There is a lot to like about the Masons Arms in historic Louth. The handsome, 1775 coaching inn had dwindled into a rather shabby pub – with outdated, rarely used guest rooms – when local businessman and farmer Charles Nickerson bought it at the beginning of this year. It closed for six months of refurbishment and reopened in August, offering something a little smarter than this market town was used to. Manager David Morgan stresses that it is “evolving”, still finding its way, but first impressions are good: behind the elegant, three-storey black-and-white facade, white walls and dark wood set off the generous proportions and high ceilings of the lobby, stairs and 10 en suite rooms.Louth
Bedrooms are by Manchester design studio NoChintz, whose work lives up to the name: original cornicing and fireplaces are highlighted, but in a clean, contemporary way, with lots of dark grey mingling with palettes of rich green, blue or plum.
We’re in room 8, at the back of the building, with a splendid view of 15th-century St James’s church. I’m not convinced by brown vinyl headboards, but I like the irregular hexagonal wall mirrors and framed geometric prints. There are teas of all kinds (though no fresh milk), a Nespresso machine, and good, strong wifi.
The bathroom’s strident diagonal black tiles might be a bit harsh in the morning after a good night in Habits cocktail bar on the first floor, and nice toiletries in big bottles demand in bossy capitals that you “Stop the water while using me”. But it’s all well-made, warm and sleek, and the pillow-soft bathrobes are a joy to wear.
Bathrooms all have strident black-and-white tiling
We’ve arrived on a Sunday and are surprised by how quiet (for which read “dead”) Louth is, with just a few pubs open, desultorily. Even Old Maltings Antique Centre, which would be a perfect Sunday afternoon browse, is shut. We’re saved by attractively produced leaflets in our room detailing local walks from town, of between 5½ and 14 miles. We pick a circular route into the Lincolnshire Wolds AONB, climbing to the dizzy (for these parts) height of 104 metres above sea level, with views of fens and salt marsh reaching to the coast 10 miles away.
Walking in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Photograph: Liz Boulter
(Louth, I hasten to add, is a different place by Monday: Britain’s favourite market town, according to one BBC poll, buzzes on weekdays with shoppers and independent traders.)
Appetite honed by walking, we head for dinner in the restaurant, with more white walls, big uncluttered windows, coral seating and parquet floor. Chef Ian Smith is fresh from the Devonshire Arms at Beeley in the Peak District, and his food, too, is fresh – inventive and lovely to look at. A tomato tartlet (£7) has an oddly bland puree inside, but both the pastry and the watercress and caramelised onion topping are masterly. A carrot and wensleydale salad (£6) sounds basic but tastes just-picked, its lemon yoghurt dressing crunchy with nigella seeds. My main of tender duck with cherry (£17) is memorable for its sinful duck scratchings and wonderfully nutty, purple-fleshed heritage potatoes.
Ian Smith’s heritage tomato tartlet
Things not to like come to the fore next morning. Contradictory information about parking leads to me driving round and round Louth’s one-way system at 8am without reading glasses, trying to find a certain car park (I’d expected to simply feed a meter). Walking back, I find the front door locked and have to bang on the window until a charming young woman from reception leaves off mopping to let me in.
At breakfast the coffee is excellent, the juice freshly squeezed, and dishes of poached egg with avocado, and wild mushrooms on toast look beautiful. They probably smell good too, but our charming young friend is still assiduously mopping the parquet – to within inches of our feet – and the odour of cleaning fluid masks anything else.
This is a good-looking hotel, with friendly staff, sophisticated food, and some rather rough edges. Let’s hope it can “evolve” fast enough to knock them off.
• Accommodation was provided by the Masons Arms (doubles from £89 B&B, 01507 621200, the-masons-arms.com)
Ask a local
Paul Adams, owner of The Cheese Shop, Louth
Hubbard’s hills, Louth
The Royal Oak in Mareham-le Fen is a newly renovated 17th-century thatched pub. Try confit pork belly with wholegrain mustard mash.
The best drinking spot in Louth is the Greyhound (known as “The Dog”) with well-kept pints of Black Sheep and lots of cocktails.
Great for browsing is Coopers antique shop. And try stuffed chine at Meridian Meats – it’s a Lincolnshire cured pork speciality with lots of fresh parsley.
Just outside town is Hubbard’s Hills, a steep wooded valley, with stepping stones over a river – and particularly lovely in autumn.