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Old Swan and Minster Mill
Perhaps it is de Savary magic, but step into the Old Swan and Minster Mill which many of us have known for decades as charming but, at best, shabby-chic, and you will see changes for the better everywhere you look .
Somehow there seems to be no venture connected in any way to Peter de Savary — who has famously lost and made some of the largest fortunes ever in the business of property and hotels — that does not acquire a sort of glamour.
Famously he once simultaneously owned Land’s End and John O’Groats. Now the Old Swan — and the accompanying mill across the river Windrush in Minster Lovell, mentioned in the Domesday Book but beautifully updated in the 1970s — has received a multi-million pound makeover de Savary style.
Wild flower meadows are springing up on the 65 acres of riverside land the pub owns and a £350,000 spa is set to be installed in the winter.
A new dining room, providing 46 more covers, will be built in September, and there are already three miles of fishing along the river which, general manager Ian Solkin assured me, contains at least ten species of fish.
Mr Solkin has previously managed five hotels for Peter and Lana de Savary in the last ten years and turned them into bywords of luxury.
These hotels include the Cary Arms, on the beach at Babbacombe in Devon — which is so dog-friendly, that every pooch is presented with their own bowl.
It is these quirky details which make de Savary hotels special. At the Old Swan, for instance, children (and grown up children too, if they so wish) can choose their own breakfast egg from right under the hen.
Difficult to find produce fresher or more local than that. And the same goes for the vegetables, many of which are grown in the kitchen gardens.
In fact the hotel is the brainchild of Lana de Savary who, through her company, Havanna West, has assisted her husband in creating whole resorts, including the Cherokee Plantation in South Carolina; Carnegie Abbey in Rhode Island; Bovey Castle on Dartmoor National Park, as well as The Abaco Club in the Bahamas.
For the Old Swan to be in such glamorous company illustrates a point that many locals are apt to forget: namely that Oxfordshire ranks alongside those internationally famous names as a tourist resort of global importance.
All the same, Mr Solkin said: “Although guests come from far and wide, we are still essentially a local gastropub and we are keen to welcome local people living around here.”
He added: “Localism is really what we are about. We took over in May 2010, and since then most of the refurbishment in the 44 rooms over in the mill and the 16 at the Old Swan has been carried out by local firms, while the garden furniture was designed by Bramptons of Witney and the landscaping by Hickmans of Burford.
“In addition, we now have 70 full and part-time staff, most of whom are local.”
He added that, despite the credit squeeze, the hotel has been operating better than predicted in the business plan.
But back to the de Savary magic. What is it that makes the place tick? Some say it is ‘quintessentially English’ but it is a sort of idealised England combining the best of old and new.
On the one hand it is a beautiful village, full of thatched cottages which must represent exactly what England looks like in the mind’s eye of many a foreigner. And on the other there is good modern design in conference rooms, lounges and (soon) a spa.
Economic troubles seem far away when you take shelter in this haven. And even extreme hardship and discomfort seems picturesque when viewed at a distance of several hundred years and after a good breakfast.
Take, for example, the goings on at the now-ruined hall, just a stroll away from the hotel, which occurred at the end of the 15th century.
Then, Francis, ninth Baron Lovell, fought on the wrong side at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 when Richard III was deposed by Henry VII — an event that led in time to his hiding in a secret closet in the walls of Minster Lovell, his whereabouts known only to a single servant.
Sadly, that servant died and — more than 200 years later during structural work at the hall — his skeleton was found with that of a little dog at its feet. Life is far easier, and more comfortable these days at the Old Swan.
Name: Old Swan and Minster Mill Owner: Lana de Savary Number of staff: 70 Annual turnover: Confidential
Contact: 01993 774441 Web: www.oldswanandminstermill.com
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