A weekend retreat: the Gunton Arms
With its flint walls and painted red gables, the Gunton Arms looks like something from a fairytale. Smoke puffs from the chimney and lingers among the ancient oaks that surround the inn; a herd of deer roam in the 1,000 acres of parkland beyond. Push open the creaking iron gate and it feels like walking into a magically preserved vision of Old England, all roaring fires, real ales and roast beef. There are mounted antlers on wood-panelled walls, stone-flagged floors and antique dressers, paintings of prize cows and beloved horses.
But though it looks unchanged for centuries, this is a beautiful illusion – the Gunton Arms has yet to celebrate its first birthday. And though it feels deeply traditional, it is actually something very modern: perhaps the most accomplished example of the new breed of “superpub”, offering food to rival the best restaurants, and bedrooms as stylish as any hotel, but still retaining a proper bar where locals can sup pints in muddy wellies. It is luxury without formality, a fresh type of hospitality that – like the hot London restaurants that serve hotdogs with champagne and won’t take bookings – no longer takes pride in being exclusive; quite the reverse.
At the Gunton, the menu ranges from chips with curry sauce (£2.50) to fresh lobster (£28). The Saturday night clientele might include a dressed-up group having dinner after a partridge shoot or a gang of lads playing darts. On the wall of the bar is a television showing football, beside a canvas by Gilbert & George.
The early-19th-century building was bought three years ago by Ivor Braka, a leading art dealer, and his wife, the artist Sarah Graham. They set about creating their ideal country inn, filling it with art – by Paula Rego, Julian Opie, Harland Miller, Lucien Freud and others – and recruiting Stuart Tattersall and his partner Simone Baker, formerly head chef and manager at Mark Hix’s restaurants in London.
The eight bedrooms are the work of designer Robert Kime, best known for redecorating Clarence House for Prince Charles. No expense has been spared; the wallpaper is handmade, the rugs from Turkey, the marble in the bathrooms reclaimed from an embassy in Alexandria. The furniture is antique and perfectly chosen; the cast-iron baths are deep; there are beautiful bunches of lilies, artichokes and wild flowers. I found myself cooing over the light switches. In the dining room, Tattersall cooks steaks and huge ribs on a colossal open fire. The food is hearty and delicious, the bread is hot from the oven, the staff are young and enthusiastic.
But best of all, despite being better looking than London’s hippest hotels, the Gunton is eager to please, friendly, unpretentious. At breakfast the guests sit beneath Tracey Emin neons, passing the Marmite between tables, while Baker hands round the Sunday papers. I felt more at home there than I do in my own house.
The Gunton Arms
Cromer Road, Thorpe Market, Norfolk NR11. 01263 832010; www.theguntonarms.co.uk. Doubles from £95 including breakfast
Gunton station is a mile away, trains to Norwich take 34 minutes. Fast trains from Norwich to London take an hour and 48 minutes
Hot holidays: Bond-themed breaks
October is a big month for 007 fans, with both the 50th anniversary of the first film and the release of the latest instalment. Dukes, the London hotel where Ian Fleming dreamt up the catchphrase “shaken not stirred”, is marking the event with a special package. For £1,068 each, guests get a suite, a martini, tickets to Skyfall, an Aston Martin and a guide to Bond locations to visit.
Spitbank Fort, a Victorian seafort in the Solent that has recently reopened as a luxury hotel, is capitalising on its resemblance to a Bond villain’s lair with its own £1,500 Bond package. Guests begin by racing Aston Martins at the Goodwood circuit, then fly by helicopter to Cowes, where they board a power boat to the fort for martinis, champagne dinner and poker.
Those looking for an intense Bond experience can sign up with Secret Me, a “spy school” set up by former special forces agents. Skills taught range from shooting, surveillance and online security to poker and “seduction and persuasion”. Guests start with a weekend in the UK, then move on to a five-day course overseas before finally being sent on a simulated mission. Prices vary.