Oxford Spires hotel

Hotels, to coin a phrase, should be seen and not heard.  Like the best waiters in the best restaurants, staff should be on hand where required and perform every duty required by guests, within the realms of good taste and decency, and occasionally subject to the occasional backhander, but always with utmost discretion and respect.  Maybe at one time that is what all hotels of a certain grandeur were like, though nowadays they are mostly international chains and always there to make profit ahead of all else, even servicing the bizarre needs of their guests unless said guests are happy to pay through the nose.

Leaving aside the alleged “7 star” accommodation in Dubai, and the last vestiges of truly old fashioned hotel chains (most of which have been heavily refurbished at great cost, though using the most wonderful of locations – like Sir George Gilbert Scott’s  magnificent Midland Grant hotel, now the St Pancras Renaissance) remain, boutique hotels are arguably the closest we can now get to the quirky individualism of the old days, as opposed to the economies of scale and bland decor of the Hiltons, Marriotts, Holiday Inns, Best Westerns and many more.  They might call it quality assurance or familiarity with the brand image, but once you’ve been in an international hotel, you could be anywhere, from the room design, the buffet breakfast, the airless and anodyne meeting rooms and the staff uniforms.

The Four Pillars is a small chain – just six hotels clustered around the Thames Valley.  Nominally four star (whatever that means), they are comfortable and pleasant, though not the top end of the market.  From the outside it lacks the old English mansion appeal beloved of many spa hotels, but is tasteful and sympathetically designed in old stone.

Fixtures and fittings seemed to be of good serviceable quality, though still retained the marginally anodyne air of products bought in their hundreds to equip multiple hotels.  The bed was comfy enough, and the four poster frame a nice touch, even if it did appear bent through some over-exuberant guest swinging from it!  Lots of comfy chairs and sofas in the room too, a minibar too.  The cathode ray TV seemed a bit twee, and the bathroom very box standard international hotel.  Not bad, just not exceptional.

Ah, but we did have plenty of meals to try.  Dinner from the table d’hote (or set menu if you’re being less pretentious about it) for two nights on the trot was competent, and, like the curate’s egg, bits of it were excellent.  The “connoisseur cheese selection” (an extra £3) was first rate, which made you wish that the rest of the menu had been simplified to emphasise the quality of raw materials with elegance, rather than taking multiple detours around the world.  The fancy touches were there (eg. “Hungarian Goulash” was nothing remotely like real Hungarian Goulash, but was served on the side with a portion of “paprika mash” shaped into a potatoey easter  egg), though somehow it was imitation rather than true flair and ingenuity.  The food was, in that wonderfully double-edged phrase, “fine”, which to some might seem like praise and to others damning with faint praise.

Breakfast was that other international hotel standard: the buffet.  It was a good, competent buffet too – nothing to criticise, other than that I rather like apricots among the fruit selection to have with my natural yogurt, my Aga roast tomatoes are superior to the way they are cooked in hotels, mass-produced scrambled eggs are not as good as those done at home in small batches, and Bury market black pudding is better than the long manufactured sticks.  Alright, a bit churlish of me maybe, but then I believe that a bespoked artisan breakfast is ultimately the service that stands out and makes the customer take notice.  Yes, quite sure on the budget available that would cost too much, so the bean counters rule OK!

Right, if I am being nit-picky to date, what about the Spa facilities?  After all, our weekend package did include free use of the facilities, plus two treatments – a massage and a facial.  The spa was perfectly good – a pool, jacuzzi, steam room and sauna.  Not the Rolls Royce of spas but quite adequate.  And the treatments were lovely!

So there you go, good value for the money, perfectly good hotel, excellent facilities, but I just wish it could stand out from the crowd slightly more…

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