Review by Fiona Duncan, published 19th November 2006.
Do you want to enter a hidden valley and find an Elizabethan mansion that makes you gasp? To sip your after-dinner coffee in a truly romantic setting: a wisteria-clad courtyard overlooking a beautifully lit lake and magnificent weeping willow? To wake in the morning to the sound of a quietly splashing fountain?
Well, yes. The trouble is, you probably don't want to revisit a 1970s avocado bathroom suite, even for old times' sake, or to lie on a mattress with all the welcoming give of a rock.
Or to stand before a fine period hearth in a splendidly panelled Great Hall and try to take comfort from a pile of electrically lit plastic logs with a copper kettle perched on top. Or to be faced in reception by signed photographs of revered past guests – Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague and – très à la mode – David Cameron (a recent guest-speaker at a dinner). Or to read tacked-up notices telling you which way to park, not to use mobiles, to dress properly for dinner and to be quiet if coming in late.
You guessed it. Seckford Hall, privately owned by the same family since 1950, is not in the first flush of youth. It is, by all accounts, still a wonderful venue for weddings and celebrations, but as a choice for a relaxing break – given the history of the building, the romantic grounds and the proximity to charming Woodbridge – does it cut the mustard?
I fear not. To be fair, I notice that prices have hardly risen in the past three years, and doubtless it wouldn't be feasible for the management to accept less than the £145 (£120 single occupancy) for my "superior" room, with carved oak four-poster overlooking the courtyard, but for the payee, the rooms just aren't worth the money.
They look and feel terribly drear, with their Dralon chairs and passé fabrics, wardrobes and dressing tables (white, with curly gold bits) and coloured bathroom fittings with matching tiles (avocado, blue and pink). My aged aunt has a bathroom just like that, which she quite understandably sees no reason to change, but it's in her house, not a three-star hotel.
By far my favourite, back in the main house, is the Thatcher Room (so-named for obvious reasons) and No 25 next door, filled with light from windows on two sides, with a mulberry tree overhanging the little balcony.
I do feel for the friendly, hands-on owners, Michael and Christine Bunn, when they defend their dated decorations, which must have been so smart when new. "It will only take one style pundit to declare that my bathrooms are fabulously retro for people to stop wanting them to be new and white," says Michael, whose parents bought Seckford Hall in 1950 and who has run the hotel since 1963.
The Bunns have steered a successful hotel, on their terms, for many years. It's a notable building – with some interesting pictures and furniture – always busy with functions and business guests during the week. But for weekenders looking for a bolthole, it's less appealing… unless they are about the same vintage as Seckford Hall itself.
Woodbridge, Suffolk (01394 385678; www.seckford.co.uk). Doubles from £135 to £210 per night, including breakfast..
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