Gina Baksa enjoys a weekend getaway at St Michael’s Manor Hotel, St Albans
Situated in historic St Albans, just 22 miles north of London in leafy Hertfordshire, St Michael’s Manor is one of the city’s finest former private residences. Still owned by the Newling Ward family who bought the property in the Sixties, the 500-year-old manor house has been expanded over the years and now offers guests a choice of 30 stylish and well-appointed bedrooms, many with beautiful views across its award-winning five-acre garden and lake.
The house was originally built in 1586, by successful tanning merchant, John Agape. A date you can see inscribed on the ceiling in the atmospheric wood-panelled Oak Lounge on the ground floor.
St Albans born and bred, my previous visits to St Michael’s Manor had only been for coffee after a walk in nearby Verulamium Park. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to sample its hospitality and also meet the hotel’s new chef, Tony Schwarz.
On arrival, St Michael’s wonderful concierge Robert greeted my friend and I at the front door, relieved us of our luggage and guided us deftly to reception. We were then given a brief history of the house while we collected our keys, and he took our luggage to our room. First impressions count – it was wonderful to receive this service from the get-go.
Our room was the light and high-ceilinged Sycamore suite, with a dual aspect over Fishpool Street (very quiet at night). Located in the older part of the house, creaky floorboards are de rigueur and add a reassuring authenticity. The suite was warm, cosy and sophisticated, with a mix of modern and traditional aesthetics. I loved the sofa and writing area, beautifully lit with strategically placed table and floor lamps, while the divinely comfortable bed made me wish I’d booked dinner for much later.
I love hotels with kettles. And tea. And coffee. And even more welcome were the bottles of mineral water, the shortbreads and sweet jar. Touches that go a long way to making you feel at home. And they’d thoughtfully provided an iron and ironing board. I was impressed at the attention to detail.
The capacious high-ceilinged bathroom contained a generously deep bath and wide walk-in shower. A bathroom, should you travel in a couple, you could definitely have fun in. Room service is available until late
Interiors in the other bedrooms are a mix of country house and modern style, each room beautifully appointed with rich fabrics, throws and pleasing artwork. Some of the suites have four-poster beds and Wi-Fi is free throughout the hotel. All rooms are en-suite, have air-con, large flatscreen TVs, tea and coffee making facilities and hairdryers.
I loved the unobtrusive turndown service each evening and the complimentary morning newspaper. And was especially happy to note that one of the garden suites has wheelchair access. The public rooms are beautifully decorated – the ceiling plaster leaf motif continues across the decor and also a new range of tableware.
St Michael’s Manor really does feel like a home from home. Relaxed yet sophisticated with complete lack of pretension. A popular wedding destination – the gardens have a beautiful gazebo on the lake – the hotel provides the perfect backdrop for happy nuptials. Afternoon tea – now a British hotel staple – is very popular with locals as well as guests.
Before dinner, I chat with Chef Tony Schwarz at the bar. Originally from southern Ireland, he worked in many country houses there. Arriving at St Michael’s Manor last November via Charlton House in London, he navigated his previous incumbent’s Christmas menu like a pro and is now relishing the chance to make his mark. So where did his love of food begin?
“Since I was a child, really. My great grandfather was a chef patissier in Germany,” he tells me, “and my grandfather was a chef in the American Navy – he was based in the north of Ireland in WW2 where he met my grandmother.”
Cooking is clearly in the family genes, which led Tony to helming his own restaurant in Ireland at a young age. His food heroes are pioneers like Brit Tom Aikens and Californian Thomas Keller, and he’s clearly passionate about making St Michael’s Manor a destination hotel/restaurant, not just for its local fan base but for Londoners and international tourists.
“I think a successful restaurant is created by people who have the love and passion for their craft. They’ve got to enjoy being in the kitchen 10 or 12 hours a day and have a genuine love of food.”
He believes it’s the personal touch that makes St Michael’s Manor stand out amongst the competition, as well as his dedication to using local suppliers where possible, and keeping the menu seasonal.
“Most of our diners are actually non-residents, so we want to provide a luxury experience for our guests and create an environment where they can truly relax and enjoy great food.”
And so to dinner in the Manor’s 2 Rosette award-winning Lake Restaurant that offers diners a choice of A La Carte or Lake menus: modern British and French cuisine beautifully prepared and presented. Here, seasonal choices and local provenance are paramount – from hearty venison, or brisket and steak to hake and scallops.
An evening meal here, looking out over the partially lit gardens and lake is truly magical. Only a handful of couples were in the Orangery – it was a Sunday – which added to the intimacy, while Amis, our sommelier/waiter looked after us beautifully. Extremely attentive without being overbearing, he was very knowledgeable about both menu and wine list.
Extensive and well balanced, the selection covers New and Old Worlds. I chose a crisp, dry New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Frost Pocket, while my friend opted for the Pinot Grigio, Ca’ Luca (Veneto). Both available by the glass – for Pinot lovers apparently it was refreshing and ‘clean’ with a hint of apple. Champagnes included the usual favourites, and I spotted an English Chardonnay from Chapel Down winery in Kent.
After a fabulous amuse bouche of salmon roulade with watercress cream, we
decided to taste from both menus and chose a superb smoked mackerel pâté, rhubarb and ginger pickle (a taste sensation) with rosemary flatbread. The sliver of rhubarb was perfect: neither tart nor sweet. Amazing. Alternative starters on the Lake menu included guinea fowl terrine, and butternut squash and pear velouté.
Remaining with the Lake menu, I opted for Hake and cassoulet of beans with red pepper basil and chorizo. Again the combination of flavours was superb and made a hearty main course. My friend made an excellent choice from the à la carte menu: Sirloin – flavours seared in – braised brisket, caramelised shallot and veal marrow. Arousing serious choice envy in me, I tried the brisket. The flavour and texture was, ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ incredible.
Dessert was an exquisite Tarte Tatin with creamy vanilla ice cream. The aroma of baked apples making it almost too tantalising to taste – light and satisfying.
Coffees in the quiet, peaceful lounge area and it was time to retire: happy, content and feeling very grateful for such a wonderful evening.
The following morning, my friend and I were shown to the light and sun-filled orangery. The first time we’d seen it in daylight and the perfect breakfast spot. Gorgeous views over the lake and gardens, enhanced by fabulous coffee and croissants, whipped to perfection scrambled eggs and toast and crispy bacon. Heaven.
You can walk off a gastronomic weekend of excess with a gentle stroll around the Manor’s gardens – it has the most beautiful cedar tree. Or head down Fishpool Street and visit the lake and Roman ruins at Verulamium. If you prefer shopping to nature, then St Albans has an eclectic range of outlets at the Maltings, St Christopher’s Place and the High Street. There is also a thriving market every Wednesday and Saturday.
And no trip to St Albans would be complete without a visit to the world-famous Cathedral – only a few minutes walk from St Michael’s Manor. Britain’s oldest site of continuous Christian worship (work began in 1077), it’s named after the Christian martyr St Alban, and boasts the longest nave in England. Among other notables buried in the churchyard is Lord Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury who was also a former Bishop of St Albans.
St Michael’s Manor doesn’t have its own in-house spa. But it does offer a range of all-inclusive pampering treatments at nearby Westminster Lodge Spa – just a short (free) taxi ride away. The hotel reception will give you all the details when you arrive.
If you’re looking for an outstanding wedding location, St Michael’s Manor is picture-perfect, and easy to reach, thanks to its proximity to all major travel routes. The gardens and lake provide stunning photo ops, with no less than five locations in the hotel and grounds licensed to conduct ceremonies. I loved the pontoon with its beautiful backdrop onto the lake.
Guests can reserve the entire hotel and private parties for up to 130 guests are easily catered for in the light-filled Orangery overlooking the lake.
For corporate functions, or smaller birthday gatherings, two other meeting rooms are available: the oak-panelled, portrait-filled Oak Lounge and its larger next-door neighbour the Cedar Suite, both interconnecting.
Of course, any hotel is only as good as its staff. At St Michael’s Manor they were attentive, well informed and genuinely pleased to assist.
A positive attitude epitomised by our waitress at breakfast, when she tells us: “I try to give customers the kind of service I expect myself in restaurants.
“It’s really not that hard, if you give from your heart.”
From our first impressions of Robert at the front door, to the bar service, restaurant and front desk, it’s the great team at St Michael’s Manor that give the hotel its heart. You’ll leave, as we did, replete, refreshed and feeling very well cared for.
St Michael’s Manor Hotel – Where and How?
St Michael’s Manor Hotel, Fishpool St, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL3
T: 01727 864 444
E: [email protected]
Facebook, Twitter and Google+: St Michaels Manor Hotel
Lake Restaurant: [email protected]
Travel to St Michael’s Manor
By car: Nearest motorways are just 3 miles from the venue. M1 – J6/7. M25 – J21a.
The M40 and M4 enter the M25 from the south 16 and 20 miles away.
Sat Nav: AL3 4RY. Private parking for 80 cars.
By rail: From London St Pancras trains run frequently and take around 30 minutes. St Pancras connects to Eurostar and the London Underground.
Airports: Heathrow, Luton, London City, Stansted and Gatwick are all within easy reach. Visit the website for more detailed maps and directions.
About Gina Baksa