With all the pomp and ceremony of a bygone age, what better way to explore a ‘new’ city on a weekend break, than from the back of an open-top 1950 Bentley MK IV Park Ward Bentley? Complete with formally attired chauffeur?
Thanks to the lifelong automotive passion of hotelier David Chaplin, that is precisely what’s on offer at the Maid’s Head Hotel in Norwich, which claims to be the UK’s oldest hotel, dating back to 1287.
Bought by the Chaplin Group in 2012 and sited in ancient Tombland, adjacent to the city’s magnificent Romanesque cathedral, the hotel has just emerged, phoenix-like, from a major £4.2 million refurbishment.
During the seven-year programme each of the 84 bedrooms received a makeover complete with vibrant new fabrics, mellow lighting and bespoke furniture. Public areas - including a swish new reception - were overhauled and modernised too.
Most owners would have drawn the line there but Chaplin went one step further, indulging his passion for cars and seizing the opportunity to showcase the Bentley Mk IV. He built a shiny new showroom to house his pride and joy, alongside his equally venerable 1963 S3 Tourer Bentley.
Proudly on show through large sliding glass windows, they take centre-stage in the hotel showroom that boasts freestanding leather armchairs ‘borrowed’ from another, dismantled Bentley, and with space for meetings, presentations or weddings.
Every Maid’s Head guest is offered a free tour of Norwich’s many highlights from the rear of one of the classic cars, chauffeured by Matthew Johnson, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city. On fine days, most guests choose the open-top Bentley, resplendent in Royal blue, powered by a straight-six, 6.4-litre petrol engine, mated to a four-speed side-shift gearbox.
There’s no power steering - but most guests will be oblivious to the effort required to pilot the classic car as they soak up the sights and sounds of Norwich. “At least it keeps me fit,” jokes Matthew, whose love of the city is infectious.
Typically, the 30-minute tours take in not just charmingly old-world, touristy Tombland - with views of the cathedral and its imposing 13th and 15th-century gates - but also hilly outlying vantage points of the city including Mousehold Heath with its severe but imposing 19th century prison.
From there, it’s possible to spot glimpses not just of the cathedral’s 96-metre spire, the second tallest in England, but also its beautiful 44-acre close, through which runs the languid River Wensum.
Other highlights on the Bentley chauffeured tour include Riverside, Bishopsgate, popular shopping areas, the striking Art Deco City Hall, the Roman Catholic cathedral - and the ‘home’ of Delia Smith - Carrow Road Stadium - also home, of course, to Premier League side Norwich City.
Where is it?
One of the advantages of being there first is that you bag the best site, and that’s certainly true for historic Maid’s Head, which has the prime location in the heart of Tombland, home to pretty cobbled lanes boasting small, independent shops such as a jeweller, cafes and antique stores. It is also just a few yards from the hush of the Close surrounding the cathedral, with its sweeping lawns, trees, shrubs and powerful sense of history. It’s worth taking time to stroll here, admiring the cathedral, the dignified old buildings, the river and the extensive playing fields.
It is also just a short walk from the hotel into the city proper, a fantastic, mellow and friendly centre to explore on foot, with 31 separate churches, most with their own churchyard, clusters of shops, attractions and - often - beautifully planted gardens.
Following major refurbishment, the Maid’s Head is a hotel of two halves; part tastefully-modernised à la Mode open-plan boutique comfort with imaginative fabrics and fetching colours, part rooted in the past with intimate areas and further refurbishment yet to come in older, clearly time-worn quarters. Well you can’t do it all at once.
Most public areas are light and airy, in particular the lounges and large dining room flooded with light from a ‘greenhouse’ roof. Older parts of the hotel, which has been offering hospitality to travellers continuously since the 12th century, and which even has an earlier Norman pillar, are far more intimate, including the panelled Yard Bar with its large fireplace. Particularly in demand is The Snug, an antique, cosy, private, wood-panelled parlour housing a circular table with seating for eight. Or - for romantic weekends away - just for two. There is also an external, covered, courtyard for dining and drinking.
Food and drink
The Maid’s Head clearly understands the lure of an imaginative kitchen. The Wine Press restaurant serves award-winning fine dining from head chef Simon and his team, drawing predominantly on locally-sourced ingredients. Specialising in dazzling amuse bouches, the restaurant also serves beautifully creative starters such as ale glazed lamb sweetbread with goat’s curd, pea watercress and mint velouté with black olives, chicken liver parfait with homemade brioche, rhubarb and beetroot ketchup, wild garlic butter with crispy chicken skin.
Mains include perfectly textured pan-fried brill with crab and chive beignets, softened leeks and samphire with pickled grapes and brown crab hollandaise, and wild garlic gnocchi in chervil butter with braised shallots, asparagus, pickled shallots and Mrs Temple’s Alpine cheese. There is a tasting menu from £50, (£80 accompanied by wine flight).
The best time to put service to the test is when they’re rushed off their feet at breakfast - and staff at the Maid’s Head are clearly up for the challenge, unfailingly offering friendly, courteous, thoughtful service. Chauffeur Matthew is a tour de force, while receptionists are always willing to direct visitors to all that Norwich has to offer.
If you enjoy London’s cosier shopping areas - think Covent Garden, Soho or Spitalfield’s smaller lanes - you’ll love Norwich, which is peppered with inviting alleys, courtyards, gardens, the occasional street mural and all the hustle and bustle of a city happy in its own skin. Your Bentley tour is just the starting point - Norwich is the perfect city for strolling.
For a night out, just a stone’s throw from the Maid’s Head, is Norwich’s best-kept secret, Gonzo’s Tea Room (including Two Room, a dance floor orientated club). Set in a comfortably modest Art Deco building on a corner of London Street, above a betting shop, this beguiling three-storey-plus-roof-terrace hive of activity boasts not just a tea room but a highly creative, stylised restaurant - Brix and Bones - and live music rooms too.
Book ahead to enjoy some of the more creative flavour-packed, labour-of-love dishes you’re likely to encounter in Norwich (the kitchen even makes its own deactivated charcoal for the delicious tacos). Sparkling snacks and starters include the explosively noisy Prawn toast with pickled onion and burnt lime togarashi, or pig’s head taco with Korean barbecue and pickled kohlrabi, and beetroot tartare with duck egg and smoked hazelnuts.
Mains include pork chop with Korean pesto accompanied by Wagyu beef fat potatoes, and burnt gem, radish, seaweed mayo and walnut salsa. All consumed in a cosy, buzzing 30-seater bar-style restaurant with influences surely including the American diner, Midwest gentleman’s club... and a hint of Shoreditch’s Bike Shed Motorcycle Club. Service comes with a smile, not least as they know that you’re in for a treat if you choose to stay on after dining, to enjoy one of two salons offering music ranging from live jazz to DJ sets, indie sets and electro bangers. On the night we visited, Norwich’s jazz musicians were jamming late into the night, creating a mesmerising informal vibe. More at www.gonzostearoom.com
Don’t miss The Plantation Garden, a magical, restored Victorian town garden hidden in a former quarry, now Grade II English Heritage registered. Nor should you leave Norwich without visiting the mind-expanding Sainsbury Centre, a short bus ride from the centre, and located on the sprawling, green grounds of the University of East Anglia.
Here, you should stroll around the outdoor sculpture park and enjoy eating and drinking at The Terrace or Modern Life Cafe; all in architecturally striking surroundings, including the breathtaking Centre itself. If you visit before July 17, be sure to see the ‘Pablo Picasso, The Legacy of Youth’ exhibition, or if visiting before July 3, the ‘Scottish Women Artists Transforming Tradition’ exhibition. ‘Rhythm and Geometry: Constructivist Art in Britain Since 1951’, on until July 17, is a must-see too.
The Maid’s Hotel isn’t as petrol mad as you might think. For those who prefer pedalling, it has a small fleet of free-to-hire Bobbin bicycles too; perfect for reaching further afield when your feet begin to ache with all that Norwich has to offer. It is hard to stop exploring this gentle-feeling but energetic city.
The most romantic is probably the Filby Junior Suite, nestled high up in the rafters with vaulted ceilings and plenty of exposed beams. It takes its inspiration from the flower, Bird of Paradise, and has some views of the cathedral. We stayed in the spacious Catherine of Aragon suite, with a cavernous roll top bath in the bedroom and separate shower room - complete with floor-to-ceiling photo wall depicting a Norwich street scene, a speciality at Maid’s Head. It felt quiet, secluded, peaceful - nicely tucked away.
All rooms have bright fabrics, bold wallpapers along with attractive furnishing and fittings.
Romantic weekends away - especially for those with petrol running through their veins, and who love to explore a ‘new’ city with plenty on offer in the way of independent restaurants, cafes and shops.
How to get there
It’s about a three-hour drive from central London, straight up the M11 and the A11. The Maid’s Head hotel offers free parking. Beware, however, confusing - not to say baffling, new traffic schemes in the city, surely designed by someone with a loathing of motorised transport. New - poorly-signed - pedestrian and cycle zones operating at different times don’t just trap visitors; local residents say they are confused by them too. In search of the hotel, we followed the satnav straight into a poorly signed pedestrian zone without even realising. It was impossible to escape without entering another. Infuriating, and it needs fixing fast.