Maison Talbooth, Dedham, Essex, England
If you’ve never thought of taking a weekend break to Essex before, you’ve been seriously missing out. The village of Dedham, just outside Colchester on the Essex-Sussex border, is not just pretty as a picture, it’s also home to a clutch of top-notch restaurants and hotels, owned and run by the Milsom family.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Milsom’s first opening – Le Talbooth – a restored Tudor hotel and restaurant on the river Stour, and they’re bringing out a recipe book to celebrate. Le Talbooth is about as bucolic a dining spot as you’re going to get – weeping willow overhanging the water, ducks bobbing about the bullrushes, a little bridge where kids play Pooh sticks (I made that bit up, but you get the picture). In the kitchen, head chef Zack Deakins gives traditional dishes a modern twist – Dedham vale beef carpaccio, Colchester crab ravioli, wood pigeon with beetroot and spicy lentils, and John Dory with a star anis bouillabaise. It was one of the finest meals I’ve eaten in a long while.
Up the road, Maison Talbooth – the original Milsom hotel – is a contemporary country hotel, with 12 suites named after literary icons. I stayed in the corner Shelley suite, which overlooked the pool house and had a gorgeous view of the surrounding Constable countryside. It also had one of the comfiest chairs I’ve ever sat in. Opposite my room was the spa – which I sadly didn’t get to sample – and downstairs was a grand piano, which I sadly didn’t get to play. No matter – all reasons to come back. The hotel also has a happening afternoon tea, I’m told. Again, one for next time…
On my first night, I was treated to dinner at The Pier in Harwich – another Milsom establishment – which does an excellent catch of the day, plucked from the surrounding waters. I sampled the steamed mussels, cockles and razor clams, the sea bream, which came with some seriously creamy mash – all excellent – then took a much-needed stroll around the deserted streets to search for the famous Electric Palace cinema. Ferries depart Harwich for Holland, and as I made my way back towards the Pier, a huge Stenaline behemoth loomed into view.
The next day I set out to explore Dedham village itself. This is Constable country, so expect eyeful after eyeful of watercolour-worthy countryscapes, little churches and wonky timber-framed cottages. Lovely. There are over 14,000 listed buildings in the county and I can see why. I popped into the former home and studios of Sir Alfred Munnings – one-time president of the Royal Academy – and browsed his prolific collection of equestrian paintings. If I’d had the time I definitely would have made the trip out to Constable’s birthplace at Flatford Mill, and Willy Lott’s cottage, which features in the Hay Wain. There’s also Thomas Gainsborough’s home nearby (yet more reasons to return…).
Colchester town has a fascinating history all of its own, with a Roman town wall that runs for 1.5 miles, and a castle that was the largest built by the Normans. It used to be the capital of Britain, and my taxi driver told me that it was in Colchester where the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme was invented, after a spy was found at the top of the tower – but he could have been having me on. Still, only an hour from London – or 45 minutes from Stansted airport – this is somewhere you can reach easily to investigate for yourself. A great stop-off on your way to warmer climes, or a weekend break from the city in its own right. Essex really is a hidden gem.
The damage: Doubles from £210, including breakfast. Afternoon tea is served every day between 2.00pm – 6.00pm. From £17.50 pp. To book, call 01206 322367.
Foodie diversion: The Sun on the high st in Dedham does fantastic local, seasonal food, and you can take a boat out on the river nearby afterwards (www.thesuninndedham.com). There’s also the Mersea Island Cookery School near Colchester (www.merseaislandcookeryschool.co.uk).
Come here for: Constable landscapes, English history, art walks and cream teas.
Review by Katie Monk