A hotel review by ‘London Evening Standard’ about Congham Hall
What they said:
No one could accuse hotelier Nicholas Dickinson of not being hands-on. From behind the zinc bar, through the dining room door, he spots our empty glasses and duly does the honours with the water bottle.
Perhaps his attention to detail — and hosting skills — are what make him so successful. One of the original founders of Luxury Family Hotels (LFH) and Alias Hotels, his experience encompasses the crème of country house hotels in both Chewton Glen and Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons and latterly the sleek Martinhal Beach Resort on the Algarve.
Now he’s back at what he perhaps knows best, having bought Congham Hall, a Georgian pile previously owned by Von Essen whom he sold LFH to, set in 30 acres near Sandringham in north Norfolk last March.
Renovations completed earlier this month added finishing touches to a £1.5 million slick new spa and decked out the garden rooms. There’s a relaxed confidence about the décor. Yes, it’s all tastefully pale and perfect — litres of what appears to be Farrow and Ball but is actually from the Little Green Paint Company (top marks for being less obvious) have been sloshed all over the hotel but it also retains its character.
On a sunny evening, the dining room was a joy to be in, with light streaming in through a large skylight above and the tall Georgian windows that face out on to the ash and birch-fringed lawns.
Tables have crisp white cloths topped with plants and herbs potted in retro-style tin tubs, while the wine list comes bang up to date on an iPad.
All of us — myself, partner and daughter — were impressed by dinner. The hotel aims to use the majority of its ingredients from within a 20-mile radius, although its kitchen garden provides turnips, chard and baby carrots, rocket, mizuna and radishes as well as herbs. Chef Nick Clacton Webb was previously at Von Essen staple Ickworth and the Salthouse Harbour, both Suffolk hotels big on local sourcing.
The dinner menu manages to encompass both informal as well as formal dining options so you get marinated olives or crackling to pick at followed by burgers and club sandwiches.
Our more formal starters were picture-perfect: smoked salmon curls with fennel salad and beetroot; and fresh pea, broad bean and goats cheese risotto; mains of Sandringham sirloin steak, well done yet still juicy, with triple-cooked chips (crispy and fluffy in the right places), and line-caught sea bass balanced on crushed potatoes with local asparagus and sweet roast tomato looked so perfect it nearly had me whipping out my iPhone.
The portion was less hearty than my fellow steak-eaters so I polished off a cheeseboard heavy on local artisan types such as Binham Blue and Copys Cloud while my family gorged on the sweetest of sticky toffee puddings with banana ice cream and butterscotch sauce. This is when you’re grateful to shuffle off to your hotel room, as opposed to driving home, and here we didn’t even have to make the stairs.
Our garden room, Primrose (all are named after plants and herbs in the garden), was across from the main house next to the Secret Garden Spa, facing a lovely courtyard and backing on to a patio and the wider garden.
A feature wall of large, bold-print wallpaper joins the design dots between country house (like the rooms in the main house) and contemporary style with Kit Kemp-ish checked carpets and bold modern art above the large bath. And the lime green armchair by the French windows linked the room with the garden.
Unlike Dickinson’s previous hotel projects, Congham isn’t overtly child- friendly (although by no means shunning them as there are family rooms and a large trampoline), as they can only swim in the pool from 4pm to 6pm and 9pm to 10am. I spied a couple sat undisturbed in a steaming wooden hot tub set on decking just beyond the contemporary glassed-in pool.
No doubt the presence of children would have changed their Sunday soak. The excellent staff dole impressive treatments (also available to non-guests) using the newly introduced high-end Elemental Herbology product range and should make it a hit in its own right.
Not being terribly organised — nor getting up early enough — we missed out on a family swim, rather than miss breakfast at the allotted hour. This was less formal than dinner, with cloths off and light music tinkling in the background. The guests reveal the hotel’s varied appeal — hip young Hoxtonites on one table, a middle-aged couple on another — I guess (hope) we were somewhere in between.
Our table was crammed with plates of home-style pancakes with maple syrup; bacon, eggs and local sausages with a generous spread of Sunday supplements. Sated, my daughter sat and wrote a postcard to her nana telling her exactly what she’d eaten (thoughtfully, one with a stamp on it was among the in-room stationery).
Before leaving, we took a turn in the lovely secluded grounds, part swathes of lawn, part working kitchen garden with old-fashioned glass cloches and herbs, many of which you can buy.
I didn’t grow up in an English country house but the garden made me nostalgic for some reason. I loved it for not being totally preened to perfection.
Perhaps one day there will be elaborate topiary and over-manicured lawns, but I get the impression that Dickinson knows what he’s doing.
Congham Hall, Grimston, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, PE32 1AH, has doubles from £125 B&B, conghamhallhotel.co.uk