Room service: A Norfolk icon that is easy to digest
The Victoria Inn, Holkham
Ben Ross is Head of Travel at The Independent. He has worked for the paper for over a decade, and began reporting on travel in 2001. Before joining the travel desk full time, he ran The Independent's special projects department. He started his journalistic career at the BBC working for its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.
Saturday 07 September 2013
When it comes to family emblems I defy anyone to beat an ostrich chewing a horseshoe. Back in the 16th century, Sir Edward Coke, founder of the dynasty that later took charge of this patch of North Norfolk, thought it would be a good wheeze to incorporate one on his coat of arms. In Elizabethan times, ostriches had a reputation for being able to digest anything, even metal, hence his motto: Prudens qui patiens etenim durissima coquit ("the prudent one is the patient one because he digests the hardest things").
These days a coat of arms is just a logo waiting to happen – and at Holkham you see the confused-looking bird everywhere: on signs pointing you to the beach, on the polo-shirt sported by your barman, on food labels, gift vouchers and leaflets. The historic seat of the Earls of Leicester, the Holkham Estate has taken Sir Edward's words to heart, patiently digesting the realities of the modern world. It now plays host to music events and weddings, there's a museum, a boating lake, cafés and a beach bar. And there's The Victoria Inn, which reopened this summer after a major refurbishment.
Patience has been required here, too. A previous attempt to establish the Victoria as a boutique hotel complete with Rajasthan-meets-Morocco interiors has now been cast aside, along with what was – according to general manager Ben Hunter-Watts – an attempt to be all things to all men. "For a lot of people, this is their only perception of the estate. They go to the beach and they go to the Victoria," he says. In the past, huge daytime summer barbecues clashed with a fine-dining ethos in the evening. Now, though, things are simpler: "The Victoria should be a traditional country inn at the heart of the estate. We want it to be something that locals come to."
The inn sits close to the northern gates of the estate, on the A149, a 15-minute walk from the sweeping – if windy – expanse of Holkham beach. It's a slightly awkward bit of architecture constructed in 1837, the year young Victoria ascended the throne, and part of a local vernacular that's probably best described as "pebble-dash deluxe".
Close by lies a branch of Adnams Cellar & Kitchen Store (the Suffolk brewer has had a long association with the Victoria Inn). Here, manager Lee Newstead can talk – and taste – you through the various brews on offer, and will have you salivating about Adnams' Finest Cut Gin ("Hendrick's on steroids"). Lee is a local with fond memories of life at the Victoria: "Five of us on the bar, serving for six hours – the place is iconic."
Holkham Hall itself is an epic bit of Palladian design that sits in a landscape of deer park and wooded glade, punctuated by the odd obelisk. The walled gardens are particularly lovely, with crumbling glasshouses in the process of being restored. Combined tickets cost £12.
Aside from the odd ornate rug, scarcely a trace of Rajasthan remains. Instead, the décor harks back to a time of country tweeds and hunting dogs. Antlers poke out above the fireplace; brocade curtains and sage-grey walls complement battered wooden tables. The Victorian taxidermery now on show may spook those who come to the Norfolk coast to exploit its twitching potential, but there's also bird-art by Frank Southgate to enjoy, plus those obligatory – ironic? – china ducks flying up the wall. Labelling the downstairs loos "cocks" and "hens" is, however, taking things too far.
Velvet-upholstered chairs and sofas are scattered around a sizeable bar done out in reclaimed wood and there's a cosy drawing room to which only guests have a key. The lunchtime food service seemed a little scattershot – we had to cajole slightly to get a table – but everything arrived as ordered, with only minimal additional waving required. The same simple but effective menu is also on offer in the evening, when we ate in the sunny orangery. My poached chicken salad with crayfish and avocado starter (£6.25) was pleasantly zingy and the estate sirloin with hand-cut chips was rich and satisfying (£19). The wine list doesn't muck around: seven reds, seven whites and two rosés, ranging from £17 to £37 a bottle.
And then, to bed. All 10 rooms, named after shooting stations on the estate, have been refurbished, with the new bathrooms – gleaming white tiles, drench showers – a particular treat. I'd arrived with children in tow, and "Joe's Stop" is the only family room, tucked away in the roof, with a sweet little box room for the boys and lots of exposed wooden beams and sturdy wooden furniture. The velvet armchair was an invitation to collapse and digest my steak for an hour or two, so I did just that. Patience is a virtue, after all.
The Victoria Inn, Park Road, Holkham, Wells-next-the-sea, Norfolk NW23 1RG (01328 711008; holkham.co.uk/victoria)
Doubles start at £100 including breakfast
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