to by train from London Waterloo. Trains take just under an hour and a taxi from Egham station takes around five minutes. Alternatively you can walk from Egham station in around 20 minutes.
Driving from London takes around 45 minutes and it takes just under two hours to drive from Birmingham.