‘Nothing ever becomes real til it is experienced.’
So wrote John Keats, a man who knew a fair few things about life, art and more besides. What, alas, he did not know anything about were England’s most luxurious hotels, although it seems an inevitability that, one of these days, some bright entrepreneur will come up with ‘The Keats’, or similar. Yet any visitor to the exemplary Maison Talbooth, which nestles just outside one of England’s most beautiful villages, Dedham, will soon become aware that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, especially if they happen to be staying in the Keats suite.
This, one of the hotel’s so-called ‘principal suites’, is something quite spectacular. Aimed with families in mind, this two-bedroom behemoth offers virtually every comfort known to man; an extraordinarily large bed, a second bedroom complete with bunk beds for a small child (and all the trappings of a DVD player, X-Box and what have you), and the pièce de résistance, a shower that is less ‘walk in’ as ‘walk through’. The whole effect comes closer to being a decadent Roman emperor than a struggling Romantic poet; yet as Hampstead Jonty might have put it, ‘what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.’ And seldom was a truer sentence written.
The rest of the hotel more than lives up to this luxurious welcome. We visited at the end of a remarkably long, hot summer – and the lack of air conditioning in Keats was notable on a night that it wouldn’t otherwise have been, although the provision of a large and powerful fan was most welcome. The hotel itself has been going for nearly 50 years, and has smoothly updated itself to keep track of contemporary trends. The most obvious example of this is a superbly designed outdoor swimming pool and bar, The Pool House, where a well-stocked honesty bar compliments all manner of relaxations; apparently when the nights draw in, a log fire creates an atmosphere of distinct conviviality. One can only imagine how wonderfully comfortable a place this would be to invite a gaggle of friends over to and occupy for its entirety one weekend; all the joy of having one’s own country house at a fraction of the price.
Where there is luxury, there must also be superb food. Although what’s on offer here is very decent – a comprehensive breakfast and apparently legendary afternoon teas – the place to go is the sister restaurant, Le Talbooth, a five minute journey away, which the friendly and accommodating staff will whisk you to in a Range Rover. Here, one experiences a combination of decidedly old-school luxury (although we were lucky enough to be sitting outside by the river) and cuisine which, under head chef Andrew Hirst, mixes modernity and traditionalism with aplomb.
One might begin with beetroot cured scallops or poached lobster with claw spring roll – the seafood is very good here – before metaphorically diving into more carnivorous areas with lamb that’s served with goat’s cheese and Creedy Carver chicken, which actually tastes as interesting and rich as this poor maligned bird should be, rather than the dry and tough excuses that one usually finds. Desserts are exemplary; a pineapple and coconut Eton Mess is playful and almost – almost – manages to make you think that you’re having something healthy. A well-chosen wine list offers a good selection by the half-bottle and some decent choices below the £40 mark.
One leaves the Talbooth – restaurant and hotel alike – with a pleasant sense of having been indulged and pampered, but also of having responded to a feeling of timeless elegance. As our poetic guide might have put it, ‘much have I travelled in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen.’ This particular realm will be somewhere that one cannot wait to revisit.
Maison Talbooth is part of the Milsom Hotels Group. For more information, including details of other properties, visit www.milsomhotels.com.