It is strange to compare a couple of points with two very different areas; Norfolk and France’s Alsace. Neither is really on the way to anywhere so it is peaceful and most roads are uncrowded, but both have a few touristic centres which have rather too many people visiting in the high season. I would add that both have some stunning scenery and other interesting features which make them both very desirable areas to visit.
Everyone will have an opinion on The Gunton Arms as it prompts views and experiences at the same time as being thought provoking, but let us not overlook that it has a lot to offer. It is not shy to be very provocative on the one hand with taste challenging modern art, whilst being ultra conservative on its 1970’s retro furnishings which seem to apologise for being in the 21st century.
The large majority of guests at this ‘pub with rooms’ will be captivated by its location as it is situated just within the boundary of a 1,000 acre park in which a large herd of red and fallow deer roam. And roam, they do as evidenced by the need for a cattle grid just outside the kitchen, so watch where you walk. Guests were sitting at dusk at tables in the park with deer browsing literally a few yards away. A memorable experience.
I do not agree that this traditional inn, owned by the art dealer Ivor Braka, and refurbished by the interior designers Robert Kime and Martin Brudnizki, is all about hearty hunks of rich meaty food cooked above an open fire (great theatre) in the main dining room. There are plenty of imaginative elegant dishes for those who do not have the appetite to sample the wonderful, but generous, traditional British roasts and game dishes. My local Cromer crab was sweet, delicate and delicious, the pan fried seatrout with seashore vegetables absolutely a breath of the seaside. On the other hand, the pudding of Greengage and almond tart was really a slightly heavy piece of cake.
The head chef, Stuart Tattersall, a protégé and ex-head chef of Mark Hix‘s Oyster and Chop House in London, has a steady supply of game from the surrounding estates’ gamekeepers who not only manages the 1,000 deer herd, but also prepares them for the restaurant’s ever changing menu.
A kitchen team of nine chefs, and counting, cover three services a day with up to 100 dining guests in three dining rooms. Every possible part of the animal is used and fish is caught in places such as Cromer some six miles away. It is not fussy cooking but you will find finesse here with everyone catered for including vegetarians and children.
We had a large suite with a separate sitting room and enormous bathroom fully equipped with a large roll top bath, together with a huge separate shower. Again, they have followed a theme in the furnishing as there is no television and few knick-knacks in the rooms. However, despite the private sitting rooms, they have a communal sitting room with a television and a fridge. No wonder Garry Barlow and his fellow ‘Take That’ group reserved the whole of The Gunton Arms when they performed last June in Norwich twenty miles away. We actually stayed in Gary’s suite and enjoyed the same peaceful uninterrupted views across the park. The accommodation throughout the main building and the converted outbuildings are finished and furnished to a high standard.
Understandably, the inn is popular with locals and holidaymakers from the nearby coast. It is certainly not ‘Disney’ but it is carefully crafted and themed to create the real pub image with its wood-smoke, solidly built scrubbed tables and dartboards. The atmosphere they have created greatly appeals.
Back to the art; there is a large eclectic collection amongst which are numerous famous names including; Anthony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Sir Anthony Caro, Damien Hirst and Paula Rego. There are a couple of challenges; in the park there were several sculptural pieces including an Anthony Caro piece, a ‘Breeze’ block pyramid and, difficult to describe, a glass structure; none of which could I relate to or understand. The other challenge is determining what is art and what is simply obscene, it is a very personal matter but I did find one or two uncontroversial pieces very covetable.
As the owner Ivor Braka is reported to have said “In the words of Dolly Parton; It took a lot of money to look this cheap’. Ivor’s money was obviously well spent as the Gunton Arms’ popularity is such that booking well ahead throughout the year is advised. To ease the problem, a former pub by the station – not so many trains – is being considered which could provide more much needed capacity. There is a great deal of interest in the area, even within the mile between the two properties is a very romantic small church built in 1796 in the ‘Gothik’ style; well ahead of more renowned buildings.
There is plenty to do nearby with tennis courts and squash courts, plenty of walks and several National Trust and other stately homes to visit. In particular, Felbrigg with its amazing four acre walled vegetable garden and Holkham Hall, which featured in Shakespeare in Love. However, you cannot leave out Blickling Hall; the exterior reminds me of Hampton Court but obviously smaller together with its vibrant planting of the gardens.