The Assembly House in Norwich had its glory days in the mid-eighteenth century, when the Norwich smart set decided that they really needed an entertainment venue for assemblies, balls, bowls and cards. The architect, Thomas Ivory, did them proud, with a building made “with elegant bricks in a very grand and polite taste”, on the site of a medieval chapel. It had card rooms, a music room, a ballroom, minstrels’ galleries, high ceilings and fine stucco plasterwork. It saw any amount of fun, including a ball to celebrate Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and Queen Charlotte’s birthday, polka balls and an exhibition of waxworks by Madam Tussaud’s. Happy days.
Things went downhill in the later nineteenth century, when the place was turned into a girls’ school – lucky girls – and later it suffered fire damage, but what you’ve got now – restored and redone- is a really charming venue and an excellent place to stay.
There are 11 bedrooms in one wing – mine was the family suite, which is spacious, with a huge bathroom and a little garden space outside. It’s furnished elegantly – pleasing prints on the walls and antique pieces in the room. And can I say how rare it is to have interesting antiques in an hotel room – I can see why hotels tend not to, human nature being what it is, but having two idiosyncratic china figures in the fireplace, and a fine clock on the mantelpiece and interesting lithographs as well as modern prints, makes a place like home – always supposing your home is quirkily appointed.
The bedroom is light and comfortable, with a little proto-canopy above the bed, and the sofa bed for children is absolutely fine. The furnishings were Colefax and Fowler: classy but understated. Actually, the only thing I had against the room were the fiddly coathangers. There’s nice homemade biscuits, a Nespresso machine and a bottle of Prosecco to help you settle in.
The staff are charming and helpful. Breakfast is generous – after a Norfolk rarebit you feel very replete; ditto the Norfolk fry (ask for it to be well done). Start off with a fruit salad though, because it’s good, and gives the illusion of healthiness before you dig into the carbs.
The standout treat at the Assembly House is Afternoon Tea, which is Fortnum and Mason standard, only at Norfolk prices (£24.99), half price for child portions. This season it has a seaside theme, so you get sandcastles on display, a dear little chocolate starfish in biscuit sand, a tiny cheesecake made to look like ice cream, macrons like oysters with pearls and mini doughnuts in a stripy bag. There are sandwiches ad lib, cheese and fruit scones and a savoury selection of little sausage rolls, mini rarebits and cheese biscuits. The tea selection is interesting and thoughtful, including white, green and mildly smoked tea, as well as a good Assembly House blend. In other words, it’s lavish as well as tasteful. There’s a well-regarded cookery school here too if you like to bake cakes as well as eat them.
The position couldn’t be more central – actually The Assembly House is signposted around the town; and practically everything in Norwich is in walking distance. You may know how fabulous the city is – once it had a church for every Sunday of the year and a pub for every day of the year. Even now there’s a fifteenth century church (some functioning) on every other street, and some very good pubs – the Adam and Eve suggests it may be the oldest in England, and it’s said to have been used by workers who built the cathedral. Norwich Castle Museum (good on Norwich School paintings) is an obvious must-see. The cathedral is sublime (check out the roof bosses); Sunday evensong is lovely.
But it’s the retail side of things that will charm Londoners. There are scores of specialist independent shops throughout the city and beyond. If, like me, you have a weakness for hardware shops (all right; there are worse traits), you will have to be hauled out of Thorn’s in Exchange Street, which has everything, probably in a dozen variants. Opposite, there’s Wilkinson’s, a good coffee merchant. Jarrold’s is one of those traditional family department stores which London just doesn’t have any more. Elm Hill, which is charming and cobbled with a fifteenth century church at the corner, has one of the city’s several excellent second hand book shops. Magdalen Street has some of the best vintage shops – Norwich is charity shop Nirvana but the Oxfam one here is particularly good, and Loose’s Antiques Emporium is vast with a bewildering selection of items, with clothes and books besides.
After all that, if you’re able to handle it, Norwich’s thriving arts scene is a walk away, along with a selection of good restaurants. No Uber needed. What more could you want?
Rooms from £170-£270; assemblyhousenorwich.co.uk