Inspired British Breaks

There was barely a seat to be had in the Elk Room at the Gunton Arms as I savoured a whopping Sunday roast. An hour or so earlier, I’d turned off the Cromer Road, the A149, some 18 miles north of Norwich, and shortly after had emptied my overnight bag in a softly lit bedroom of warm colours and quietly beautiful antique furniture. It delivered a sense of calm and smelled, faintly, deliciously, of leather. The bathroom, with its spacious shower, deep roll-top and pair of basins was all about modern luxury while the lack of a television, and the freshest sheets and blankets on the bed seemed to say ‘certain things are best the old fashioned way’.

In a former life, this posh pub-with-rooms was the shooting lodge to Gunton Hall. It stands on the edge of a deer park and started its current lease of life in 2011 with eight upstairs bedrooms. Newer, more spacious Barn House rooms have since been added in outbuildings, a merciful minute’s scrunch (given the plunging night temperature) over a gravelled pathway from the pub door.

Inside, warmth and chatter ebbed and flowed in every nook, from the fireside of an Etruscan red sitting room, around the snooker table in the bar and through the inn’s various dining rooms. The most dramatic of these is the Elk Room, so-called for the gigantic antlers mounted over an open fireplace on which meat is cooked, before your eyes, every day except Sunday (when the roasts, including the one I was jubilantly scoffing, come straight from the kitchen).

Morning light revealed scores of deer, at magically close quarters, as I made my way to breakfast. Once inside, in the absence of diners, I could get up close to the art which makes the Gunton Arms truly unique. There are prints by Damien Hirst, and lithographs by Paula Rego, neon works by Tracey Emin which glow just around the corner from 18th-century sketches. There are themes and stories in every room, helpfully explained in a printed guide to the collection by the pub’s owner, Ivor Braka, who happens to be an art dealer.

Art had set the tone even before I reached the Gunton Arms. I’d spent the preceding afternoon on the edge of Norwich at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts located on the campus of the University of East Anglia, its hangar-like space the first major public building designed by Sir Norman Foster. A clever layout within seemed to carry me around the exhibits as though I were a branch floating down a river - one moment I lighted upon a Giacometti bronze, the next a Mexican figurine dating from 900 BC, then a painting by Francis Bacon. 

From the Gunton Arms, I took a spin through the seasidey resorts of Cromer and Sheringham, and beneath a big Norfolk sky joined the Coast Road to Salthouse where bird-watchers carried tripods and lenses along a track through saltmarshes. I drove through Cley-next-the-Sea then inland to Creake Abbey. In a farm shop café beside the ruins of this Augustinian abbey, I ate artichoke soup and a sandwich as a red kite hovered beyond the window.

I sped between winter-brown fields to Castle Acre, a small village with a big history. Here, I had a windswept castle, earthworks and a ruined priory all to myself. At Houghton-on-the-Hill, a locked door at the church of St Mary’s denied me any chance of seeing its 11th-century wall paintings within. Instead, I found artistry in Swaffham, at Strattons, a hotel of bold colours yet restful charm, from fireside dining in its restaurant to the cosy romance of Boudoir, my room beneath the eaves. No two of the 14 bedrooms are alike and from the hotel’s shop, Bam & Arrow, which opened in March 2018 in a former print workshop, guests will be able to take a little of the eclecticism home.

Plentiful vegetarian options bore testament to the hotel’s long-established green cred, at dinner (smoked Norfolk dapple souffle, tarte tatin of root vegetables with carrot puree, spinach and pine nuts) and again at breakfast (spicy ‘vedgeree’ proved more than a match for kedgeree, served in the hotel’s contemporary café-deli, CoCoes). Strattons’ soothing, private house vibe was hard to leave but Norfolk will beckon me back when the expanse of those East Anglian skies is married to long-awaited warm and lengthening days.

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Getting there

Pick up your car from Hertz Norwich Airport.

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