English country house hotels have come a long way over the last fifty years. Where once they were simply classically furnished old houses offering an evocative glimpse into the country’s history, nowadays many of them cater for more modern demands such as spa pampering and fine dining.
One venue that perfectly epitomises this progression is Congham Hall, set within thirty acres of parkland near King’s Lynn in West Norfolk. It’s a Georgian manor which dates back to the late 1700s but has been more recently transformed into the contemporary, award-winning boutique hotel it is today.
A gravel drive atmospherically leads you to a pillared portico entrance, which opens into its welcoming, elegantly furnished public rooms, incorporating a library, a sitting room with open fire, and around a corner a chic bar area opposite the airy dining room. More on that later.
There are 26 bedrooms in total at the hotel, all individually decorated, with Eygptian cotton linen on the beds and cosy dressing gowns hanging in the bathroom. Individually named after herbs from the garden, the rooms offer further agreeable touches like a Nespresso coffee machine, homemade cookies and fresh milk in the fridge. There was nothing I wanted for during my stay.
Fifteen of the rooms are situated in the Georgian house, on the first and second floor, while eleven Garden rooms (pictured above) are located around the Spa Garden, offering attractive horticultural views through their back windows.
The gardens actually play a key role here, providing homegrown produce for breakfast and dinner in the restaurant and cut flowers to scent the rooms. Congham’s renowned Herb Garden, housing an impressive collection of 400 varieties, attracts visitors in its own right, and is harvested daily along with the kitchen garden by the hotel’s chefs.
Which leads nicely onto the restaurant itself, which boasts 2 AA rosettes for food quality and prides itself on a regularly changing menu predicated on seasonal, locally sourced, ingredients. I went for the fish options for both of my courses at dinner: a starter of marinated grey mullet with orange, fennel and lime, and a main of sea trout served with brown shrimp, baby gems, sea beets and samphire. Light and delicious, the meal, rounded off with a selection of mini puddings, was a credit to the chefs here and truly underlined what the venue is aiming to achieve.
Breakfast was also a delight, with classical music playing gently in the background, and only persistent drizzle sadly preventing my partner and I from enjoying our kippers on the outside terrace overlooking the back garden. Service from the waiters, as with all of the hotel’s staff, is cheery and welcoming from the moment you arrive.
All guests staying at Congham Hall have access to the Secret Garden Spa, whose facilities include a 12-metre swimming pool with floor to ceiling windows; a thermal suite with steam room, sauna and bio-sauna; and an outside hot tub overlooking the gardens. And the herb garden also comes back into play by providing some of its seasonal herbs and blossoming flowers for the spa’s signature treatments.
I regrettably didn’t have time during my short stay to sample any of the spa facilities beyond having a stroll around them, and partly to blame for that was the sheer amount of things to see and do in this beautiful part of East Anglia, actively encouraged by Congham Hall, which sees itself as a base and gateway to much of the county.
For art lovers like myself the hotel not only showcases paintings by local artists on its walls but has put together a visitor guide entitled ‘Six of the Best… Norfolk Art Experiences’ (available free to download from Congham’s website) which guides guests towards some of the county’s unexpected artistic highlights.
One of the venues on its list that I visited was the magnificent stately home Houghton Hall, the former seat of Britain’s first prime minister Robert Walpole, only 15 minutes’ drive away. It is this year’s setting for Norfolk By Design, a pop-up exhibition running until the end of September displaying more than 40 of Norfolk’s finest painters, photographers and ceramicists. Also on view at Houghton is the hall’s own summer exhibition by celebrated British artist Richard Long, which incorporates a striking artistic arrangement of tree stumps in the hall’s grounds.
And if you’re a fan of grand country homes, they don’t come more iconic than the Queen’s own Sandringham House, set within 20,000 acres of land again only a short drive away from the hotel. The private home of four generations of British monarchs since 1862, Sandringham has its own collection of mainly royalty-themed art on permanent display, as well as a fascinating museum covering the history of the estate and the Royal Family to this day. Congham Hall offers complimentary tickets to the house with certain packages (see website for further details), while Sandringham’s spacious country park is open to the public every day free of charge.
Walkers are also well catered for at Congham, with a number of local routes recommended by the hotel including an 8+ mile walk through woods and fields to the ruins of St James’ Church. The sandy beaches of North Norfolk’s coastline are another option if the weather’s on your side.
And for those who can’t resist an English country pub to bookend their hike or day out, there is an excellent one only a short stroll from the hotel called The Three Horseshoes, which serves local ales and a diverse menu also based on seasonal local produce, perfect for a beer garden lunch in these warmer months.
And once you’re back at Congham and there’s sunlight to spare you can relax on the terrace with a late afternoon tea or a champagne cocktail, to the distant sounds of a cricket match on the nearby village green.
It’s all a quintessential country house experience here, but one that perfectly unites the old with the new: a Georgian manor with state-of-the-art facilities. With room rates starting from £135 per night, and £219 per night for dinner, bed and breakfast, it truly is a five-star experience at three-star prices, and one that will have you quickly plotting your return to do everything you couldn’t quite squeeze in the first time.
Kris was a guest of Congham Hall Hotel (01485 600250; www.conghamhallhotel.co.uk) in North Norfolk.
Art Experiences guide and package: The hotel recently launched Six of the Best… Norfolk Art Experiences, available free to download from Congham’s website. It is the latest in a series of free self-guided itineraries conceived by the hotel, which also include The Magnificent Seven… Norfolk Garden Trail and the Fantastic Five… Norfolk Nature Trail.
Guests wishing to put Norfolk’s art at the centre of a relaxing break can benefit from a new ‘Art Experiences’ package specially created to accompany the new visitor guide: two nights’ dinner, bed and breakfast and two tickets to the Richard Long exhibition for £438 per room in total, available Monday to Thursday until 26 October (excl July and August), subject to availability.
The hotel has also relaunched its Stay Longer, Save More offer for this summer (see website for further details).