Whenever you look through a hotel or B and B guide of Great Britain there is always one area that is missing from the map of entries of great places to stay: north Wiltshire. The corridor of the M4 that spans the area south of Swindon and north of The Marlborough Downs is a poor hospitality hunting ground for travellers going to the west country from London, but wishing to find a stopover en route to Bath, Devon, Dorset or Cornwall. Or so I thought.
Through the grapevine I heard of a really wonderful new place to stay, which is also a small party venue and foodie find, called Overtown Manor in the tiny hamlet of Overtown, near Wroughton. It opened for business just one year ago, with eight big bedrooms and ensuite bath or shower rooms, as well as a beautiful country garden and a swimming pool.
It’s smiley owner Nancy Lawson greets me at the front door, trying to make herself heard above the excitement of her two little dogs who keep a watchful eye on the front gravel garden and driveway. The sweeping arrival to Overtown Manor is really impressive, you know you are staying somewhere very special. It is an old Grade II listed property, but you can tell that every detail of its eight month renovation and refurbishment has been completely centred on three little words: guests’ creature comforts.
“My family have lived in this house for over a century, and my huband and I, along with our two little children, are the 4th and 5th generation to live at Overtown Manor,” Nancy explains.
Her great-grandparents moved here at the turn of the 20th Century, and it was her parents who ensured that all the wiring, plumbing, roofing and structure of the house were sound and well looked after before passing ownership to Nancy and her husband, a land agent who works at Knight Frank.
Her parents still farm nearby, and the family farm is part arable and part livestock, with a herd of Ruby Red North Devon beef cattle.
The couple knew that in order to make the house work as a business they had to separate it into two sections, so that the family would be able to have a private apartment as their living quarters and a separate section would function as the B and B accommodation.
There is a very large, grand dining room overlooking the gardens that can sit 24 people, and an elegant Wedgewood blue drawing room that can accommodate just as many. “If there is a small wedding or a big birthday or anniversary party we can do canapés and drinks for 50-60 people. We do not do disco parties: although Overtown is a small hamlet, with only 8 houses, we do have near neighbours, so we tend to focus on smaller, more intimate groups that prefer a gentler form of entertainment,” Nancy tells me.
Nancy’s friend, Henrietta Balmain, of Balmain and Balmain in Wilton, helped her with the interior design of the bedrooms and reception rooms. Everywhere you look there are beautiful, flowery curtains, antique furniture, watercolours and prints, soft cushions, upholstered armchairs, books, magazines and vases of fresh flowers from the garden.
In her bright, brand new, spic and span kitchen she runs cookery demonstrations as well as doing all the cooking for guests. Nancy did her catering training at Eastbourne College and then worked alongside Eric Treuille at the Sheepdrove Organics Ecocentre in Berkshire. She is used to cooking for large numbers under pressure, but now finds the pace of cooking at Overtown more manageable.
Guests tick whatever they want for breakfast and the time they wish to eat on a form, making the system much more organised and streamlined.
“It can get unbelievably busy when we have back to back bookings, though. During the summer, especially, there are the Barbury Castle Horse Trials, the Marlborough Jazz Festival and the Fairford Air Show, so we work non-stop during those weeks,” Nancy tells me. The nearby attractions of Avebury, Silbury Hill, Westonbirt Arboretum, Lacock Abbey, Bowood House and the Cotswold towns of Cirencester, Tetbury and Burford means that Overtown Manor is at the centre of the tourist trade, as well as the business trade from neighbouring Swindon, and nearby Newbury.
Nancy has chosen her suppliers carefully, and having been born and raised in the area gives her a good knowledge of the best producers. For fresh fruit and vegetables there is a very big kitchen garden, managed by her husband, that is bursting at the seams with fresh, seasonal produce and cutting flowers. Meat comes from Sumbler Brothers on the London Road in Marlborough, dairy products from Berkeley Farm in Wroughton, fish comes from New Wave in Cirencester, bread from the bakery at Great Bedwyn, ciders from the Coleshill brewery and wines have been specially selected for the guests by Edward Parker, as Overtown Manor has an alcohol license.
Nearby pubs and restaurants, such as The Harrow Inn at Little Bedwyn, Silks on the Downs, and The Barbury at Broad Hinton mean that guests can eat dinner out and not have to drive too far.
In the very beginning, when Nancy was marketing Overtown Manor as a venue she tried various ways of grabbing people’s attention, including baking boxes of mince pies and giving them to local businesses along with her flier. “People ate the mince pies, while reading the flier, and it secured a lot of bookings. I also found online sites like www.laterooms.com very good for helping to sell rooms as well as the online automatic booking service, www.eviivo.com.”
Nancy’s diary is looking busy: she has just hosted the local Slow Food convivium’s Annual General Meeting and her bookings are really busy for the holidays. She has two ladies who help her with the business, as everything needs to run like clockwork. As I am interviewing Nancy, the mirrors are polished, carpets are vacuumed, flagstones are washed and kitchen units are scrubbed, while laundry is hung out to dry and beds are changed.
“We knew from the minute we moved in that the house was also going to be our business, so we are completely used to sharing it with other people and also to the rhythm and pace of changing linens, getting rooms ready and making sure every guest has whatever it is they need to feel comfortable.”
And comfort and cosiness is at the heart of Overtown Manor: despite its formality and traditional ambiance, peace, tranquillity and relaxation are the goalposts that Nancy has set for her business. A few hours in this house, and a stroll in its grounds, you will want to move in.
“There is one businessman who is one of our regular guests. He arrives straight from work and I have his gin and tonic at the ready for him in the drawing room, where he can sit and read the paper in private.”
Wiltshire SN4 OSH
Telephone: 01793 814737
E-mail: [email protected]