Great Milton is a long Oxfordshire village seven miles from the city, running parallel to the M40. In the distance you can hear the rumble and swish of busy traffic hurling itself between Birmingham, Oxford and London. The Manoir sits behind stone walls in an estate that Raymond Blanc bought from the widow of Lord Cromwell. At the gates stands a statue known as Max. M Blanc had him created by one of his favourite sculptors, Lloyd le Blanc (no relation). Max commemorates an upper-class Oxford student who was ejected for his rude behaviour to the staff. M Blanc asked him to apologise and when he wouldn't he was asked to leave. To this day Raymond Blanc still kicks Max whenever he passes.
As a location for exploring Oxford, Le Manoir is far from ideal but in my experience once inside those gates Oxford soon disappears from your thoughts.
There are 32 rooms and suites. They are to be found in the house and in the quadrangle of cottages, which resembles an old stable block. There is also one freestanding room – the Dovecote – a duplex converted out of a genuine dovecote on the estate.
Raymond Blanc is a man who takes a passionate liking to certain fellow artists and his enthusiasm for Emily Todhunter has led him to employ her to design all the rooms. Fantasy plays a large part. You can stay in the decidedly French “Provencal” suite, in the Italianate delights of the Orangerie or Jade, a Southeast Asian extravaganza in orange silks, leather, velvet and bronze statuary. “Lace” is one of M Blanc’s personal projects. “A room to seduce and to be seduced in,” was his brief to Ms Todhunter. Everyone will have their own favourite, but personally I’d advocate the Dovecote. It is an entirely circular apartment on two levels with an entertainment centre at the foot of the bed that rises up electronically from what looks like an antique chest of drawers. The canopy above the bed is tented up to a light-lantern that allows daylight to spill down on your sumptuously-lit boudoir.
A bottle of Madeira wine is provided for guests’ consumption in every room and toiletries are by Branche d’Olive. Guests are positively encouraged to take them when they leave.
There are two lounges in the Manoir itself and the dining room is spread across two rooms from the old house and a new conservatory. There is also a Champagne bar with grey suede walls and the Belle Epoque fine dining room. Should you really want contact with the outside world there is free WiFi everywhere.
The gardens also serve as public areas as guests are encouraged to wander through the extensive vegetable garden (presided over by another Lloyd le Blanc statue, this time of Sarah Goodsell, the hotel florist), the water garden, the Japanese tea garden and the croquet lawn. The atmosphere in these areas is akin to a rather crowded house party. Don’t be surprised if a tiny muntjac deer passes you at speed, having found something to nibble and then grown anxious about making its escape.
Eating and drinking
People come from all over the world to eat at the Manoir. Raymond Blanc arrived here with his two Michelin stars but has not yet received his third. To M Blanc and his executive head chef, Gary Jones, the stars aren’t as important as the idea of "food without compromise". A meal for four will easily take you into four figures if you have a taste for good wines. I was told that many people save up to come here and as soon as they leave begin saving again for the next time. That said, the three course menu du jour lunch (with canapés and amuse bouche) is only £52.50pp. That price excludes wines and coffee. The nine course menu découverte is good value at £125pp. Prices are higher still in the Belle Epoque fine-dining room.
Explaining the food is important too. There is no expectation that guests must be food or wine experts. The staff like explaining and M Blanc is famous for his cookery schools. Indeed he claims that this is the one 2 Michelin-starred restaurant that is also a cookery school. “We are not food snobs,” says M Blanc.
Raymond Blanc has been on a long mission to improve English cuisine and he has succeeded: “Here was a country surrounded by sea but the fish was awful,” he once said describing his arrival in Britain. “There was no fresh food, and the only bread was awful white sliced. We were the first hotel to actively welcome children. I had to fight my manager, my chefs and the food and travel writers to do that.”
None unless you count the croquet lawn. There are also bicycles that are available to guests who want to explore, but who in their right mind would come to the Manoir to spend forty minutes pounding a gym treadmill? There is no spa but the concierge will book in-room massages.
The annual festival brings in musical celebrities like Lesley Garrett, Alfie Boe and Paul Watson who not only perform but join you for dinner afterwards.
All great hotels have great staff and the Manoir is one of the few English hotels where I’ve felt the staff actively liked me. Service is superb: friendly but not intrusive, expert but not intimidating. Raymond Blanc should run a school for British waiters as well as chefs.
There are 205 members of staff. The hotel is at its fullest when 100 people sit down to eat lunch or dinner at the same time but there is never any sense of pressure.
Who stays there
Celebrities, ordinary people celebrating special anniversaries and those who like the finer things in life. Anyone who loves food and good service plus a few people who just want to be able to say they've been.
The Manoir offers its guests the meal of a lifetime and not everyone can afford to visit twice in this life. Guests divide equally between those who stay one night - and basically just come to eat – and those who stay for two to enjoy the hotel as well. Prices are by size of room and there are six categories – superior, deluxe, junior suite, suite, superior suite and garden suite. The Dovecote is cheaper than the junior suites, but better value in my opinion.
Room rate includes French breakfast, newspaper, WiFi, fresh fruit and a decanter of Madeira in the room. Prices increase on Friday and Saturday nights.
- Room Service
- Families with younger children
- Mature travellers
- Celebrity spotting
- Special occasions
- Nature / wildlife
Pros & Cons
- A sense of occasion
- Great service
- Great location
- Great food
- Expensive, very expensive but you'll forgive yourself eventually