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Review: Thornbury Castle Hotel and Restaurant, near Bristol, UK

In 2021, The Times crowned Thornbury Castle Hotel as Britain’s Best Romantic Hotel. Guests time travel back to Tudor days, to a castle that was once Henry Vlll’s country escape, for a majestic taste of Renaissance living.

Sleep regally in the octagonal Henry Vlll suite, where he and Anne Boleyn stayed for 10 days in 1535 whilst waiting for Bristol’s plague to abate. Climb the 77 steps to the fairy tale Catherine of Aragon tower with its 10 feet wide bed. Or relax in any of the other  25 beautifully curated bedchambers. Recalling palatial Tudor living, Thornbury has sumptuous bedchambers rather than rooms.

Begun in 1510 by Edward Stafford, the third Duke of Buckingham, Thornbury Castle was nearing completion when Henry appropriated it after the he had Stafford executed for treason in 1521.

The welcome

With just 27 bedchambers, the welcome is warm and personal. First, we are shown the lounge, where afternoon tea is being served, and then the library which leads to the bar.

Our luggage is taken across the courtyard garden to our bedchamber and low arched doorways are pointed out. No wonder that Henry Vlll frequently had a sore head. At 6’2” he was a giant of a Tudor.

The bedchamber

Beneath a timber beamed ceiling and glinting chandelier, the large Mary Queen of Scot’s bedchamber has armchairs, dressing table, chests of drawers, fireplace and tapestry.

Our view is across the rose-gardened courtyard to an oriel window that was part of Stafford’s first floor accommodation. Above is a red brick chimney from 1514 that predates Hampton Court’s chimneys by a year.

Although there is plenty of exposed stonework within the castle’s four feet thick walls, the bedchamber, with chandelier-style wall lights casting warm pools of light, and acres of fitted carpet, is surprisingly cosy.

Thornbury’s owners have discreetly introduced contemporary comforts: a fridge hidden away behind the dark wood marquetry, a television packed with information on the property and phone charging points by the bed. Wide four poster beds are designed for modern folk, not vertically challenged Tudors. Each bedchamber is named after a prominent Tudor character, a cast list that includes Henry’s six wives.  Within a gilded frame, the story of Mary Queen of Scots’ troubled life is told. Embroiled in catholic / protestant strife and euro power politics, she was imprisoned for 19 years before her execution.

The bathroom

A hobbit-sized door leads through a mini-corridor of built in wardrobes into a dual aspect bathroom. Wooden shutters preserve privacy.

Even here you cannot escape history and the legacy of Stafford’s ego. His sealed knot coat of arms is etched into the glass of the showered door and embroidered on the flannels.

The facilities

Thornbury’s 3 AA Rosette restaurant draws in foodies from afar. From the moment guests take a seat in the historic-tomed library or by the log-fire toasted lounge for drinks, this is a regal dining experience. The black-tailed maitre d’ sashays between bar and restaurants ensuring that his waistcoated staff, immaculate in white blouse and black ties, provide slick service.

A portrait of Henry Vlll, in that famous legs astride dominating pose, looks out over one of the two dining rooms. Though he would not approve of Executive Chef David Campbell’s light and sophisticated menu despite the superlative sourcing and eye-pleasing presentation.

Henry was more a half-a-roast-boar glutton than a delicate braised shin of beef gourmand. Pan roasted halibut with salt cod mash, BBQ gem lettuce, brown shrimp and mussels would have been far too refined for the monarch’s tastes. And what would have been the volatile carnivore’s reaction to spiced quinoa?

In terms of facilities, there isn’t a single cardio-machine at Thornbury Castle nor a swimming pool for laps. But in a nod to 21st century indulgence there is a menu of relaxing massages available.

Otherwise, activities are distinctly Tudor. Archery, croquet or falconry on the lawn. A walk through the Goodly Garden where the ladies once gathered to gossip by the skep straw bee hives, amongst the quince and strawberry trees. Or a stroll through the labyrinth where they may have discussed who would succeed Anne Boleyn as Queen. A mere 10 months after her Thornbury stay Anne was dead. Beheaded.

The location

Overlooking the Severn Estuary, Thornbury is within a short drive of Bristol for visits to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the redeveloped docks and Brunel’s SS Great Britain.

A slightly longer drive takes guests to Bath with its grandiose Regency architecture and Jane Austen legacy.

Other nice touches

A decanter of sloe gin, distilled locally, makes for a relaxing nightcap.

Recalling a bygone age of service, early morning tea and coffee can be delivered. Even though there is a very impressive tea and coffee tray, including a copper cafetière within the bedchamber.

No characterless, tepid breakfast buffet here. Piping hot breakfasts are freshly cooked to order. Nor is the tea from an electric machine. The aristocratic tea menu includes choices of Halmari Estate Assam and Himalayan Darjeeling. Needless to say both decaf tea and coffee are available.

For a unique celebration of a special occasion, you can book a private dinner in the dungeon.

The cost

Bedchamber rates begin from £299. For dinner, three courses from the a la carte menu costs £59.

The best bit

Book a tour with a historian to learn how the Stafford’s relations with King Henry Vlll were a microcosm of the Tudor period: power, conflict and beheadings. By the end of Henry’s reign in 1547, executions had decimated the Stafford family tree.

With stone from his Cotswold quarries, Edward Stafford, designed a grand castle that was also a palace arrogantly exulting his status. His name and titles are displayed  above the gate, his sealed knot heraldic crests carved throughout the property.

As England’s second richest man, descended from Edward lll, he thought he had a better claim to the throne than his cousin, Henry Vlll. As historian David Starkey has written, Stafford barely bent his knee for Henry. That was until Henry lured Stafford to London and had him beheaded in 1521.

The final verdict

A fascinating insight into Tudor times with contemporary regal comforts. There’s a helicopter pad for those who travel from afar for chef David Campbell’s superb fare.

Disclosure: Our stay was sponsored by Thornbury Castle Hotel and Restaurant .

Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards is a travel writer from Oxfordshire, UK. Although Michael had his first travel pieces published nearly four decades ago, he is still finding new luxury destinations to visit and write on.

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  1. This must be liking living in the pages of a history book, the castle is dripping with history.

    1. Yes, the castle is dripping with history. Taking the history tour adds so much to your understanding of the castle’s history. Every stone literally tells a story. Our guide had phenomenal in depth knowledge of the Staffords and the castle.

    1. You certainly won’t regret a visit to Thornbury Castle Hotel and especially not to the restaurant. It’s a very special and unique destination.

  2. I’ve been lucky enough in my life to stay in some superb hotels but my list doesn’t include a genuine castle like Thornbury. I’ll have to investigate further.

    We’ve got a big anniversary coming up and this could be the perfect spot for a romantic celebration.

    1. If the numbers work you could opt for a private meal served in The Dungeon. It seats up to 8 which could be good for your immediate family.

  3. Browsing in my local newsagents I saw a magazine on The Tudors which is hardly red hot news as it’s over 500 years since Henry Vlll was crowned.

    The editor’s intro explained how we’re still fascinated by those times and I can see why Thornbury Castle with its hands-on history is such a popular hotel for a luxury short break.

    1. Our guide was talking about the fascination with the Tudors. They get visitors from the USA as well as the UK who are keen to learn more in situ.

  4. Even if you’re not a history buff this seems like quite a unique place to stay. From reading between the lines it’s more like a palace than your standard hotel room.

    1. It was obvious that some of the guests were there more for the luxury, the superb accommodation and the top notch food, than for the history. Thornbury is also a very, very popular place for afternoon tea.

  5. It’s been a hectic week and it ain’t over yet. If only we had a weekend getaway booked to somewhere like Thornbury Castle hotel.

    Though on second thoughts is there anywhere that can compete with that sort of Tudor grandeur???

    1. I’ve stayed in some historic hotels where Henry Vlll or other monarchs have allegedly stayed. Thornbury is on another level to many a historic hotel.

  6. Best Romantic Hotel is some accolade especially when it is from The Times. With a win like that you know that it’s going to be good.

    1. Yes, it is very romantic, especially with a beautiful location looking down towards the Severn Estuary.

      The restaurant with its log fire and deep burgundy colours sets the tone.

      Though, you have to question whether Anne Boleyn found it at all romantic …

  7. Can’t say that I’ve been to Thornbury though I did have a short break in Bristol last year.

    Well worth calling in on the redeveloped docks. The highlight is the SS Great Britain and the M Shed museum is good too.

    I wish I’d known about Thornbury back then it would have really capped a great trip.

  8. Those straw skep beehives aren’t as environmentally friendly as you’d think they are.

    I’m not a bee keeper or expert. My guess is that they probably had to kill the bees to harvest the honey. Those Tudors, as King Henry demonstrated, could be brutal.

    1. That might explain why there were about 20 inset holes in the garden walls for hives. At the time I thought that was a lot of honey for a castle community that probably wasn’t ever much more than 300 to 400 people.

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