One of the many beauties of England is the diversity of its landscape and architecture. The grey limestone of the Cotswold Hills surrenders to the warm red brick, clay and flint of the The Chilterns in the space of a few miles. Each county- however small- has its own identity. Norfolk, the most English of counties, is no exception, with its wide, open skies, undulating barley fields, ancient copses, Dutch gables and bleak, windswept salt marshes.
And late August is an especially poignant time to visit, reminding me of the spectacular and languid cinematography in Joseph Losey's "The Go-Between", when the great fields turn to the colour of straw, and the heat and dust throw up spectacular Harvest Moons.
The Gunton Arms sits away from the Cromer Road, on the edge of a heart-breaking thousand acre deer park. The house itself, gabled, and built presumably, in 1840's chalet style, has more than a whiff of the Hunting Lodge about it. The art dealer, Ivor Braka, spent two years restoring the place with the help of the interior decorator and antique dealer, Robert Kime; re-imagining the interior as a relaxed country house of the Old School (Voysey-esque paper and worn leather in the hall, inlaid Hoshiapur side tables, deep free-standing bathtubs, recycled Persian runners, racing prints) accented with a choice selection of contemporary Brit Art, the likes of Mr Hirst, Miss Emin and Messrs Gilbert and George. It sounds incongrous, but here it works, harmonising into a relaxed whole, albeit with a slight edge. It's all a bit rock n' roll.
At first glance The Gunton Arms doesn't shout from the rooftops, but with time there's the realisation that everything works beautifully, with great attention to detail- there's a hidden light in the wardrobe, curtains have been beautifully sewn, the beds are spacious and comfortable, there are digital Roberts Radios by your bedside, your keyring is attached to a tiny deer antler from the park- a lovely touch. This is understatement taken to a high art. It's also staffed with a seemingly never-ending supply of helpful and charming young people.
There are eight bedrooms. We stayed in "Langtry" (it is thought that the Jersey Lily stayed in the house during the 1890's; it's relatively close to Sandringham).
The restaurant (The Elk Room) is dominated by a huge pair of pre-historic Elk Antlers displayed over an open spit and grill: here you can watch the chef toast your Cumberland sausage. This must be an evocative room in autumn, especially when venison makes a welcome return, and the heat of the fire banishes the October chill. The menu is inspired by Mark Hix; this is very much my sort of thing: British food, cooked extremely well, for the food at the Gunton Arms is rather good.
Over two successive nights, we sampled (amongst other things) a Middle White Pork Terrine with Piccalilli (£7.50), Cornish Squid with Heritage Tomatoes and Chili (£6.50), Scallops marinated in olive oil and lemon juice, a Cider and Ham Hock Pie (£12.00), Barbequed Beef Brisket with Slaw (£14.50), home-made bread, and Ivor's Crab and Chili Pasta with Parsley (£12.50).
The terrine was superb, full of meaty flavour, and nicely offset with a tangy Piccalilli, properly made in the old-fashioned way. The Cider and Gammon Pie, again, came with a rich sauce, and is possibly one of the best pies I have recently tasted. The scallops, sadly, failed to meet their mark, their delicate sweet taste over powered by an unneccesary marinade, and Ivor's own pasta (although admirable in concept) was too salty and too spicy for most palates- but hey, these are trifling quibbles over what was otherwise, a delightful experience. The house wine (Am anti del vino prmitivo salento, 2011) was also a relative bargain at £16.00 a bottle: smooth, full of blackcurrent and velvet plum; a relevation. Iced tap water is served (in old whisky advertising jugs) without request.
After dinner we took our drinks into the garden and as darkness fell, watched the deer herds drift across the landscape.
As you've probably gathered, I like the Gunton Arms- very much indeed. They've got it right. Spot On. It's thoroughly unpretentious. There may be some who dislike the lively bar- it's very much still a pub, with a snooker table, television, rock music and bags of peanuts hanging from a saucy display card- but this is a good thing. There's nothing worse than a Farrow and Ball'd gastro-pub which alienates the locals, many of whom have probably been going there since before you or I were born.
There may be others who wring their hands over the torn leather, the slightly louche atmosphere, the naughty Tracy Emin plates hanging over the bar, the deer droppings in the park. And to them, I say, it's your loss and our gain. Four Cheers for The Gunton Arms! We will be returning.
Photographs from The Gunton Arms website.
The Gunton Arms, Cromer Road, Thorpe Market, Norwich, NR11 8TZ (01263 832010)