Review by Fiona Duncan, published 21st December 2008.
Back again in Constable country. I recently stayed at Maison Talbooth in Dedham; this time I've travelled farther west along the River Stour and up to a high ridge to reach the Crown Hotel at Stoke by Nayland.
Though very different, the two addresses do have something in common: they are both essentially accommodation arms of popular restaurants; and in both I found more character in their parent restaurants than I did in the separate buildings housing the hotel side.
There's certainly no lack of character in Stoke by Nayland, an expansive, welcoming village that instantly makes me want to live there. A recreation field stands at its centre, while the church of St Mary makes a fine sight with its 120ft perpendicular tower, as do the timber-framed and Suffolk-pink houses. Great views, a village hall, two schools, a well-stocked shop and two centuries-old pubs, the Angel and the Crown… what more could one want?
The pubs, needless to say, have altered far more than the centuries-old church that, often captured by Constable, has hardly changed at all. A decade ago, the Angel was highly regarded for its food, but its then owners have now moved across the street to breathe 21st-century life into the 15th-century Crown, reopening it as a restaurant with two other partners in 2003.
Like so many of the new breed of modernised country inns, the Crown now blends old-world character with modern, brasserie-style dining and packs in the locals for all-day food – breakfast, lunch and dinner – with a two-sided bar for drinks.
With its white walls and jumble of tiled roofs, its sun trap of a terrace and neat green picket fence on the outside, and its mix of sofas and banquettes, its flagstone floor and kitchen open to view on the inside, it presents the ideal country hostelry for modern urban man. "What was wrong with a simple pub?" says my friend Geoff, a lifelong local. "But you must admit it makes a great place to take people for lunch," points out Nella, his wife.
Four of the women, including Nella, dine at the Crown. The atmosphere is buzzy, the service beyond reproach, the wine list excellent value for money. The food, produced by a busy team in the kitchen, nearly lives up to the rest, though results are mixed: Nella's courgette flowers with ricotta are "disappointing" while Clare's artichoke soup is "divine". Main courses are not especially memorable but puddings are finger-licking good.
I take the girls to the strikingly attractive weatherboarded new building behind the inn that now houses 11 immaculate bedrooms. What we have here, rather surprisingly, is a boutique hotel (with permanent receptionist) tacked on to a country pub; by the time we've reached the smart reception lobby the convivial atmosphere of the Crown has disappeared. Though their comfort and high standards can't be faulted, including excellent storage and superb bathrooms, we all agree that the bedrooms could do with more personal touches (flowers, ornaments) in order not to break the spell. The concept, though, is one that I'm sure will catch on.
Stoke by Nayland (01206 262001; www.crowninn.net) Doubles from £70 to £185 per night, including breakfast. Specially adapted room for guests with disabilities.