Review by Fiona Duncan, published 23rd November 2008.
I like hotels that harbour the unexpected. Perversely (since we are in Constable country), the 12 luxurious suites in this handsome Victorian house are named after poets. Ours was Betjeman, one of three new rooms, with striking contemporary decoration, on the top floor.
Boring old Betjeman, I thought. The poetry theme, however, is lightly applied: just an attractively framed “great work” (Trebetherick “sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea”) for those who want to investigate no further, and a small pile of books for the more curious. Idly flicking through an unthumbed Collected Works before dinner, I became gripped, until my starving husband dragged me away. Mind you, if we had been in Keats, with whom he is obsessed, we would never have got dinner at all.
It was the hotel’s founder, the late, larger than life Gerald Milsom, who came up with the literary theme. Back in 1969, when he opened Maison Talbooth as the accommodation arm of his restaurant, Le Talbooth, half a mile away, it was unheard of to dispense with room numbers. The innovation caused a stir, though not half as much as the (black and white) televisions in every room.
Milsom’s empire, which now extends to five properties, was begun by his parents and is these days run by his son Paul with hands-on commitment. Which made me think that I’d find a place that oozed character, but despite the glorious views (except for the A12) over Dedham Vale there was less than I expected.
Maybe it was the newness of its new look: Maison Talbooth has recently had major embellishment. As well as the new bedrooms, there’s a breakfast room extension (with dreaded flat screen wall TV), beauty treatment rooms (excellent therapists), a swimming pool complex and tennis court. You can be seriously pampered here.
The idea behind the additions is to persuade guests to stay for more than just one night. What suits the place perfectly is a house party, perhaps for a wedding or celebration at Le Talbooth, and the personal, informal (but always polite) service is just right for groups as well as individual guests. A courtesy car is on hand to take them to and from Le Talbooth for dinner, or anywhere else in the vicinity. Staff remain on duty until the last guest has gone to bed, even if that’s three in the morning.
If you stay at Maison Talbooth, you certainly can’t ignore Le Talbooth. Indeed it’s here, in the chocolate-box, half-timbered, cleverly extended house with a film set location on the banks of the River Stour, that you get the best impression that this is a family business with a history. Despite subtle modernisations, modish cooking and an imaginative wine list, Le Talbooth still manages to exude memories of its Sixties’ heyday, and of my childhood, when the smart ladies in our suburban town would remain helmeted all Saturday morning in the hairdresser before descending in their heels from their husbands’ Jags to dine in style at a swept up place just like this. Come to think of it, Betjeman was still a force then, too.
Stratford Road, Dedham (01206 322367; www.milsomhotels.com). Doubles from £200 to £375 per night, including breakfast. Ground floor rooms for guests with disabilities.