Georgina Wintersgill, her husband Alan, and their children Eliza, 7, and Jemima, 4
WHERE WE WENT
The runnymede-on-thames, a hotel and spa in Egham, Surrey
We drove to Egham – between Staines and Windsor – from our home in Oxfordshire, which took less than an hour (my kind of mini-break). The hotel, located seconds away from the M25 at Junction 13, was easy to find and well-signposted (we loved the signs boasting that Runnymede has been hosting great meetings since 1215).
Our first impression was of a fairly typical modern hotel. However, what makes the runnymede exceptional is its stunning location on the banks of the Thames. The clever design really makes the most of this, so you never forget you’re by the river. Enter the huge, light-filled lobby and you can see straight through the stylish lounge to the bustling riverside terrace. And the hotel’s two restaurants both have stunning riverside views.
The 180-room hotel attracts a complete cross-section: business people, tourists, families, those here for the history and those here for the spa! In fact, the first guests we saw were a group of women dressed in fluffy white bathrobes (this was in the car park).
My sociable 7-year-old saw the hotel as a great opportunity to chat to a captive audience (all of whom were very tolerant). My 4-year-old, meanwhile, was convinced she was in France (presumably because last time we were in a hotel we WERE in France) and said “Bonjour” to everyone we met.
We’d booked a double room plus an interconnecting twin room for the girls. However, our expectations were exceeded when we were shown to our very own riverside apartment (with our very own parking space outside!) comprising hall, bathroom, cosy twin room for the girls and spacious master bedroom. The decor were tasteful and understated in subtle greys and teals evoking the nearby river. Best of all, though, was the ginormous bed. I hadn’t slept much the previous week – in fact, I hadn’t slept much for the previous seven years – so a bed considerably wider than it was long was the most welcome sight I’d seen in a long time.
The runnymede is about half an hour from London Waterloo by train, just seconds away from the M25 or 15 minutes from Heathrow Airport if you’re driving. It’s also very convenient for tourist attractions including Windsor, Legoland and Thorpe Park. But you may prefer to make the most of the stunning location and stay put! You can hire a boat to take up the river or simply stroll along the towpath to Runnymede meadows, home of memorials to Magna Carta and assassinated American president John F Kennedy.
WHAT WE DID
After checking in we enjoyed a coffee in the lounge while the children checked out the goody bags they’d been given by the friendly reception staff (they particularly liked the King John bath ducks).
We’d booked a boat trip up the Thames to the Runnymede meadows. It was a glorious day as we set off from the hotel’s private mooring, and I can’t think of a nicer way to start a weekend than chugging along the Thames in the sunshine listening to the sound of lapping water, quacking ducks, and the 4-year-old shouting: “Mummy, there’s a duck! There’s another duck! THERE’S ANOTHER DUCK!” (repeat x 50).
After a few minutes we disembarked at the edge of the Runnymede meadows. It was here that the Magna Carta (or ‘great charter’) was sealed in 1215, confirming the agreement between King John and a lot of angry barons. Although much of the charter was concerned with the barons’ grievances, other parts continue to have massive significance today – for example, chapters 39 and 40 lay down the principles of the right to a fair trial and the right not to be unlawfully imprisoned.
Historical significance aside, the meadows are idyllic, and our girls loved running through the long grass and buttercups. The walk to the Magna Carta Memorial, a classical Greek temple erected by the American Bar Association in 1957, took around 15 minutes. This was fine for our two but could be a struggle for toddlers.
After photos at memorial number one it was time for memorial number two: a 7-ton block of Portland stone commemorating John F Kennedy, assassinated in 1963. It’s reached by a beautiful, but steep, woodland path, which wouldn’t work with a buggy. Interestingly, the one-acre site was given to the USA in memory of President Kennedy, so it’s officially American soil. The 4-year-old stopped saying “Bonjour” to strangers long enough to enquire, “Are we in America now?” And I suppose we were – sort of.
Back at the hotel, the girls were clamouring to go swimming, so we headed to the spa. This comprises a gym, saunas, steam room, whirlpool bath, dance studio, fitness classes, beauty treatment rooms and a lounge (where you can have drinks or lunch in your bathrobe), plus the most beautiful indoor pools. Our two adored splashing about in the almost empty children’s pool. It was so serene and relaxing – a world away from our grotty local leisure centre!
Later, we explored the grounds, which include three tennis courts and the beautiful Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Garden, newly transplanted from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Our girls, needless to say, were less interested in medieval garden design than in trying out the outdoor play area, medieval-style stocks and inflatable jousting arena!
WHAT WE ATE
The hotel has two restaurants – the Lock Bar & Kitchen, which serves straightforward, seasonal dishes in a bistro-style restaurant; and the buffet-style leftbank restaurant.
We chose the leftbank restaurant for our meals. The setting is smart and stylish, but the relaxed atmosphere makes it ideal for families. We were impressed by the number of staff and felt very well looked-after.
Leftbank may be family-friendly, but it was still seriously foodie-friendly. I stuck to the cold buffet selection, which was incredible, ranging from sophisticated salads to hearty basics like gala pie and Scotch eggs, which our little girls (and Alan!) adored.
Four or five hot main courses, and a selection of hot vegetable dishes, were available at the kitchen counter and Alan enjoyed pulled beef, with green beans and a gratin. Alternatively you could choose a piece of fish and ask a chef to cook it in the style of your choice.
The girls, meanwhile, opted for the ‘Duckling’s Dinner’, available for children from 6-7pm on Fridays and Saturdays and in the school holidays. They were presented with chef’s hats and asked to choose a round of pizza dough, which they then personalised with tomato sauce, veggies, pepperoni, cheese etc. These were then whizzed off to the pizza oven to be cooked. Two happy children!
As for the dessert counter – well, I shall dream about that dessert counter. The girls enjoyed strawberry mousse in little pots, while Alan went straight for the hearty old-school pud section for posh crumble and custard. As for me, I was entranced by the chocolate fountain. Even if you’ve overdone things with repeat visits to the buffet, who could fail to fit in one or two delicious chocolate-dipped strawberries and marshmallows?
After an action-packed day, we were utterly thankful to crawl under snowy white sheets and experience the delights of the ginormous bed. I had the best night’s sleep I’ve had for ages.
The children, as usual, were up at the crack of dawn. However, one advantage was that the riverside was breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful in the early morning sunshine. The other advantage was having first crack at the breakfast buffet. The kids were in heaven with pastries, mini doughnuts, cheeses and hams, Greek yogurt, home-made mueslis, granola and fruit salads. Alan and I treated this extensive selection as a starter course, then ordered a kipper with poached eggs (him) and a freshly-made waffle with maple syrup (me).
We asked our waiter if we could take bread for the ducks, and he returned with a duck-shaped cardboard box to carry it in! So we spent a leisurely hour wandering up the towpath saying “Bonjour” to the early-morning joggers and distributing bread to the river’s residents (the ducks, not the second-home owners).
As we sorrowfully checked out, a member of staff was handing out complimentary soft drinks in reception. Alan and I refused – we were leaving, after all! – but the girls chose the biggest drinks on offer and plonked themselves down at a prominent table to (very slowly) sip their beverages and waylay passing guests. So departure was delayed by another 20 minutes. Then, of course, they needed the toilet.
I couldn’t blame them. I didn’t want to leave, either.
Weekend stays at the runnymede-on-thames cost from £169 per room per night, based on two people sharing a standard double room on a B&B basis.
The Little Baron’s Weekend Break costs from £189 per night for a family of three and includes one night’s stay on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday; full English breakfast in leftbank restaurant; use of the spa and outdoor pool; access to the playground and outdoor games including the stocks and inflatable jousting arena; and a Magna Carta-themed kid’s pack including a King John bath duck, a trail map to the Magna Carta Monument and a mini copy of the Magna Carta script.
For more information visit www.therunnymede.co.uk