The 16th-century Griffin Inn in Fletching, East Sussex is much enthused about in pub guides, with each entry so festooned with stars, crowns, little beds, animals and smileys as to make up a cut-out nativity scene in its own right. We arrived in not the calmest or most punctual of states, since my companion had been obliged to interview Norman Wisdom immediately prior to departure, and had become so hopelessly lost en route that she then had to rush the quipping comic post-haste to unveil a plaque in Teddington, delivering him embarrassingly late to a breathless throng.
The village of Fletching - an hour and a bit from London - has a beautiful Norman church (which brought the nightmare flooding back for my friend) and a single street of pretty old brick and slate houses. It borders Sheffield Park, a National Trust managed estate. Our initial reaction was mild disappointment since the street was definitely more of a road than a lane, and the pub, with a blackboard outside offering an "Elvis Bar-B-Que" seemed more roadside than rustic. Round the back, however, was a large grassy garden rolling down to a fabulous view.
The Griffin has resisted turning itself into a chi-chi hotel restaurant- in-all-but-name, catering perfectly for the varied wants of the rural pub visitor. The main bar is an orgy of atmospheric cosiness with oak panelling, an ancient corner fireplace, old wooden furniture and live piano music. To the rear the restaurant opens onto a terrace where lunches and dinners are served when the temperature allows, the whole having the air of an unpretentious haven of fun and jollity.
The staff could not have been more forgiving of our lateness, an enormous plus sign, particularly when contrasted with the sadistic "We've just stopped serving!" so often doled out to late-coming Londoners in country pubs. The dining room, bustingly full, began at one end in ancient style, with wooden floor, and historic fireplace, dressers, etc, progressing smoothly to parents' lounge with a red textured carpet, wooden wall lights with little lampshades on and lots of framed prints. We were seated in the transitional area at a pine table prettily and rustically laid, with a candle, flowers and simple white crockery, where we chose a half bottle of 1994 Domaine de Vauroux Chablis at pounds 11.90 from a sensible wine list with plenty below the pounds 20 mark.
The bread, alas, did not bode well: chunks of "French Stick", soft on the outside - French sausage, more like. But the starters allayed our fears. Leek and potato soup was dark green, robustly leeky and refreshingly free of boiled cream. My only quarrel with it was that it contained black pepper flakes so large I mistook them for burnt bits. My friend had ordered very well with leek, mussel and scallop stew. "It's delicious in very light curry sauce, rather like a Thai curry."
I was drawn, for my main course, to "char-grilled spatchcock" (a bird? a fish? a mollusc?), which, our youthful waitress explained with a blush, was a "a gelding chicken." The sense of sexual embarrassment generated by the naughty spatchcock continued when it arrived, splayed with its legs in the air. It was nicely char-grilled, marinated in ginger, soy and garlic, with a well judged accompaniment of wild rice and raita. The trouble with these little birds, however, is that you always feel you're having a stand up fight with them, ending with a plate which looks as though a bomb has hit it and you feeling vaguely like a child-murderer. The vegetables were very docile, though, served separately, beautifully cooked. Roast loin of pork was easier to eat and fine but uninspiring, slabs rather than slices of meat in an undistinguished gravy. My friend, however, raved about the crackling and roast potatoes. "They taste as though they've been mulched in the oven for hours and it's done them nothing but good."
Averting our eyes from the Kate-Moss-like, slender legged waitresses in their flippy little mini-skirts, we ploughed on to dessert. I was overjoyed with the Griffin's chocolate, orange and brandy parfait. It had all the best qualities of Chocolate Orange which has been in the fridge. Its texture was superb: light, creamy, cool, slightly solid. Fresh, undoctored orange slices were an excellent addition, though serving cream on top, without checking first, seemed rather unfair, since what was one to do other than gobble it? Even the banoffi pie, the most fattening dessert known to man, arrived in a sea of cream. It was a damn good pie, though my friend found the biscuit base "hard to get through with a knife, as opposed to a saw." Lunch came to pounds 56, including drinks and service, which, though hardly bargain basement, seemed fair enough.
The food was good, hearty and tasty, but it is the whole experience of the Griffin Inn which makes it worth a trip. Upstairs, three rooms have four-poster beds and the romantic Fletching Room has a wonderful old stone fireplace and cosy sofa - all for pounds 75 a night including breakfast. To arrive on a Saturday evening, cosy up in front of a roaring fire in winter, or sit out on the terrace in summer and enjoy a few pints, dinner in the candle-lit restaurant and a hearty breakfast in lovely countryside the next day for inside seventy quid would give many an ex-stately-home mini- break a run for its money. In fact Princess Diana would probably adore it. !