It is obligatory, when writing about the Thames-side village of Sonning, to quote Jerome K Jerome. In his 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat he said: “It is the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river. It is more like a stage village than one built of bricks and mortar.” It has retained these charms but now there is another name to drop: George Clooney. He and his wife, Amal, bought a £10m house here in 2014. They are the latest in a long line of celebrity residents of this village four miles east of Reading, from Terence Rattigan to, er, Uri Geller.
I arrive expecting to see Clooneys around every corner. Alas, it isn’t to be: perhaps they are in one of their other houses, in LA, Lake Como, or Mexico … But enough celeb-stalking; I’m here to check out the Great House at Sonning, which reopened in May after a major refurbishment. The main building is a Grade II-listed Elizabethan inn, with gardens spilling down to the river. There are more rooms around the courtyard – 49 in all, from “cosy” to suites.
We’re in the Coach House apartment, a split-level suite with river views. The duck-egg blue and burnt-orange colour scheme gives immediate character. There’s an exposed-brick wall and retro touches including vintage-style radio, telephone and record player, plus a popcorn-maker. The Smeg fridge contains fresh milk (but no mini-bar). Down a half-flight of stairs is the TV room – or second bedroom – and bathroom. The latter has a freestanding bath, separate shower, and slate-grey metro tiles.
I look around a “cosy room”, too: it’s surprisingly spacious, with many of the same features, excluding the TV room and bath. (Cosy and “relaxed” doubles are great value, from £60 a night.)
The accommodation isn’t the main focus at the Great House, though. The restaurant is the original Coppa Club, opened in 2015; there are now three others in London . It is a handsome room with a curved pewter bar, velvet sofas, fireplaces and booths – the hotel refit was based on the same aesthetic. We arrive at 9pm on a Thursday, when many hotel dining rooms would be winding down for the night. Not here: the bar, restaurant and terrace are packed until late – and heaving from breakfast onwards the next day. And most people seem not to be hotel guests but mates out for cocktails, or families having brunch, which makes for a lively atmosphere.
The all-day menu cleverly ticks all boxes without being bland. There are nibbles such as crispy truffled gnocchi (£3.50); small sharing plates (squid with sriracha mayo, £5.95); plus grills, salads, pizza and pasta. Our crab and avocado crostini are satisfyingly earthy, with lots of brown meat. Sustainably caught hake with romesco and greens (£13.95) shows more evidence of a sure touch with seafood; roast chump of lamb is a bit too bouncy (£16.45), though broad bean hummus is a nice addition.
We hold off on sides to save room for a cheese plate, only to learn that cheese isn’t served in summer. (Isn’t cheese a food for all seasons?) We make do with a gooey, flourless chocolate and almond cake (£5.45), with dessert cocktails for good measure. This was pure greed: chocolate cake does not need a Turinese chocolate orange (praline liqueur, Baileys and Cointreau, £6.95).
Breakfast is served until a civilised 11.30am, with weekend brunch till 4pm. It ranges from the comically clean-eating (a bowl of quinoa, alfalfa and spinach) to a full fry-up. I meet it halfway with avocado, poached eggs and kiln-roasted salmon (£9.45). Drinks also cover all bases, from green juices to white-peach sangria.
After breakfast, we walk out of the garden, past the deckchairs and the outdoor bar on to the lovely, tree-lined Thames Path, winding past Sonning Lock. On the way back, we call in at the Bull, an “old country inn … with low, quaint rooms and latticed windows” (Jerome again). It’s our last chance to bump into George but the closest we get is his Casamigos brand of tequila (now owned by Diageo) behind the bar.
• Food and accommodation were provided by the Great House at Sonning (0118 969 2277, greathouseatsonning.co.uk, doubles from £60 room-only)
Ask a local
Sally Hughes, managing director, the Mill at Sonning restaurant and theatre
The quaint Riverside Tea Garden is a picturesque spot. It’s right by Sonning Lock, so you can drop by after a leisurely stroll down the Thames Path.
Take in the gorgeous scenery from onboard a Thames steamer. The service from Reading to Henley goes via Sonning Lock and runs daily in summer.
The River & Rowing Museum in nearby Henley turns 20 next year. There are various galleries, plus an exhibition inspired by the much-loved book The Wind in The Willows.
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