As soon as we pass the mass of black beams and wonky leaded windows, it is clear that The Swan Hotel and Spa is still dripping with its 15th-century origins and will be an adventure into an ancient past coupled with plenty of contemporary style.
Standing on the High Street in the centre of Suffolk’s medieval gem, Lavenham, it has long been the ideal location for visitors like us who want to step out of a front door and dive straight into the heart of the action: England’s best-preserved and most visited medieval village.
The ambience is friendly, yet unobtrusive, as we are led to our room up through the low-beamed corridors, including one section where taller, and possibly distracted, guests will have welcomed the leather padding on the solid oak that may have met their foreheads.
Formed from three houses, the buildings date back to 1425, and include a medieval Guildhall as well as all manner of nooks and crannies where fine timbers and even an open hearth have been discovered beneath the plaster and wallpaper.
Each of the 45 bedrooms is slightly different in shapes and sizes, although all have the expected mod cons for an AA four red star hotel, including flat screens and free Wi-Fi as well as a clever blending of contemporary design and fixtures with the sometimes wobbly historic windows and structure.
Our room is comfortable without being ostentatious. Little extras include the ironing board and iron in the wardrobe and little fastenings on the ancient leaded windows to stop them flying open in one of East Anglia’s fabled gales.
Happily (or, perhaps, disappointingly,) we are not in the room with the legendary ghost of the 19th-century pregnant housemaid, who was abandoned at the altar and is said to have hanged herself soon after. Several guests are alleged to have seen the unfortunate maid, but ‘allegedly’ is a well-worn word in these parts where history and tall tales merge so easily.
Soon we are heading for a relaxed cocktail and a pint of the shiny local cask beer, Ghost Ship, from Adnams at Southwold, in the hotel’s iconic Airmen’s Bar, a living shrine to the many US and British Servicemen who have passed through.
Amid the quiet shadows are mementoes to the many US fliers who served at Lavenham airbase during World War 11. More than 230 died in combat missions and many, in their senior years, have returned to sign the special ‘graffiti’ walls.
Not to be outdone, British old soldiers who served locally with numerous regiments, some of which are now consigned to history, have also signed their names and, it seems, regularly took part in the bar’s Boot Challenge, which involved drinking three and a half pints of beer from a glass boot in record time.
We pass on that particular challenge and, instead, take our drinks through the Brasserie to a table in the well-kept garden and courtyard, where a six-foot American model tells us how much she is enjoying the old English charm of the place with her boyfriend.
Soon we are strolling out of the front door and immediately find ourselves on the High Street, immersed in Lavenham’s spectacularly preserved architecture, much of it consisting of marvellously wobbly and wonky medieval buildings of all shapes and colours, their painted plaster and timbers supporting roller-coaster red-tiled roofs.
In three hours, you can stroll around the whole place, including the huge parish church of St Peter and St Paul, with a 141-foot tower that you can climb for a spectacular view that has changed little for many centuries. Lavenham owes its medieval beauty to an accident of history, having been hugely rich through its woollen trade and then slumped into poverty for almost 300 years – a period which left ancient buildings crumbling before the Victorians saw their potential and started the restoration which continues today.
It is a remarkable time warp of a place, beloved of so many historic film-makers and countless tourists in high season.
When we return to The Swan for a pre-dinner drink, there remains that air of quiet friendliness from staff and from the genteel guests who are enjoying its shoulder season charms.
We have a choice of dining options, from simple, informal eating in the contemporary Brasserie to fine dining in the AA two rosette Gallery restaurant, which is an exquisite setting surrounded by red brick and a high ceiling, all created in the 1960s using 400 tons of English oak.
The latter is our elegant treat, set in the tranquil beamed hall, where a piano sometimes provides a backdrop from the minstrel’s gallery. Service at both breakfast and dinner is at the bright white-cotton-covered tables which are attended by knowledgeable and attentive staff, who allow us just the right amount of time to choose and enjoy the meal.
Experienced head chef Justin Kett has created a wide range of dishes that vary through the seasons and call upon the meat, fish, vegetables and herbs from Suffolk’s abundant fields and shores.
I start with a hearty guinea fowl terrine which is followed by a stylish venison with pomme Anna, watercress, wild mushrooms and a subtle Bordelaise sauce. Sue opens with crab, complemented by avocado and a hint of citrus and follows with a succulent pork trio-cheek. Our sommelier assists with a fruity and spicy Real Rubio Rioja at just the right temperature. I end with a tongue-tingling rhubarb parfait with honeycomb and white chocolate, and Sue enjoys a selection of English cheeses.
Before retiring we inspect the spa, which emphasises relaxation, enjoyment and wellbeing, all of which have landed it a top five Bubble rating by the Good Spa Guide for two consecutive years.
Based on the Temple Spa range, there are over 30 skin, body and soul treatments and packages in six treatment rooms including a double room for couples or two friends to share; two relaxation suites; manicure/pedicure area; aromatic steam room; hot stone sauna and an outdoor vitality pool. Next time!
Next morning, after a peaceful slumber beneath the oak beams and swathed in deep Egyptian cotton, we are back in the Gallery for my full Suffolk cooked breakfast, packed with local sourced sausage, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and eggs, and Sue enjoys a very inventive vegetarian cooked version.
It’s a hearty send-off to a stay which was steeped in some fascinating history as well as unfussy modern style in a hotel which these days flies as elegantly as its namesake bird.
Tell Me More About The Swan Hotel And Spa
The Swan Hotel and Spa rooms start from £185 per night for two sharing including a full Suffolk breakfast; dinner from the a la carte menu is from £40 per person for three courses.
Overnight guests have a complimentary two-hour session with use of the facilities in Weavers’ House Spa including the sauna, steam room, outdoor vitality pool and relaxation lounge.
Tel: 01787 247477