They say an Englishman’s home is his castle- no, really, an Englishman’s home is a castle. Gabrielle plays queen for a day…
Ah, the joys of spring and a brief sojourn to places new. This time West Sussex, far enough to feel like a little holiday, but not so far as to warrant a break at a motorway service station en-route. A verdant countryside sprinkled with farms, the promise of crops and little chocolate box villages to stock up on slightly over-priced homemade preserves. Castles too, we discover; outstanding spectacles. A far cry from the crumbled Welsh forts of childhood memories, these ones fit more in line with the Grimm tales I pored over.
After a morning browsing the antique shops of Arundel, a market town overlooked by impressive castle number one, we stopped for clotted cream scones and a brief browse of the pottery in Amberley village, we drove up to Amberley Castle spot on for the 3pm check-in. As first impressions go, it’s quite something. An unexpected wow factor that had me grinning from ear to ear and requesting the car be stopped at the bottom gate so I could photograph the fine specimen in all its sun-drenched glory, aided by the striped lawn and a St George flag blowing proudly from one of the towers. Car parked, overnight case in hand, we walked gingerly under the medieval portcullis and through to a mix of ruins, bronze statues, Koi-inhabited pond and courtyard seating area.
The hooting coos of white doves lend a therapeutic soundtrack to an otherwise silent setting, while resident rare white peacock Bob flounces his impressive train with confidence and grace. Everywhere we look doves sit: congregating on the roofs, flying overhead, cwtched into the arrow-loops. Daffodils, bluebells, pansies and other seasonal fancies border the groomed lawns, petals standing to attention as if to say ‘hello’ as we pass.
Amberley Castle is not short of character, with various ages represented in the walls and buildings, dating back to 1103 where it begun as a wood-framed hunting lodge and gradually evolved over the centuries, at the hands of six bishops, a duke, a lord, a cloth merchant, and Queen Elizabeth I. It began its life as a hotel in 1989, and is now owned by Brownsword Hotels, as part of the Gidleigh Collection alongside other great British abodes – Gidleigh Park, Lower Slaughter Manor and The Bath Priory – all known for their sumptuous surroundings and foodie credentials.
It’s the sort of place you whisk off a loved one to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, or just to escape to the country and life as you know it for a night or three. Judging by the packed restaurant they had when we arrived, it’s a place where you head to as a local for lunch. For those lucky enough to stay over in one of the 19 rooms, the immediate vicinity boasts a tennis court, an 18-hold putting course, two pond-side gazebos and benches dotted around to enjoy the various nooks of the gardens and wildlife. Inside, three lounges filled with books, glossy magazines, and chess boards on seemingly every surface, set up and ready for guests to play. Play we did, although win, as always, I didn’t. C’est la vie, I didn’t come to Amberley to push a few pawns around anyway. Food, as is mostly the case, was the main draw – the castle, breathtaking South Downs setting, and sumptuous accommodation, were all added bonuses.
And what food it was. Executive Chef Robby Jenks clearly learnt a thing or two from his time as commis, junior then senior sous chef under Micheal Caines at Gidleigh Park, for the menu here is a perfect match to the setting: luxurious, classic, bursting with seasonal ingredients, and elevated with modern touches: just like our Premier Deluxe Suite, Chichester, which mixed antique furnishings and original open fireplace, with a plush contemporary bathroom sporting a raised bath overlooking the 14th century castle walls and rolling South Downs, walk-in rainfall shower and heated floor.
The evening commenced on a celebratory note in one of the lounges with a perky flute of Ridgeview Estate and a fun canapé platter of rocket and pine nut ‘lollypops’ that burst in the mouth and some ‘take these away or I’ll eat the whole tin’ parmesan thins, while we poured over the menu. The a la carte options piqued enough interest for us to forgo the gluttonous tasting menu, and upstairs in the restaurant, over a leisurely, fire-side evening, under the watchful eye of the oil portraits, we enjoyed excellent mouthful after another. Like Amberley’s entrance, the dishes had immediate wow factor when laid before us, delivering on every level to make for a delectable three courses, accompanied by a super selection of Chilean, New Zealand, Italian, French and Portuguese wines matched to each course by the sommelier (the wine by the glass list here, is one of the best I’ve seen).
The quail breast, leg and egg, with garlic risotto and a rich jus, packed an incredible amount of flavour into the tiniest morsel, setting the bar dangerously high for the rest of the meal. No matter, the veal with sweetbread stuffed cannelloni, roast cauliflower and another thick, luscious jus, was an absolute pleasure to be acquainted with. As was the lamb, which looked inspired by a beautiful woodland scene, and tasted as magical. The various desserts carried past and delivered to other diners through the evening looked artful and tempting, but the pull of a British artisan cheese platter was too much for us both, and it was with big smiles, that we finished off, with the aid of Dow’s Fine Tawny Port, a couple of West Sussex’s, a Somerset cheddar and two very good Alex James’: Goddess and Blue Monday.
But of course, that wasn’t the end. Back downstairs in the middle lounge, in between trying to work out the rules for a complicated-looking wooden game that turned out to be simply tic-tac-toe, we found room for a selection of petit fours, selected carefully from a chest presented to us by the waiter: some fruit jellies, a pistachio nougat and a couple of oozing salted caramels for the road; or rather, the walk up the creaky staircase, past an imposing suit of armour, along the corridor, and up again to the attic, to bed.
After silent slumber in a marshmallow soft bed, we awoke to dawn birdsong, a thick mist shrouding the South Downs that’s likely inspired a poem or two, and the surreal sight of ducks perched on the castle wall. No doubt a view many a monarch who has slept within these walls has enjoyed; a thought I entertained myself with as I sipped a cup of Earl Grey in the grand wooden four-poster bed. Queen Elizabeth I, perhaps, when she leased the castle between 1588 and 1603; or Henry VIII who visited in 1526 to seek advice from the residing Bishop Sherbourne on divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon; maybe Charles II in the 1600s, or Elizabeth II in 1945.
Later, as we tucked into a breakfast of smoked kippers, fresh fruit and granola, under the 12th century vaulted ceilings of the Queen’s Room, where we enjoyed the delectable dinner the night before, I imagine the centuries of discussions, gatherings and feasts those ancient walls would have been privy to. 900 years of history is quite something, lending an air to the property that heightens the imagination and makes it all the more special. A unique, fairy tale bolt-hole, just 22 miles from Brighton, under two hours’ drive from London, and a world away from your average country hotel.
Amberley Castle is part of the Andrew Brownsword Hotels group and a member of Relais & Chateaux.
Overnight stays at Amberley Castle start from £165 for a double room on a b&b basis. For further information visit www.amberleycastle.co.uk or call 01798 831992.