Review: The Swan Hotel Lavenham
Historical splendour meets modern luxury at one of Suffolk's most famous hotels. We hotfooted it to Lavenham to experience The Swan Hotel's medieval magic.
This luxe hotel is right slap bang in the middle of Suffolk’s prettiest town – the medieval marvel that is Lavenham. The high street is lined with wonky, beamed Tudor houses in an array of bright colours with The Swan Hotel standing proud as the centrepiece of the village. The hotel is made up of four 15th century houses and is an historical rabbit warren of corridors with delightfully uneven floors and tiny little doorways that mean you’re constantly ducking (or banging your bonce in my husband’s case). It’s all part of the charm though. Somehow the downstairs areas have been made completely open plan and feel really light and airy for the age of the building. All in all, it’s historical splendour at its very best. As you can imagine, American visitors go mad for it. We do too – Lavenham actually took one of the top spots in our Best Places to Live in Suffolk series here.
It’s not just the town of Lavenham itself that is a wonderful place to visit, but just down the road you’ll find Long Melford – another historic beauty full of antique shops, wonderful places to eat and two palaces to look around in Melford Hall and Kentwell Hall. Hadleigh, Clare and Bury St Edmunds are all within easy driving distance too, so it’s safe to say Lavenham is a pretty perfect spot for some Suffolk sightseeing.
The buildings might be pretty ancient, but there’s nothing stuffy about the hotel. It manages to combine its Tudor beauty with modern touches very tastefully. The addition of The Weavers’ Spa in 2015, with a glorious and relaxing garden, really helps the hotel feel up-to-date and like a destination in its own right. The overriding feeling when you’re in the hotel is one of peace. The beams and casement windows create a really warm feeling and muffles the sounds of other guests. You can easily curl up for hours in a cosy corner (in front of a roaring fire in winter) and feel like you’re at home.
The Swan has two restaurants – the fine-dining Gallery Restaurant (booking in advance of your stay highly recommended to avoid disappointment) and the more relaxed Brasserie. There’s also a really cool bar, The Airmen’s Bar, named after the US airmen who used to visit during the war and whose names you can see signed on the walls.
You can also have afternoon tea, lunch or a relaxed dinner in the lounge areas if you prefer. In summer, there’s a pretty terrace/ garden area where you can eat or drink.
Dining in The Gallery is pretty special (£40 per person for three courses), because the beamed Great Hall is just so incredible. Forget looking across the table lovingly into your partner’s eyes – you’ll spend the whole meal marvelling at the historic details, including a minstrel’s gallery. The food was a delight from starter to pudding and all beautifully presented. I chose a tomato salad with balsamic sauce and walnuts to start, which was fresh and delicious, while my husband opted for the hake with curry sauce, puffed rice, potato, and mango and confirmed it was delicious.
Being a veggie, I was particularly impressed by the extensive vegan/ vegetarian menu and my hand-rolled gnocchi with summer truffle, young greens, and herb oil was a delight, although the truffle quota was subtle to say the least! My normally meat-loving husband decided the lamb and venison main courses weren’t for him on such a warm September day and so opted for the vegan potato and spinach curry. He wolfed it down and is now planning on recreating it at home. Fine praise indeed.
For dessert we chose a vanilla panna cotta and dark chocolate with a smooth mousse, orange and honeycomb. I would’ve asked my husband for his verdict on this last dessert, but all he could do was nod – his teeth were stuck together by the delicious, yet devilishly chewy, homemade honeycomb.
Although the service was a little patchy at times, the refined atmosphere was so calming that we were too relaxed to consider chivvying staff along as we might’ve in another less ambient restaurant.
Breakfast was back in The Gallery (again, you can sit in the less formal Brasserie if you prefer or have little ones with you who are liable to fling half eaten bits of toast across the room). It felt very decadent to be eating breakfast in such smart style, all off a menu (no buffets here!) and with lovely choices like greek yoghurt and berry compote, baskets of viennoiseries, Eggs Royale, and a full English. We both opted for the full cooked breakfast and it was beautiful, and featured lots of lovely local products.
When we found our room after a few wrong turns, we were very impressed. As the hotel is four houses combined, it really is a magical maze of Tudor corridors, which are absolutely fascinating and really quite fun places to get lost in. There are staircases and little doors everywhere! We were right at the far end of the hotel, next to the spa and our room was so much larger than expected for the age of the building. In fact it must’ve once been the entire ground floor of a high street house complete with a huge inglenook fireplace, with original soot stains on the brickwork. Our bed looked right at home – a four-poster number – like something out of a National Trust house. It was surprisingly comfy though. The only thing that woke me in the night was the creak of footsteps from above (a ghost perhaps?).
In total there are a surprising 45 bedrooms in the hotel, which range in size and price, but all have lovely historical touches. Prices start at around £135 for a night in a cosy Cygnet bedroom with a full breakfast. The Constable Suites are the most expensive, but are much more spacious and, if you’re not fussed by having beams overhead, a more modern Suffolk room might be for you. Some of the rooms are dog friendly too, so be sure to ask for one of these if you’re hoping to bring Fido to enjoy the amazing walks in and around Lavenham.
Weavers’ Spa is tucked just behind the high street, linked to the hotel by the garden and is such a gorgeous addition to the place. Like the main hotel, it instantly gives you a feeling of calm and peacefulness and if you’re lucky enough to get a warm day, the garden is pure heaven. I was almost asleep in the September sun listening to the trickle of the vitality pool (overnight guests can pre-book a complimentary 30 minute session) and with the smell of lavender all around when my therapist came to collect me. I’ve still got a burned nose as I write this!
There are six treatment rooms including one for couples, a good sized changing area, a hot stone sauna, a steam room, two relaxation rooms and a boutique. Carpets make everything feel hush hush and there’s no clattering of doors, people walking by or cars driving past during your treatment. It’s complete serenity all the way.
This was my first Covid-friendly spa treatment and it wasn’t as strange as anticipated. The cleanliness levels are incredible, and although I was wearing a mask (don’t worry, when you’re face down you take it off) I completely forgot about it once my therapist started the 90-minute Recovery Treatment (£100). She really listened to what I wanted from the treatment and delivered (and then some) with an all over massage and exfoliation, including foot treatment and scalp massage that I wanted to last forever. I emerged bleary eyed into the sun to find my husband had taken it upon himself to test out all the pub gardens in Lavenham. So we were both a little wobbly on our feet that afternoon!
OUT AND ABOUT
You don’t really need to venture further than Lavenham if you just want to park your car up in the hotel’s car park and not bother with it again. There’s plenty to see in the nearby area, including The Guildhall, a stunning National Trust property, The Little Hall, one of the finest surviving medieval merchant’s houses in the country, and De Vere house (used in the Harry Potter films as Godric’s Hollow). The high street is lined with quaint shops and tea rooms too, plus art galleries and a lovely antiques centre at the top of the hill called Marshbeck Interiors. The Lavenham Walk at the end of the village is a lovely stroll and links up with the much longer St Edmunds Way. At the other end of the village is the stunning wool church, which has the tallest church tower in the UK.
If you do fancy venturing further, you’ll want to see Kentwell Hall in Long Melford, visit Bury for a wider range of shops and attractions, and perhaps even enjoy a day at Newmarket Races.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: You don’t get many hotels so drenched in history or with such a wonderful vibe. For a one-of-a-kind historical experience, but with all the modern bells and whistles that us Muddy lot love, you can’t go wrong.
Not for: It’s definitely possible to have children and stay at this hotel, but the refined atmosphere, higgley-piggley nature of the place (not made for buggies!) and the fact that you’ll want to spend a day at the spa means this is probably a hotel to book for just the two of you. Get those grandparents on speed dial.
The Swan Hotel Lavenham, High St, Lavenham, Sudbury CO10 9QA; theswanatlavenham.co.uk; 01787 247477