15th century heritage inn
Drive into historic Lavenham as a first-time visitor and I guarantee you’ll experience the classic ‘Wow!’ moment. Officially classified as a village, this Suffolk gem boasts 340 listed medieval buildings that line the streets in a rainbow of half-timbered coloured facades and gabled windows. I can’t begin to imagine how you fit a wardrobe against those wonky angles and bulging walls, but to the casual visitor, this once prosperous wool town is an idyllic spot to spend a weekend.
And the idyll continues as you step through the front door of The Swan which occupies three half-timbered properties fronting the High Street. I first reviewed this historic hotel for Silver Travel Advisor late in 2014 so jumped at the chance of an early spring return four years on.
The oldest part of this heritage accommodation goes back to the 14th century and the property has been an inn since at least the mid-1600s. A member of the Pride of Britain group, it is owned by the The Hotel Folk which numbers five privately-owned Suffolk hotels. The entrance lobby opens into a hall leading to Reception and offering tantalising glimpses through open vertical timbers of cosy corners and open fires.
From the outset, The Swan is clearly a hotel that takes staff training and customer service seriously. Our welcome was as friendly and efficient as before, the staff smartly turned out and wearing genuine smiles. And the smiles continued as we were escorted to our bedroom. The 45 bedrooms and suites are all different, although decorated in the same period style. At which point, a reminder that this is at heart a medieval timber frame building. Modern double glazing and window frames don’t comply with conservation regulations, so whilst there is every modern comfort and amenity from flat screen TV to WiFi, you may have to make the odd compromise.
But our Heritage-category room was delightful, a short passage leading past the bathroom and wardrobe to a spacious bedroom area with settee and arm chair. Facilities included ironing board, tea and coffee tray (no biscuits), and a tempting stock of Temple Spa toiletries in the bathroom, as used in the hotel spa. The bathroom itself was compact but with an efficient over-bath shower, and gleaming from every monochrome surface. My only complaint – and one I have to make too often in hotels – was the lack of magnifying mirror for us ladies who can’t see close up to apply our mascara!
Guests can access The Weavers’ Spa, new since my last visit, across a tranquil courtyard garden around a small vitality pool, that is overlooked by the relaxation lounge for pre- or post-treatment chill-out. Sadly time didn’t permit a treatment on this visit, but I did have fun treating myself to a product or two from the spa shop before getting ready for dinner.
For informal eating, the Brasserie overlooking the garden is particularly nice during the summer months, but we have booked in the glorious Gallery restaurant with its soaring roof timbers, white table linen and sparkling glassware. Make your food choices first over a drink in a secluded corner of the lounge or in the Airman’s Bar, so called because of the dedications written on the plaster by RAF and US bomber and fighter pilots who were stationed at Lavenham during World War II.
I always think it’s a shame when diners dress down in beautiful surroundings, so I was pleased that all the guests we saw had made an effort. Head Chef Aaron Gilbert more than justifies his two AA Rosettes with imaginative cuisine that’s exquisitely presented and scrumptious to eat. The menu is simple, the dishes listed by prime ingredient with a subtext of additional components.
So the only clue to the layout of my Mackerel starter were the extra elements of Rhubarb, White Chocolate and Buttermilk. Intrigued, I went for it and was delighted. Lamb turned out to be a duo of mini shepherd’s pie and tender lamb steak with vegetables, whilst my Passionfruit dessert involved a sublime combination of passionfruit mousse, praline biscuit and coconut ice cream. Price for 3-courses (February 2019) was £40 plus wine.
I never tire of walking round Lavenham’s undulating streets and browsing the galleries and independent shops. Visit the Corpus Christi Guildhall on the market square behind the hotel, now open through the National Trust, and don’t miss the impressive parish church of St Peter and St Paul on the edge of town.
And one final word on The Swan. The hotel is – no surprise – very popular for weddings with several function spaces including the Gallery restaurant and the high ceilinged medieval Wool Hall which forms part of the ground floor. So if you’re planning a quiet break, you might prefer to stay midweek or at least check if there is a weekend wedding before you book.
From Lavenham, you can head south to visit Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, as well as Dedham Vale, widely known as Constable Country. To the west, Bury St Edmunds is a great day out for lovers of history, heritage, and good food and drink.
Once home to one of the most powerful abbeys in Europe – now in atmospheric ruins – this lively market town offers St Edmund’s Cathedral; the eclectic collections of Moyse’s Hall museum in an old Norman house; and the Greene King Brewery which offers panoramic views from the roof terrace as part of the visitor tour. Check out the Theatre Royal opposite too, owned by Greene King and leased to the National Trust. Britain’s only surviving Regency theatre, it celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, and offers a packed programme of music, comedy and drama. Tours are bookable online (free to National Trust members) and highly recommended for any theatre fan.