When we were first married, my husband used to attempt to surprise me on birthdays and anniversaries by booking weekends away for us. He's long since given up because weekends are now the only time we get together and so being at home beats most places we could be instead.
On my birthday about 7 years ago he really surpassed himself by finding (goodness only knows how) and booking a weekend at Butley Priory near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He's not one to skimp on these things and paid about £350 for the weekend which was kind and generous but probably a bit over the top.
It might sound like a strange place to choose, particularly bearing in mind that at the time we did actually LIVE in Suffolk and not too many people would go for a weekend break in the county they lived in. However, I've always travelled a lot for work and he knew that the last thing I'd want to do on a Friday night would be to go to the airport and fly off again.
So we hopped in the car and left after work on Friday evening. I think hubby had even packed my bag and had refused to tell me where we were going and about an hour later we arrived at the Priory. The few friends that knew what he was up to had all been giggling that we were 'checking in to The Priory' which was all the more amusing because half a glass of wine and I'm asleep on the couch.
It's fair to say that Butley Priory is a real 'one of a kind' sort of place. It's housed in a wing of what was once a 14th Century monastery, built of flint and chalk and a bit of an architectural marvel. It's often used as a wedding venue and has even been featured on the television series 'The Hotel Inspector'. I didn't see the programme but I believe the inspector told the owner - a second-rate jazz singer who reluctantly lets rooms because her divorce meant she needed an income to prevent her from losing the house - to wise up and start taking her business more seriously or get out of it altogether. That sounds like a pretty fair assessment based on what we saw. The owner was present more in spirit (the CDs preloaded on the players in each room!) than in body. Like a relative forced to have you to stay but refusing to do more than tolerate her guests. I don't particularly want to go on holiday and experience a venue based around the arrogance of an owner with her own personality cult. The inspector also concluded that the price was far too high for what was on offer and I'd have to agree. It's beautiful but for £175 per night, most people would be looking for more than B&B service.
Architecturally it's a stunning place that will leave you breathless. With leaded light windows, high ceilings, and distinctly eclesiastical designs, it's like nowhere else I've ever stayed. Our room was spectacular, the gardens were vast but at the end of the day, the facilities on offer really are not much more than those of a B&B
There are only 5 bedrooms plus a tiny room called the 'monks cell'. I believe we had the Mary Rose room, a giant space with ceilings so high I'd need to put my glasses on to focus on them, a massive bed with draped fabric and the strangest en suite bathroom of all time which was disguised as a rather disconcerting large cupboard. It had faded pink wallpaper, two large windows, lots of furniture, wooden floors and large rugs. The curtains were so long that they dragged on the ground and the room had all the look of something straight from a style magazine. There were some nice little touches like a CD player, complete of course with a CD of the hostess's music (remember what I said about the ego-trip?)
Breakfast was the only meal available and was served by an irrepressibly jolly Zimbabwean girl who did her best to lighten the rather heavy atmosphere of such a large and imposing dining room. The food was of great quality and quantity but I can't really say that it was a comfortable or relaxed environment to eat in. We attempted to linger over the weekend newspapers but couldn't help feeling a bit like we were imposing in someone else's home, a not entirely uncommon factor in British B&Bs. The owner swanned past at some point trying to look fey and artistic but not really making us feel that she gave a damn about her guests as anything more than a source of income.
The countryside around the Priory is fantastic and we spent a lot of time driving around the Suffolk coast and up towards Norfolk. Wandering in the grounds was also lovely but there's only so much time you can spend pottering around in wet grass (my birthday is at the end of March). We didn't feel this was a place where we could waste half a day hanging around in our room and there really aren't any facilities to entertain you other than watching TV or listening to the owner's singing. We have a B&B in our village based in rather a grand house where the owners and their dogs treat everyone as if they were their favourite relatives and make you feel like you're one of the family and they'll even drop the prices if they like you. Now that's how British B&B hospitality SHOULD be - not a place where you tip toe up the stairs for fear of upsetting the landlady.
The Hotel Inspector advised the owner to stop messing around (if you've seen the show you'll know the language would have been a LOT stronger) and focus on weddings and photo shoots and look for work as historical backdrops for period dramas. I can't comment on the latter but the website now seems to be promoting the place as an exclusive wedding venue for which you can book the entire place for your special day. Filled with friends and family, I think this could be a great place for a wedding but if the service we saw was anything to go by, I'd certainly think twice. It looks spectacular but I'd need to be convinced that the staff can make you feel as special as you'd want them to for the money that's at stake.
(Finally, lest anyone thinks I'm an ungrateful spoiled wife, I did have a lovely time but that was due to my husband rather than the hotel. I could have stayed in a caravan at the seaside in a force 9 gale and still had a nice weekend).