Here’s one for trivia fans: what do Angelina Jolie and Charles Dickens have in common – apart from a fascination with orphans, that is? Both have stayed at the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds. Dickens stayed here while giving readings in the nearby Athenaeum and mentioned it in The Pickwick Papers, while Angelina used it as a base during the filming of Tomb Raider (apparently existing on a room-service diet of boiled chicken and popcorn).
A coaching inn has stood on this spot since the 15th century, though the imposing ivy-covered façade that fronts the broad cobbled square is Georgian, in keeping with the rest of this smart old brewery town. Run by the same family since 1973, the Angel underwent a fairly major renovation last year, adding new rooms (bringing the total to 75) and a revamped bar and restaurant. When we check in on a Saturday afternoon, the place is buzzing with shoppers and day-trippers lingering over a late lunch.
Our room is in a new wing at the back. The view of the car park is uninspiring, but the décor is bright and contemporary, the beds superb and the bathroom slick and spacious. Time for a quick stroll around the town centre – great for quirky, independent shops – and then it’s back to the room to change for dinner. Over a pre-dinner drink, Robert Gough, the convivial owner, tells us the renovation was designed to breathe new life into the hotel, whose public areas were looking a little tired.
It’s worked. The bar and restaurant – decorated in muted greys with low lighting and splashes of contemporary art – are packed with a lively mix of locals and guests, giving the place a buzz that’s so often lacking in hotels. The menu uses local ingredients such as smoked salmon from Orford and venison from the nearby Elveden estate. My roast lamb with dauphinoise potatoes and green beans is good, but the dessert, a dainty trio of traditional steamed puddings, renders us speechless with happiness. Despite serving a full house, the young, local staff are polite, friendly and efficient. My only complaint: the lighting-here and throughout the public areas – is a little murky.
Next morning, after a faultless full English, we venture out to see what this corner of Suffolk has to offer. Bury St Edmunds is the perfect base for a weekend’s low-key shopping and sightseeing – just not on a wet and blustery off-season Sunday. The only shop in town that’s open is Topshop, the local stately homes don’t lower their drawbridges until Easter and there is no life in the nearby villages of Long Melford and Lavenham, whose tea rooms and antiques shops seem to have gone into hibernation. So it’s back to the welcoming log fire in the lounge at the Angel for one last coffee and a flick through the Sunday papers before heading for home.
The verdict: A well-run and welcoming hotel, which also succeeds in being a thriving focal point for the town.
By Joanne O’Connor
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