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A Night Away: at the Gunton Arms, where culture, comfort and country life commingle

A traditional rural pub it may be, but this north Norfolk establishment, in part designed by the late Robert Kime, does away with convention, pairing beautiful bedrooms with boundary-pushing pictures and sculptures, courtesy of owner Ivor Braka. Here he tells us about the art of the perfect pub

Words
Celia Lyttelton
A Night Away: at the Gunton Arms, where culture, comfort and country life commingle

The approach to the Gunton Arms passes colossal stone herms, sculptures by Ulrich Rückriem. A flinty gabled Victorian lodge with pillar-box-red paintwork commands an Arcadian vista of parkland, herds of fallow deer and a five-metre Sol Lewitt ziggurat. In the panelled entrance hall, a family is gathered round a fire, lunching while a toddler perches on the window ledge. In the bar the footie is showing on the TV, locals play pool and darts, laughter and rock classics resound. In the restaurant, people are feasting beside a vast open fire with a gigantic pair of fossilised elk antlers above.

Ivor Braka, the owner, is an erudite art dealer and passionate patron of contemporary art. He has installed some of his collection at the Gunton – of museum calibre and strictly NFS. Retreating to the sitting room, hung with Lucian Freud drypoints and a copy of a Magritte, we join Ivor in sinking into a capacious sofa. “Robert did the bedrooms,” he says of the late great decorator Robert Kime, “while the pub and restaurant was me.” He employed Martin Brudnizki, who designs for restaurants, to advise him and asked Shaun Lovering to transform some of the spaces with his paint effects.

When people arrive at the Gunton, among the first things they see is some traditional pub art: paintings of livestock, prize pigs and a hunt meets. This is in part a homage to Andras Kalman, a Hungarian refugee who later ran Crane Kalman gallery, who loved naive art. “He was my mentor and without him I would never have become a dealer.”

In the bar hangs a copy of Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, a kitsch icon (and “something of an anomaly”) alongside more conceptual pieces, including some of Damien Hirst butterflies and Tracey Emin’s gnomic neon texts. Somehow, Paula Rego’s lithographs of women vomiting red wine into loos – designed for wine labels but not used – don’t deter drinkers. Ivor’s mischievous humour and clever juxtaposition ensures the art is not merely decoration, but stimulating and outrageous. Some works are sexually explicit, others are scattered with expletives. There are casts of male genitalia by the gents’, and a deceptive painting of erogenous zones disguised as leaves. A Glenn Ligon piece exclaiming: “My Family only Fucked in One Position” stands out. “He is a great Black artist and dear friend,” enthuses Ivor, before conceding: “Not all the works are easy on the eye.”

The eight sumptuous Kime-designed bedrooms are decorated with prints, samplers, John Martin engravings and heavy linen curtains (even in the bathrooms), which don’t clash with the Morris & Co and Pugin-esque wallpapers and bold Turkish runners. The bathrooms are fitted out with Carrara marble tiles and basins reclaimed from demolished Alexandrian villas and embassies; another Kime magic touch.

All cares and tensions lift upon arrival. Forget signing on to the wifi – and sometimes even the great outdoors. It rained ceaselessly on our visit, but no matter: the great indoors satiates all the senses, with damask cushions and the scent of woodsmoke, wine and leather, art and terroir food.

This is all due to Ivor’s vision and elan. “I wanted to create another world,” he explains. “Here, you can swap the 21st-century travails and troubles for gracious living, as you could when this lodge was a place of pleasure,” Ivor says provocatively. He’s referring to the fact that in the 1890s Lillie Langtry, mistress of the future Edward VII, sojourned here discreetly to service the prince while he was staying at nearby Gunton Hall. More seriously, he adds: “I shall never forget going to L’Auberge de la Môle in Provence, aged 18. It was filled with both farmhands and incredibly glamorous people, like Sophia Loren and Jacques Chirac. That is what I wanted to achieve – a place where everyone is equally at home.”

The Gunton might have a little of the gentlemen’s club about it, but it is the opposite of such establishments as Soho House; it is not exclusive and people seldom use their phones. It also has a pro-dog and -children policy – “but no kids in the bar, otherwise you can’t be profane.” As for stag nights and weddings, “just no. Closing off the pub for such events would severely jeopardise our relations with local customers – and it is the locals that make the place.”

Localism drives the food too. “The menus are dictated by what’s in season,” explains chef patron Stuart Tattersall. “The vegetables and fruit grow in the walled garden and greenhouse, the venison is virtually on tap – every chef’s dream – and we get our Burford chickens and beef from the Blickling Estate. I trained under Mark Hix; he taught me never to scrimp on ingredients.”

Beside the open fire, where a steel shelf sizzled with venison, devilled kidneys and livers, we tucked into steak, Cromer crabs and lobster, and a griottine cherry and pistachio cheesecake. The service was swift and the staff scrupulously kind and efficient – a vital ingredient, according to Ivor. “The priority is not the customers but the staff – that’s the key to success: good moral people. It doesn’t matter if they are don’t know about wine and food when they join. We can train them.”

We leave after breakfast the next day – scrambled eggs and Loch Duart salmon cured in the pub’s own smokehouse. Even the honey is from their own hives. Sigh – and want to return almost immediately, to go to the Gunton again and again. There is nothing lacking here.

Further reading

The Gunton Arms

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