Right, let’s get all the gags out of the way first shall we? Because, believe me, Mrs Smith cracked every one humanly possible on the way to our weekend lovenest in Reading. Yes, Reading. The place where they sent Oscar Wilde to punish him. Part of the soulless Berkshire commuter belt off the busy M4 corridor. The town whose motto could be ‘At least it’s not Slough’. I heard all of this, and more, on our drive from London (‘Look, darling, it’s only an hour door to door!’), my partner’s face clearly registering her dismay at being whisked away under the auspices of a sexy, fun weekend in a new boutique hotel, only to find out that it wasn’t to the stately country pile she’d imagined. ‘You,’ she said with a giggle, ‘put the berk in Berkshire.’ Excellent.
I could feel the ice thawing though, and the sarcasm slipping away, as we pulled up to the Forbury’s suitably grand entrance. A former government building, this smart townhouse hotel sits prettily in a quiet corner of the town centre, overlooking leafy Forbury Gardens. For me, the first tick in the box went to the doorman who doubled as a valet parker. Although ours was undoubtedly the worst car he’d had to park that day and possibly, I’d venture, ever, he took the keys without even the slightest Roger Moore eyebrow raise and drove our banger off to the hotel’s carpark.
For Mrs Smith, the box ticking started with the sexy, and colourful, reception area. Swirls of pinks, reds, burnt orange and silver create a slick European-style ambience; commissioned contemporary art on the walls and, I’m convinced, the world’s biggest chandelier, all add up to a design hotel with a decadent, playful air. Before going to the room, we popped our heads into the library, a handsome oak-panelled room with a centrepiece fireplace and a quirky selection of reading material, running from Tolstoy to Playboy (the ten-year anniversary hardback of the latter, to be fair, not a few ragged copies that looked as though they’d been left under a hedge by some schoolboys). Just past that was the cinema, with its plush leather seats and waitress service where, said our concierge, a Sunday night arthouse film club takes place.
Our suite, one of 24 rooms, had Mrs Smith cooing with delight from the moment we entered. It is the sort of bedroom where high-profile WAGs might be happy to kick off their Manolos: the bed is vast and dressed in fine Egyptian cotton sheets and fat pillows, while the two bathrooms offer a double rainfall shower or a deep clawfoot bath respectively. We spent an amusing ten minutes figuring out how the former worked, comprising as it did side jets, overhead shower and temperature controls. A word to the wise: ask the chap who shows you to your room to demonstrate, since these controls can be a Gordian knot to the uninitiated, particularly after a couple of glasses of champagne.
A gift bag of smelly stuff, slippers and, a neat addition, a sweatband with a pocket to keep your key in (should the urge to go for a jog take you), added to the welcoming feeling. This was definitely a place where the details had been overseen by a luxury expert. A Bang & Olufsen DVD and stereo, Molton Brown toiletries and great DVDs and CDs left in the room for you – a lovely trusting touch. At last, a hotel has realised that, at £300 a night, you’re hardly likely to be filching £10 DVDs.
Dinner that night was in Cerise, a chic, sexy space in the hotel’s basement. We were given the option of cocktails in the bar but, having studied the menu in our room, we felt Pavlovian urges drive us straight towards the table. Starters of seared scallops and oak smoked salmon kicked us off, before we moved on to a velvety slow-cooked pork belly and roast cod with foie gras, a curious mix of fish and fowl which combined zingy freshness with rich luxuriance. After a shared dessert of blackberry and apple crumble we decided to go raving all night at the MegaBanging OffyerFace night in the city centre. Just kidding. In fact, we waddled back to our room, flopped on the bed and, in a fit of gluttony, ordered our in-room breakfast for the next day.
Given our foodie blow-out, the lack of a gym at the hotel was a bit of a blow, but the helpful staff were full of suggestions about ways to shake off our post-breakfast torpor. Half an hour’s drive away is part of the Chiltern Way – a well waymarked walking trail that takes you through some of the prettiest villages in England. We ended up in Turville, the village where they film The Vicar of Dibley and, I’d imagine, a few other shows that require a pretty English hamlet complete with ancient church and green, rolling hills. If you visit, go for lunch at its only pub, The Bull and Butcher, where a classic ploughman’s will set you back a mere £7.
But there’s only so much fresh air my Mrs Smith can take of a weekend, before the need to shop comes over her. With that in mind, we drove further north to Bicester retail village near Oxford, a designer discount mall designed as a small town, where Mrs Smith wandered around fingering garments that I knew she would never buy. Generally, it means hours and hours of making some sap in a shiny suit fetch endless boxes of more or less identical footwear before deciding that they’re not quite right, so I decamped to the village’s branch of Carluccio’s to read the paper. It’s a measure of the depth of our relationship that both of us were blissfully happy with this situation. The Forbury is the sort of hotel that instils this sort of happiness, too. A natural, hospitality-based mood enhancer, which makes everything seem lovely. Even Reading.