Essex might not seem the likeliest spot for a romantic break - but the evocative landscapes of Constable country provide the perfect backdrop
At first I was terribly confused. As great as he was in other ways, my husband was not prone to romantic overtures. He is one of a growing band of men (perhaps they are all like this deep down) who quote the ills of consumerism to you in the run-up to Valentine’s Day, hinting rather profusely that they won’t be doing anything especially romantic ‘because they love you every day’. And yet here we were in a country hideaway on a surprise trip to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
We’d been married in Thailand two years earlier and given that the temperature outside was about 30°C below that of Phuket at this time of year, I’d secretly hoped he would be whisking me off to the tropics to recreate our wedding magic. But as I looked out the window of the Browning room at Maison Talbooth
at the early morning frost freeze-framing a beautiful scene before me, I figured romance comes in all shapes and settings.
proved the perfect place to snuggle up to a loved one. Set in the middle of some of the most beautiful countryside in Essex – yes, Essex really is beautiful – the hotel has 12 suites, each with an individual style and named after a different poet. Browning’s work 'Love in a Life' hung on the wall almost as a reminder to us to celebrate our love. But he didn’t need to prepare us for a love-in; Maison Talbooth
’s features help you unwind and as you are one of no more than 12 couples sharing facilities including a Dermalogica spa, pool house and lounge where afternoon tea is the order of the day, there are plenty of nooks and crannies to get lost in.
After breakfast we drove off to discover the countryside as the sun slowly burnt its way through the cloud to brighten up the Dedham Vale. In Dedham we made our first stop to discover the town where the painter John Constable lived – his favourite drinking hole is still there. Now a Tiptree tearoom, the Essex Rose is housed in the quaintest little building in the middle of town. It was tempting to devour a cream tea, but full on breakfast we headed to Flatford, over the border in Suffolk, pausing briefly to admire the church of St Mary the Virgin at East Bergholt the town where Constable was born. The church is famed for a quirky wooden bellcage that sits in the churchyard instead of a bell tower.
As we reached Flatford, the striking landscape that inspired one of Constable’s most famous paintings came into view and we stopped to enjoy the area’s magic. Flatford is now a National Trust park, where the views of its old mill tell of times gone by. The crisp air filled our lungs as, holding hands, we wandered past ducks and swans gently floating along the River Stour.
The scenes at Flatford are made for romance. The river cuts a gentle course through the rolling landscape of the Stour Valley, dotted with grazing cows and puffs of white clouds. It was easy to lose ourselves there and soon the best part of two hours had floated by and the fresh air had left us hungry. On a hot tip we took a 25-minute drive to the town of Bildeston for lunch at the Bildeston Crown.
The restaurant was awarded three rosettes by the AA in 2008, and chef Chris Lee named joint best 'Up and Coming Chef' by the Good Food Guide, and it was easy to see why. My husband had fish and chips cooked in the freshest, crispiest batter, while I tucked into a mushroom and truffle risotto with a serving of mushroom soup. We couldn’t resist a sharing platter of traditional desserts either. Bread and butter pudding, vodka-lime jelly, chocolate soufflé, banoffee pie and more, all beautifully presented.
Full, we stopped in at Lavenham, one of the prettiest towns in the area, for a much-needed post-lunch stroll and a wander around its shops. The town was built on the wool trade and its buildings attest to this heritage with shops selling arts, crafts and tapestries, and sections of the Tudor-built Lavenham hotel harking back to this time. Wool used to be sold in its Wool Hall, which is now a function room for weddings. We coveted knick-knacks and antiques in the little shops before heading back to Maison Talbooth
Although it was freezing outside, we decided to take the plunge and go for a swim in the hotel’s heated outdoor pool to build up an appetite for dinner. Steam rose in finger-like wisps from the pool as we took in the peace of the evening and the fiery orange of the sun setting in the stark grey sky.
That evening we celebrated our anniversary with dinner at Le Talbooth, Maison Talbooth
’s sister restaurant, housed in a 16th-century timber-framed cottage. Here we dined in decadent style on Colchester oysters and mains with rather fancy names such as navarin of lamb and fricassée of salmon, accompanied by a bottle of champagne. It was a treat. Not the cheapest meal – but a truly romantic one.
The next day we drove south, further into Essex, to Layer Marney Tower. The terracotta building, England’s tallest Tudor gatehouse, burned amber in the sunlight as we arrived. The tower is a family home, but we were able to explore the grounds and hear tales of romance and chivalry. Just a few years ago a man brought his girlfriend to the tower to propose. As she reached the roof, he rode up on a white stallion dressed in full armour for the occasion. Thankfully, she said yes.
Our weekend coming to an end, we stopped in at Carter’s Vineyard for a tour. It produces award-winning English wine, which I discovered is actually very good. Had the weather been warmer we would likely have stopped for a picnic next to the lake in the grounds. Instead we bought some bottles to take away and drove home happy, our wedding and love celebrated, relished and renewed.
The Ickworth Hotel
: a stunning Georgian Italianate palace and former home to the Hervey family, now a luxury hotel.
The Angel Hotel
: an elegant hotel in the heart of Bury St Edmunds.
The Swan Hotel Lavenham
: parts of the hotel date back to the 13th century and some rooms feature original Tudor vaulted oak-beamed ceilings, medieval wall paintings, inglenook fireplaces and canopied beds.
& Haughley House: five-star-rated B&Bs in Suffolk