It is not often that I embark on a 500 mile round trip to visit a single hostelry but such was my anticipation at the reopening of this lavishly refurbished and lovingly revived inn that I was prepared to schlep all the way from south-west Wiltshire to northern Norfolk last week. The Gunton Arms (www.theguntonarms.co.uk) lies on the edge of the Gunton estate, near the village of Thorpe Market, and is home to a 1000 acre deer park that offers spectacular views and a plentiful supply of prime venison. Fortunately the Gunton Arms is the sometime local of world-renowned art dealer Ivor Braka and his artist wife Sarah Graham who have expediently secured its future by purchasing the property. After 18 months of building and renovation it is now open to the public and is well worth a visit.
With 8 comfortable, beautifully decorated and refreshingly individual bedrooms named after local characters, such as game keeper James Ellis (a wonderful, Flashman-esque figure who coincidentally was to be found propping up the bar telling tales of tracking elk and dispatching mambas with the air of one who would happily be doing just that), the Gunton Arms is well-equipped to cope with further flung visitors. It also functions very well as a proper pub offering a fine range of draft beers such as Adnams’ Spindrift and Broadside as well as bar snacks, sandwiches and tea and coffee. There is a pool table and dart board and for a meagre £1.50 you can get a portion of pork crackling and gooseberry sauce.
All of the above is commendable and, in an era when rural pubs are dropping like nine-pins, should be celebrated but what really puts the Gunton Arms on the map and justifies the journey is its restaurant. Presided over by Stuart Tattersall (who was head chef at Mark Hix) the Gunton Arms boasts a menu of deftly-cooked, robust British dishes that illustrate a consummate knowledge and care for ingredients coupled with commendable restraint. A choice of 6 starters, all between £6 and £8, included ‘Rabbit, chestnut and chanterelle soup’, ‘Deep fried cod cheeks with caper mayonnaise’ and ‘Game dumpling with creamed leeks and juniper’. Main courses are equally appealing and modestly-priced. ‘Whole roast gurnard with cockles and chorizo’ and ‘Barnsley lamb chop with bubble and squeak’ both looked delicious but a superlative mixed grill of Gunton venison, cooked by Stuart on an open range, had the lowest food miles and made a fine foil for a toothsome bottle of Bandol: Mas de la Rouvière 2005. The short but well-balanced wine list (in which I should declare a commercial interest) and front of house are skilfully overseen by Stuart’s partner Simone Baker, who is also a Mark Hix alumnus and clearly knows how to run a tight ship.
It would be remiss not to mention the Gunton Arms excellent art collection which boasts some hilarious photographs in the Gents loos (sadly I didn’t get a chance to check out the Ladies), fine ink depictions of Norfolk livestock and some provocative Paula Rego pictures in the dining room that won’t go down well with the blue rinse brigade.
After dinner I joined Mr Ellis in the bar and enjoyed some improbable stories, some well-kept beer and inept pool. Fortunately, Stuart and Simone let me inaugurate one of their bedrooms and I slept like a lamb. Stuart even made me a bacon sandwich ‘to go’ in the morning. I can’t wait to revisit the Gunton I just wish it was much nearer here!