It puzzles me that Birmingham, the second biggest city in the UK, does not have a bona fide five-star hotel.
This, of course, assumes you pay heed to star ratings, the Michelin Guide, the AA, the Caravan Club’s Top B&B Tips For Where To Stay When Your Box Is Off The Road, or TripAdvisor.
The fact is a lot of leisure and business visitors do take notice of these publications and if you rifle through the guide-mist for a 5-star joint in Birmingham it just isn’t there. What do wealthy Chinese, Japanese and Amercian tourists make of this, if they manage to get north of Bicester Village? There’s plenty of luxury hotel pomp in the Cotswolds. Why come to Brum?
The Hyatt Regency on Broad Street is the default option for pop stars and presidents, due to its privacy, security and well-appointed, large suites. The service is good. But the Hyatt is a four star. If you are a Beijing billionaire – and direct flights have been running from Birmingham to the Chinese capital over the summer – that might strike you as odd. Hotels need to get into the mindset of spendy overseas travellers, who know nothing of Birmingham, if they are going to catch the big fish.
Other top places to stay in the city are Hotel du Vin, which I like because it is off the beaten track in a lovely part of the business district. Mind you, I had a stinker of a gin and tonic in the bar recently.
If money was no object, where else would I stay? In years gone by, I would have recommended the beautiful, moated New Hall at Sutton Coldfield. But I haven’t been there since I had unspeakably bad lunch several years ago. I love the place too. We spent the first night of our honeymoon at New Hall; watched Match of the Day in bed with a bottle of Sancerre and a grated cheese sandwich. And they say romance is dead.
How’s this for weird then? Two Birmingham hotels I would definitely flag up aren’t actually in the city limits though they are only a short drive, especially if you have chauffeur. First, Swinfen Hall, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire. On a good run, it is only 20-30 minutes’ drive from Birmingham city centre. It’s in an idyllic spot, with a deer park, grazing rare breed sheep and a wall garden stuffed with fresh produce; great food is cooked by head chef Paul Proffitt.
Swinfen Hall is privately owned, and it tells. Lashings of love and a considerable amount of cash have been lavished on the 18th century manor house by owners Helen and Vic Wiser.
The second hotel comes as a wonderful, pleasant surprise, not least because it’s basically in… [drum roll]… Solihull.
In fact, I would go as far as saying Hampton Manor is the best new hotel (because it is fairly new) that I have stayed in in the UK outside London.
I say I am surprised because in all honesty when I first stayed here I just didn’t know if it would work. The 45-acre estate, once owned by Sir Robert Peel, the founding father of the British police service, was bought by hoteliers Derrick and Janet Hill in 2008. Millions of pounds have been spent restoring, refurbishing and redecorating the Grade II listed property.
When I last visited, several years ago, the total bill stood at £5.5 million and the public areas have had a spectacular overhaul since then. Nikolaus Pevsner may have described the place as as “nothing spectacular and indeed rather dull,” but he would eat his words if he checked in today.
The Hills’ son James runs the business. Weddings are big but plans to tap the conference market have been shelved as the hotel seeks to explore the spa market, for which great changes are planned.
We stayed in the stunning George Fentham room, which overlooks the rear gardens. There were lovely touches on arrival including delicious fresh chocolate brownies and macarons. My wife has a gluten-free diet and often misses out on sweet treats. I had phoned ahead to warn the kitchen for dinner planning, but didn’t expect the chef to remember the goodies in the room. Brownie points all round, or rather macaron points.
It is small things like this that really matter to guests. Some places get it abominably wrong. Hampton Manor gets it spot on.
This isn’t a restaurant review but I can say unequivocally that the food at Hampton Manor is good, bordering on very good. Peel’s, the restaurant, has moved to a new spot within the main hotel. The previous glass-ceiling space has now been dedicated to weddings. It’s a master stroke. Peel’s new home, in the original dining room, is replete with beautiful handcrafted Chinoiserie wall fabrics and is the most stunning dining room in the Midlands. It would not look out of place in a five-star Mayfair hotel – and I mean that in the best way.
Rob Palmer has taken over from mercurial head chef Ryan Swift (now of Dormy House at Broadway, Worcestershire, by way of The Edgbaston, Birmingham). He has assembled a young, ambitious team, featuring some young guns from Coventry. Yes, Coventry.
There is great attention to detail, from the breads to the after-dinner bon bons. You can tell when food is prepared with love and it shows here. Palmer wasn’t even cooking the night we stayed. I can see why Peel’s, limited to about 30 covers, picked by a third AA rosette earlier this year and it won’t be long before other plaudits follow if the momentum and consistency are maintained.
If you want the full, immersive dining experience there is a dinky private room overlooking the open kitchen when you can watch the action.
This is a genuinely close-knit kitchen team where there are smiles and communication. Either that or they really hate each other and are very good at hiding it.
We had the seven-course tasting menu (£75) with wine (an extra £55). There was some terrific cooking – the halibut, the grouse, the rich beef dish and the passion fruit in particular. I was less sure about the final dessert, but I’m not a nutmeg fan. It hardly mattered.
Here is the full menu:
Heirloom Tomato, burrata, basil
(HPF, Sauvignon Blanc, 2013, Hermanus South Africa)
Organic Salmon, cucumber, horseradish, lemon, dill
(Chablis, Moreau-Naudet, 2012, France)
Grouse, blackcurrants, celeriac, bread sauce
(Domaine Les Filles De Septembre, 2014, Cotes DeThonge, France)
Halibut, cauliflower, orange, Iberico ham
(Rully, 1er Cru, Vincent Girardin, France 2010)
Wagyu Beef, cep, bone marrow, Swiss chard
(Sijnn Rouge, Swellendam, South Africa, 2009)
Passion Fruit, white chocolate ‘Aero’, liquorice
(Domaine Cauhape, Jurancon, 2012)
Blueberries, custard, nutmeg, sorrel
(Schloss Reinhartshausen, Reisling Trocken, Rheingau Germany, 2011)
It was a great dinner and Hampton Manor is a superb backdrop. I love the staff, nattily dressed in jeans and tweed, and the service training has improved beyond my expectations.
So is the best hotel in Birmingham in Solihull? Quite possibly.
- Hampton Manor