By Rachel Seed
The Hoste Arms sits, pride of place, overlooking the village green in the beautiful Georgian village of Burnham Market in Norfolk. Often referred to as ‘Chelsea-on-Sea’, thanks to the weekend influx of wealthy Londoners who either stay at the Hoste itself or make use of their weekend pad in the village or in the dramatic countryside environs. This invasion of smart Londoners to this chocolate box village could have been its ruination (I suppose some will argue that it has), but it remains a quaint, quiet village with a special charm and an array of fabulous shops, from delis selling local produce, to designer clothes stores and some fabulous interior design and furniture emporiums, worthy of hours of perusing.
Paul and Jeanne Whittoms bought the run-down Hoste Arms in 1989 and have spent the last decade-and-a-half restoring, improving and lavishing money on their pride and joy. The attractive Georgian building has seen many varied roles since its construction in 1550. Starting life as the main manor house in the village, it was later home to a live stock auction market, a courthouse, and even, in late Victorian times, a brothel. Apparently trade was as brisk then as it is for Paul and Jeanne today. We tried to book a room about a week in advance for a one-night, mid-week stay and were told that they only had one small room left, and not as we would have liked, in the ‘Zulu’ wing, where we had stayed once before. We booked the room anyway and, after a flight and a six-hour drive, we were over the moon when the girl on reception told us we had been upgraded to a junior suite. I could have hugged her.
The rooms at The Hoste Arms could be described as opulent. Or over-the-top. Or “heavily draped,” as I overheard one guest saying. If you don’t like chintz, toile or drapes, you won’t get it. I don’t. But, one thing about hotels rooms is that they shouldn’t feel like home. You live in your house, surrounded by your taste every day. Surely the point of going away is to feel like you are away? So I don’t mind that I wouldn’t be seen dead with this kind of décor in my house, or that if I had to wake up to the sea of loud fabric every morning I might have been driven to insanity. It says in the blurb that the rooms “are designed with a view to you not wanting to leave”. Well, I’m not sure about that, but the rooms are definitely comfortable and quite cocooning, with comfy beds, huge fluffy white towels and Egyptian cotton sheets. If you are organised enough to book far enough in advance, I do recommend that you request to be in the Zulu wing. The rooms here are still a bit ‘zany’ – think an abundance of lions and tigers, Zulu warrior-inspired pieces, battle masks, feathers and fur throws. But it is more subtle and contemporary than the main section of the hotel, and I really loved the room we stayed in the first time we were here.
The reason that many people stay at the Hoste is for the restaurant. And I can see why; it is quite a treat. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. The service is very hit and miss. When you do manage to grab someone’s attention, they’re friendly and knowledgeable. The problem is getting their attention in the first place. They mean well, that much is obvious, but there is very little more frustrating than sitting for 20 minutes in an expensive restaurant, waiting to have even a drinks order taken. Other than the service the restaurant is excellent, with a varied menu and well-sourced local ingredients cooked skillfully and imaginatively. Favourites were the Sunday roast with all the traditional trimmings, the burger with foie gras (very naughty, horribly delicious) and the salt cod with béarnaise sauce and ham hock ravioli. The wine list is definitley worthy of a mention, featuring over 300 wines from around the world, with an emphasis on South African wineries – from well-priced classics (a 1983 Pétrus at £525. Almost tempting) to the very best of the New World, including an Opus One 2000, Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir and a 1998 Penfold ‘St Henri’ Shiraz. I was in heaven.
The hotel underwent a £350,000 refurbishment recently and a sizeable chunk of the budget went on a glass fronted, stone-walled cellar to house their impressive selection of wine. They also lavished money on the loos. I can’t speak for the ‘Hoste’ side of things but the ‘Hostess’ facilities are as impressive as any bathroom I have come across. I’m not sure what the locals think of all this, and there does seem to be a distinct separation between the locals drinking their pints in their gum boots propping up the bar at the front of the hotel, which remains a slightly smarter version of how it has no doubt always been – with beams overhead and worn stone underfoot. Then there is the smart, contemporary restaurant full of weekenders dressed in designer gear, sipping Champagne or G&Ts.
If you do over-indulge on the food and wine side of things (and isn’t that what a weekend away is all about?), there are plenty of opportunities to burn off a few calories. Burnham Market is set within an area of outstanding natural beauty. An exploration of the stunning coastline will leave you feeling exhilarated and refreshed, especially if the weather is as foreboding as it was when we were there. But this is England, and it’s all part of the fun, especially if you can buy yourself a brightly coloured pair of Hunter wellies and a fabulously ‘country’ Barbour in the shop around the corner from the hotel. Or you could choose to play a round of golf or try a spot of clay pigeon shooting. The hotel, the restaurant, the shopping, the stunning countryside and the sporting activities – all the ingredients are here for a fabulous weekend in the country, and you can be as active or inactive as you like. Rise early for a round of golf before a long walk on the beach, followed by an afternoon of shopping and an evening spent working your way through an impressive food and wine list. Or cocoon yourself in your hotel room, stock up on the papers, run a bath and order room service. Either way, I am certain you’ll enjoy your stay at the Hoste Arms as much as I did.
Judging from the hardware in the car park (two Bentleys, an Aston Martin and a plethora of Range Rovers in one morning), the amount of Champagne being consumed in the restaurant and absence of a single empty table or room, I think that Paul and Jeanne’s investment in the Hoste has paid off. Hoste with the most? Apart from the odd blip in the service and a seriously questionable taste in soft furnishings, I’d say so.
The Hoste Arms, The Green, Burnham Market, Norfolk
Tel: 01328 738777
Date of review: September 2007.