A review by ‘The Telegraph’s Travel’ about Congham Hall Hotel
What they said (Fiona Duncan, Telegraph Travel’s hotel expert):
Just 16 months after the dramatic collapse of Von Essen Hotels with debts of nearly £300 million, the 28 properties were all under new ownership, proving that the concept of the country house hotel is still very much alive and kicking. They may have sold for considerably less than the total asking price, but they did at least all sell.
As he was amassing his ill-conceived empire, Andrew Davis, Von Essen’s then owner, snapped up four family hotels from hoteliers Nigel Chapman and Nicholas Dickinson, and Congham Hall from its then owners, Trevor and Christine Forecast. In a twist of irony, Chapman has bought back those four Luxury Family Hotels (luxuryfamilyhotels.co.uk ) for much less than he sold them, and Dickinson has bought Congham Hall.
In many ways, Congham Hall is typical of the upper mid-market country hotels that have proliferated in the past 50 years. A former private home, it makes a pleasant Georgian base, set in 30 acres of gardens and woodland. No one seems to want to just relax in a hotel with a good book these days (except me), so the ubiquitous spa has been added, while a remarkable, nationally-acclaimed herb garden, created by Christine Forecast and containing almost 400 varieties, makes a more unusual, and natural, talking point.
I’m so glad to see hotels such as these back in private hands. They don’t lend themselves to central operations and only really work when hands-on owners are involved. In other words, Congham Hall is back where it belongs and its long-serving key staff ensure continuity.
The re-modelled entrance hall is my favourite part of the hotel, revealing the original Georgian proportions of the house, with a beautiful new stone floor and walls painted soft grey green. Two sofas flank the central fireplace and on a circular mahogany table an arrangement of forsythia, from the garden as are most of the flowers used in the charming arrangements around the hotel, made a stunning natural display. On either side of the hall are a drawing room (too many chairs and sofas the same) and a library: relaxing though in need of more character. “Looks like a John Lewis showroom to me” said son Fergus, who was about to go skydiving with his older brother and whose nerves were making him grouchy. It was the main reason for our visit to Norfolk and while it was son number one’s lifelong ambition to jump out of an aeroplane, son number two spent most of his time at Congham Hall moodily chewing his nails and questioning his sanity in deciding to accompany his brother.
Bedrooms are divided between house and new garden wing. The latter have straightforward furnishings, brilliant beds and masculine bathrooms. Of the oddly decorated house bedrooms, largely unchanged since the Von Essen days, I liked the smallest top floor ones best: Juniper, Lavender and Jacob’s Ladder, all good value, as well as the huge ground floor suite, Achillea.
Meals are taken in the attractive, light-filled dining room extension, where dishes range from sea bass to hamburgers. Presentation was surprisingly unsophisticated, not to say pub-like, and a let down for the surroundings – simple dishes are fine in smart restaurants, but they need to be executed as carefully as complicated ones. Still, you will be glad to hear that dinner at Congham Hall, bearing in mind the next day’s big leap, was not my children’s last.
Locals for dinner and spa days; weekenders for peace, quiet and spa treatments; and anyone particularly wanting to visit the nearby Sandringham Estate, including visiting dignitaries while Her Majesty is in residence. The Queen Mother would often lunch here on Sundays and the hotel has a long association with Sandringham.
Congham Hall is located six miles north-east of King’s Lynn, close to Sandringham Estate, Houghton House, Holkham Hall, Oxburgh Hall, Castle Rising and the beaches of north Norfolk, including Snettisham, famous for its bird watching. The house itself is Georgian and, though the surrounding countryside is not particularly interesting, has extensive grounds and a renowned herb garden that contains nearly 400 varieties, including rare medicinal specimens such as goat’s rue and a wild legume that was historically used to treat the plague.
Nicholas Dickinson, Congham Hall’s new owner, has swept away the old- fashioned furnishings on the ground floor and allowed the Georgian proportions of the Grade II listed house to speak for themselves. The spacious hall now has a fine, stone floor and stylish grey-green walls, as well as sofas by the fire, antique furniture and natural flower arrangements sourced from the garden. More personal touches would help mitigate against the slightly anodyne feel.
Many of the key staff have been at Congham Hall for years, including the manager, operations manager, head housekeeper and gardener, lending a feeling of stability and continuity.
Bedrooms are divided between those in the main house and those in the new garden wing. The latter are spacious and comfortable but lack character. The former are somewhat old-fashioned, with a mix of furnishings and fabrics. The three rooms on the top floor, while the least expensive, are cosy and charming.
Food and drink
The menu mixes simple, bistro-style dishes with more formal ones; presentation was surprisingly clumsy, with huge, whole tomatoes accompanying the steak, pub style, for example. The dining room is lovely and light and deserves better cuisine.
Value for money
Look for offers: Sunday nights offer good value. Double rooms from £125, including breakfast.
Access for guests with disabilities
Yes: ground floor rooms.
See full review here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/hotel/108083/Congham-Hall-hotel-Norfolk-review.html