Gillian Thornton enjoyed a relaxing weekend in the heart of Constable Country.
After a particularly fraught week, I was looking forward to Maison Talbooth with mixed feelings – eager anticipation of a relaxing break but an underlying worry that I might be expecting too much. So when my husband and I drew up in the drive and were met by a smiling young man with a warm welcome, I felt cautiously optimistic that the weekend was going to deliver.
There were more smiles from staff awaiting our arrival inside the cream-coloured mansion, just outside the pretty village of Dedham on the Essex/Suffolk border. This is the heart of Constable Country and we’d already stopped to explore the gentle countryside that inspired some of the nation’s favourite paintings. There’s something gloriously timeless about standing on the spots around Dedham, Flatford and East Bergholt where Constable painted his most famous pictures two centuries ago.
Follow the National Trust’s marked trail around Flatford and take the footpath across the fields to Dedham with its coloured facades, half-timbered houses, and rare ecclesiastical painting by Constable in the parish church. Lovers of equestrian art can also visit the former home of Sir Alfred Munnings (closed in winter).
Maison Talbooth stands in quiet countryside on the opposite side of the village. Opened 40 years ago in a converted Victorian house, it was one of the first hotels in Britain to offer en-suite bathrooms and black-and-white television in the bedrooms. The facilities have been tastefully upgraded over the years, but Maison Talbooth has always maintained its reputation for understated luxury and a relaxed, homely atmosphere, albeit a very upmarket home.
There are just 12 suites of varying sizes, three of them on the ground floor with hot tub on a private terrace. All are named after English poets and feature king size beds with goose feather duvets, but there the similarity ends – the décor in each is highly individual.
We stayed in Keats at the back of the building on the ground floor. An eclectic mix of period features and modern furnishings, it included a comfortable sofa facing the bay window, a vast bathroom with large bath and double shower, and – between the two – an extra bedroom with two children’s bunk beds, as well as ‘panda’ bean bag chairs, toys and DVDs. Long past the stage of small-sized people, we left that door firmly shut, but it’s a lovely facility for families.
Our luxury break, however, was very much a two-some and all the little extras are here to help you enjoy it. The welcome tray (so discreet that it took me a long time to find it in a cupboard); the mini-bar (wine and champagne at bar prices, but soft drinks are complimentary); the dressing gowns, fluffy towels, and luxury toiletries.
And when you want to stray from the luxury of your own room, there’s a delightful lounge area with deep armchairs, glossy magazines and – during our November stay – a roaring log fire where non-residents can also enjoy traditional afternoon tea. Light lunches are served in the Garden Room or on the outdoor terrace in summer.
You can add to that feeling of wellbeing in the first-floor spa area, and my blissful back and neck massage proved hugely therapeutic for a niggling shoulder injury. Sporting types can take advantage of the all-weather tennis court and outdoor pool, heated to 85º even in winter.
There are no evening meals at Maison Talbooth but the pampering experience continues as a courtesy car whisks guests on the two-minute journey to Le Talbooth restaurant, a historic half-timbered building on the banks of the Stour. The cuisine is essentially English, with contemporary Continental touches, and the service and surroundings impeccable. We are still talking about the poached lobster risotto and the perfect Chateaubriand, not to mention the ‘Jelly and ice cream’ – a divine combination of walnut crumble, conference pear jelly, vanilla and damson Arctic roll.
Then you just ask for the car and by the time you’ve got your coat on and said your goodbyes, it’s there to take you home – ready for a night between those Egyptian cotton sheets and the prospect of a leisurely breakfast, if indeed you can squeeze any more food in.
My husband and I were particularly impressed by the high level of staff training at both hotel and restaurant, something that should be a high priority for any service provider, but is so often missing, even in upmarket hotels. Without exception, we found the young team to be friendly and attentive without being overwhelming.
So what’s not to like about the Maison Talbooth experience? Honestly, nothing except possibly the price.
Advertised rates start from £150 for bed and breakfast for two in a Standard Suite (midweek).
But for most of us, Maison Talbooth is all about having a treat, whether for a special occasion or just a restorative pick-me-up, and what price do you put on feeling special? Personally, I can’t wait to go back.
Dedham, Colchester, Kent