Well here’s an absolute treat of a little place to stay: The Gunton Arms in Norfolk. It provides what is, arguably, the perfect low-key country escape. If you yearn for remoteness and the chill whip of an autumnal wind as you stomp across fields with your hound in tow then you will love The Gunton. Equally if you like the idea of remoteness and the chill whip of an autumnal wind but don’t actually want to go out in it and would rather stay indoors in front of a roaring fire drinking red wine and eating Cromer Crab and a huge Blythburgh Pork Chop then you will love The Gunton.
This place is undersold, in my opinion, because they call it a “pub with bedrooms” and although the description is factually accurate, it’s sort of like calling The Shard an office block, or saying that the Sahara is a bit dusty. With The Gunton’s exquisite food menu, the dramatic open cooking fire that dominates the dining room and the sort of stylish, roughed-up country house luxe bedrooms that you’d expect from a pricey boutique hotel, it’s so much more than the vision that “pub with rooms” conjures up.
I’ve been trying to find the right words to describe it and keep coming back to the same two: comfortable and alive. A strange duo of words to pick, maybe, but that’s how the whole place felt to me. On the one hand it was comfortable, like a big old armchair that you could flop down into, all the edges softened by years of happy use, but on the other it just seemed so buzzing and alive. Perhaps it was because we arrived so late on a Friday evening and the pub and dining rooms were in full noisy swing, but I think it’s also the way that the decor and furnishings are so richly layered – valuable modern works of art on the walls, prints and patterns on the upholstery, worn rugs set over wooden floors…
Perhaps vibrant is a better word than alive, but you get the gist of what I’m trying to say. There was nothing soulless or boring about this place – every inch of it felt as though it had seen years and years of fun, as though there had been one long and unending (very relaxed) country house party. And that feeling continued in our room, which was sumptuously furnished and had views of the surrounding parkland but also had the hum of the dining room coming up through the floor. Which would usually drive me mad – good soundproofing is almost my number one requirement when I’m paying for accommodation – but somehow felt charming here. Comforting, even. Being in this jolly, very tasteful hive of drinking and eating activity when the night was dark and drizzly outside felt warm and satisfying and I was tempted more than once to go downstairs for a nightcap. But having never actually done this before in my life I wasn’t sure whether it was a thing that just happened in story books and so I stayed in bed and read Country Living.
The drinking and eating activity is a must, by the way. The restaurant is headed up by Stuart Tattersall (formerly at Hix) and the dining room is dominated by an enormous open fire over which the steaks and chops and sausages are cooked. I went for the Cromer crab pasta and polished off the entire thing which is unusual for me because crab pasta (it’s always with chilli, garlic and parsely, isn’t it? The classic combo!) is one of those dishes that I always think I fancy and then get bored of half way through. I cleaned the plate and still hadenthusiasm for a delicious milk pudding.
But my starter was the standout dish: mixed beetroots with pickled walnuts and Binham blue cheese. My eyes rolled to the back of my head I was so delirious with pleasure. It was so simply executed but each ingredient on the plate (beetroot, walnuts, cheese) could have been a spokesmodel for its variant, a show-winning example of quality. The beetroot was the sweetest-yet-earthiest I’d tasted, the Binham blue was sharp but creamy and the pickled walnuts – the pickled walnuts! Dear God, squashed onto the fork with a slither of beetroot and a tiny crumble of cheese, they were a taste sensation. Almost too much. I had to order another glass of red to calm myself.
Anyway, you can tell by now that I really rate The Gunton Arms. When we arrived to a neon reception sign glowing out through the dark and the drizzle I knew we’d bagged a good one – the pub itself was nowhere to be seen (you can’t drive up to it, also part of its charm) and it felt exciting and slightly spooky, like we’d arrived at a hipster version of the Bates Motel. Similarities with the Bates Motel ended there, obviously, although I did think that a woman was being slowly murdered on our second night. Turned out she was just having sex. I assume, anyway, from the way it all came to a head.
We paid £185 per night for a superior room. On our way out on the second morning I did that nosy thing that we all do (please tell me you do this) and poked my head into the open rooms that had already been departed from. Just to check out the competition. One of them, which I think must have been a small double, was quite literally a bed in a room because there was no space for anything else, the other was a standard, by the looks of it. Plenty big enough for a little night away, but I think it’s probably worth going for the superior if you can stretch to it! The bathroom was large and had a lovely slipper bath.
You can find the website for The Gunton Arms here – make sure you also book your dinner table in advance as it gets very busy, apparently.
Fancy the idea of a weekend romping about the countryside but want a little more luxury? I can highly recommend Hotel Endsleigh in Devon, reviewed in full here.
Again, it has that lived-in, relaxed sort of quality but this is altogether a grander affair in a larger country house and huge, landscaped grounds that include an arboretum. The food is brilliant and feels slightly more of a posh event than at The Gunton, in that you might want to get a bit more dressed up, though you absolutely don’t have to.
The pinnacle of countryside escaping, though, has to be The Newt in Somerset. Vast amounts of effort and money have been poured into making this a complete countryside destination with a number of places to eat, grounds so big and wonderful that people pay just to visit them and possibly the best spa I’ve ever been to. You can read all about The Newt here and their website is here.
It normally takes me about two years to get around to writing up my hotel reviews (it’s well over a year, I think, since I visited the Bedruthan in Cornwall and I still have the notes fresh in my mind, as though I visited yesterday!) but I’m trying to be more organised and proactive and – why not? – reactive and so TA-DAH! here we are with a post that’s actually fresh in my mind and not from my ever-growing backlog of drafts.
What an intro.
Great. You don’t want to miss this one, especially if you enjoy the odd luxury weekend away somewhere rural but refined. Polished rural, I like to call it. It’s a thing. It’s all the bits of the countryside that people who are not from the countryside want to see, packaged up with deep, hot baths and fifty types of artisnal gin in the bar and a boot room stacked high with Hunter wellies. Hotels that are surrounded by gorgeous countryside, viewable through huge windows from a comfy chair, but that also have paths.
Because nobody would come to the real countryside, not for a luxury break. There’s nothing relaxing about a constant barrage of mud, psychopathic tractor drivers and wifi signal so weak and frustrating it makes you want to go at your own face with a cheese grater.
Obviously there are many good things about the countryside (clean air, slower pace of life, actual space), all I’m saying is that these country hotels (the good ones) manage to parcel up the country life experience so that you’d be forgiven for believing that anyone outside of the M25 spends most of the day either leaning against an AGA or throwing more logs on the fire. Rug on lap, dog at feet, glass of gin in hand and the firelight gently flickering as you read a romantic novel.
Anyway, the Newt In Somerset is the latest polished rural country house and by God do they do it well. This isn’t a hotel, it’s a destination – you could spend an entire day just going about the gardens, which are so splendid that non-guests actually pay to visit them. As a day trip.
They are magnificent, with acres of food-providing beds and orchards, wild areas, a deer park and a cutting edge, forward-thinking garden museum that you’d pay the entry price for alone.
So you have the gardens, which are an attraction in themselves, and then you have one of the most excellent spas in existence – so quiet, so instantly welcoming, so brilliantly designed – and a whole load of different places to eat and drink. Not in a “resort” sort of way, it’s not as though the place has themed restaurants popping up all over the shop, but you can climb up to the huge garden cafe that sits majestically on top op the lands, or you can have coffee in the greenhouse or dinner in the gloriously dark and sexy dining room…
The gym looks like the sort of gym very famous people would go to. I rarely mentions gyms, because WHY you would want to exercise on your relaxing break is beyond me, but this one is notable. The glass that fronts the entire building is formed from one sheet (the largest installed in the whole of Europe last year – geek fact) and it’s just spectacular. It’s no secret that I love a bit of elegant, streamlined modern architecture set against historic buildings and The Newt just do it so well.
It’s an absolute triumph in planning and design – like entering the world’s most perfect village, but if the village had been built by a perfectionist with unlimited budget. I can imagine it must have cost tens of millions of pounds. (The Daily Mail say 50 million, but hey. Pinch of salt, etc.)
And so to the main building, which is your classic Pride & Prejudice early Georgian affair, but with a cheeky little twist. In fact the twist happens before you even get through the door, because all of the woodwork (window frames, door frames) have been painted grey. It’s always a bit of a surprise when they’re not the usual off-white. Part of me hates it, that departure from the way things should be, but the other part of me admires the boldness. And it screams “we’ve done a shitload of work on this hotel – it’s basically a new build in an ancient shell!””
Which it is. The inside is immaculate, with huge panes of glass set against exposed stone walls (sound familiar? It’s like House Reno deja vu!) and bedroom walls and ceilings that are so flawlessly plastered you’d be hard pushed to tell you’re in an old house, until you go to the windows and see that they are the original sashes. The bedroom was borderline too clean for me, finish-wise – spots set into the ceiling, shining out through peepholes cut into the plasterboard, and pristine furniture, but on the other hand there’s no denying that this gives everything a really high-end feel. There’s no shabbiness – no worn leather armchair or frayed rug, none of your ubiquitous country house edge, but if there was then perhaps it would feel a little too much like the hotels that are already well established in providing a luxurious rural bolthole.
In short: go to The Newt if you’re after a countryside break. I can’t see how you’d regret it. Plenty to do, plenty to eat (and there’s a garden-to-fork philosophy, so a vast proportion of the ingredients have zero air miles and are just about as nice as you can get them) and bedrooms you’d happily live in. Make sure you do the spa and the garden museum and absolutely factor in a trip to nearby Bruton, which has the Hauser & Wirth gallery and is cute as a button. Within twenty minutes you have the market town Frome (the most “woke” town in the UK, apparently) and Wells, which is the UK’s smallest city but has an absolutely epic Cathedral. Or, you know, just lounge about at The Newt and drink their cider and eat snacks.
You can find more info on The Newt here – rooms start at £255 per night. No dogs allowed, which is also something that sets this hotel apart. Most country offerings are heaving with dogs, which is both lovely and at the same time annoying, depending on where you stand with dogs. The Newt do accept children, which is both lovely and at the same time – oh, you know the drill.