Locals just call it Melford but in the village’s full name, Long Melford, rarely has an adjective been so apt. Its pretty high street runs for three miles, flanked by well-preserved, centuries-old houses built for wealthy cloth merchants. People have also been living here for a long time: its inclusion in the Domesday book is a relatively recent notch on a timeline that stretches back 10,000 years, taking in an extensive Roman settlement along the way.
And the most attractive part of well-favoured “Melford” is its northern end, home to airy, many-windowed Holy Trinity Church, cute cottages, 16th-century almshouses in mellow red brick and a village green that is, no surprise, unusually long at almost 500 metres. It could be twee if it weren’t all so high, wide and handsome. Overlooking the green is former coaching inn the Black Lion, which the Suffolk-based Chestnut Group recently added to its roster of East Anglian village pubs.
There has been an inn on the site since 1661, but the present building is three storeys of whitewashed Georgian splendour. Manager Graeme Partridge claims the aim of a four-month refurb was to update a hotel that was “stuffy and old-fashioned”. The new Black Lion is not at all stuffy – the welcome is relaxed and friendly – but our room, one of 10 ranging from snug to luxury suite, is certainly old-fashioned, in a good way.
No boutique design flourishes here: no upcycled ornaments, funky artwork or distressed wood. The room, in restful shades of cream and pale taupe with moss green accents, is furnished with a mix of antiques and reproduction pieces and has a gorgeous window seat overlooking the green. The first-floor landing is hung with prints of Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode – a warning, perhaps, to weekending couples? – but simple architectural mezzotints adorn the bedroom walls. The bathroom is similarly traditional, though the dinner-plate size shower head delivers an impressive drenching. A tea tray includes coffee machine, homemade shortbread, and fresh milk sitting in a bowl of ice (herbal teabags are the only omission).
We settle in the window to watch the sun go down over misty hills then head down to the “drawing room”, whose log fire makes a cosy spot for a G&T – though maybe an Old-Fashioned would suit best – before moving to the restaurant for a dinner that is, by contrast, thoroughly up to date.
A modern British menu with ambition can often be spotted by its disdain for what primary schools call “joining words”. There’s no “with” or “and”, much less any “on a bed of”. Serious chefs just rely on commas, as in “eel, beetroot, goat’s curd”. So it is with the Black Lion: three or four alluring pubs on that long high street mean plenty of competition for diners. To stand out, new head chef Steve Angier has devised a 2019 menu that is about “simple ingredients, cooked well” – and tersely described.
He is a serious talent, especially – and appropriately for these times – when it comes to vegetables. A vegan starter of “roasted cauliflower, black garlic, radish, cumin” packs more flavour than many a meat- or dairy-based starter I’ve had, and “pan-fried halibut, burnt apple, salt-baked celeriac, cavolo nero, mussel sauce” is long-winded but equally long on deliciousness. It’s not faultless: the crackling with (and let’s be honest: the main point of) the Blythburgh pork belly is tooth-breakingly hard, and a too-sweet “rhubarb cremeux” lacks tartness. Portions are of pleasingly sensible size, though – we skip back up to our “chamber” satisfied but not overfed.
Next morning, as our room is one of several that face south, we also get to watch, from our window seat, the winter sun coming up over the extensive green and the village beyond. Solid and spacious, old-fashioned but not old hat, the Black Lion perfectly matches its Suffolk village setting. Long may they both prosper.
• Accommodation was provided by the Black Lion , which has doubles from £90 B&B
Ask a local
Alix Massey, marketing manager, Kentwell Hall (five minutes’ drive from the Black Lion)
In Sudbury, a few miles away, Gainsborough’s House was the birthplace of English painter Thomas Gainsborough and is now a museum and gallery (adult £7, child over 5 and students £2, family £16). There’s a Nicole Farhi sculpture exhibition on until 16 June, as well as Gainsborough artworks and belongings. Ten minutes in the other direction is the historic village of Lavenham, with its timber framed houses and public buildings.
Eat and drink
Within walking distance of Gainsborough’s House is the Mill Hotel, perfect for lunch or afternoon tea on the terrace, with views as far as the eye can see over water meadows and the River Stour.
For a stylish gift or snazzy kitchenware to take home, try Evans Gifts and Interiors on Hall Street. Lots of people come to Long Melford to hunt for treasure at the village’s antiques centre, run by Linda Cooke.
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