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The Olde Bell, Berkshire, courtesy of Lisa CohenOn Saturday, when the Guardian ran a little piece about some of Smith’s boutique hotels in the South-of–France wine country, James and I were enjoing a glass or two over lunch at The Olde Bell in Hurley, Berkshire. It’s a return to the age-old idea of the ‘inn’, not a hotel where the rooms usually dominate but where the bar and restaurant are the heartbeat of the place. It’s been given a new identity by Ilse Crawford, the designer and creative director behind Babington House and the other ultracool properties in the Soho House Group ). The inn used to be an unappealing hybrid of Travellodge and Campanile (those awful French roadside inns) but Ilse has redesigned, revamped and completely cleaned it out; it’s now an amazing place to be.

The bedrooms are spacious enough, clean and simple with drench showers and lovely natural touches – wool throws and real custom-made rush matting which give off a welcoming fresh smell. The garden has been wrenched from its crazy-paving/rockery days and given a makeover, leaving huge oak tables dotted around under the trees, an awning and a summer kitchen serving a delicious barbecue. More attractive still, half the garden has been sewn as a wild meadow – simply stunning.

Also at lunch were Chris and Martin from the Future Laboratory (seriously bright guys who predict upcoming trends). They were telling us how they’d been looking into the future of the hotel industry and where it would go from the ’boutique boom’ of recent years. Martin told me that the problem with the boutique hotel phenomenon is that so many people were building/renovating boutique hotels these days that genuine quality is now hard to find – too many people do boutique-by-numbers. All their spies (they have 3,000 around the world) were telling them that the next big thing was going to be ‘inns’ – pubs with rooms. The Olde Bell is the perfect example.

Reminds me of where we were last weekend: in Gatcombe, Gloucestershire where another foodie inn has just been renovated and given a new lease on life – The Ragged Cot. We’re never ones to miss a trick (or a trend), of course, so you can look forward to seeing both The Ragged Cot and The Olde Bell on the Smith site in the next month or two.

What do you think? Are Chris and Martin right? And do you have any favourite inns around the UK?

(Image of the Olde Bell courtesy of Lisa Cohen)

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