Inside, there were no flagstone floors and tables hewn from solid oak trunks. Instead, we found the sort of soft furnishings you might expect in your Auntie Jean's front room - a fitted carpet in crushed raspberry, and frilled floral curtaining. But fires were blazing, the welcome was warm and we settled down for a restorative drink. "Would we like to look at the menu first?" came the suggestion, "and perhaps ... the wine list?"
When the wine lists - for there were two of them the size of encyclopaedias - appeared, we began to notice something of a wine theme in the little inn, many bottles and racks, glasses on the table mats and a competition to guess the year, region and grower of the week's house wine. But when, in a mood for splashing out, we asked our host to suggest a 1982 claret for pounds 20-pounds 30, he stared, then barked: "An '82 claret? I don't know anything about '82 clarets," and strode off as if offended.
We looked at each other, bamboozled. Had we committed some hideous gaffe? The landlord strode past again, discoursing with one of the waiters about "Chateau la Clotte", laughing uproariously and ignoring us. Next he reappeared with a tatty periodical which looked like Dalton's Weekly, chucked it dismissively on to the table and said, "You see. There's something wrong with all of them."
We glanced at the publication, which turned out to be Parker's Wine Advocate.
"What about a Graves?" said my companion, encouragingly.
"Oh you say that," said our host with a bitter laugh. "You say that. But look at Parker. Cough tincture. Fruit pastilles."
Forty-five minutes later, he was still cross-referring the wine list with Parker, going, "Yes, you see, 'vegetably nose', but then he says, 'moist and damp'. I mean..."
It was as if the excellence of the vintage had induced a state of panic and mental paralysis in our host. For a time it seemed hopeless. We thought we were going to have to forget the whole thing and go back to London. Then suddenly - a gap in the clouds! An '82 Chateau Carbonnieux Graves, at pounds 28 with "a textbook Graves nose (tobacco, minerals, herbs)" was deemed to fit the bill. Our food order was added, as if as a tedious afterthought, and we made our way over to Forge Cottage to spruce ourselves up.
Forge Cottage - co-run by the White Horse's chef, Neil Rusbridger - is the sort of place you cannot imagine remaining so cosy, tasteful and generously- run at the price (pounds 70 for two, b&b) for very long. The mood is Lovely Old Sussex Cottage done up by people who've spent an awful lot of time in the Conran Shop: pigmented plasterwork, fine white cotton sheets, Mediterranean- style crockery, trays made out of wood and distressed wrought iron. I think we had the nicest room: on the ground floor, small but with a brick bread oven and its own entrance. It's what you always hope to find when you end up with an avocado bathroom suite, polyester sheets in peach, and a wood-effect tray bearing a plastic kettle and cartons of UHT milk.
Once back in the inn we were offered a glass of sparkling wine with our canapes and subsequently our claret, beautifully decanted. Our host declared it a triumph, lush and seductive, though stressing, noticing our slightly startled faces, that he had only sipped the dregs. I think it might be true that the more fuss you make about wine, the more indecision, decanting, peering, sniffing and swilling around large, beautiful glasses that goes on, the more fabulous it is going to taste - and it certainly did.
The food was delightful: it was a set menu (with extras) from which we selected goat's cheese salad and terrine of foie gras as starters, followed by supreme of pheasant on a celeraic cream, and breast of Gressingham Duck with leaf spinach. Above all it was tasty - unexpectedly, the star item we were left cooing about was the spinach with nutmeg sauce, a goddess among spinach dishes.
As my companion remarked, the White Horse isn't so much a restaurant, as "an alcoholic frenzy with a kitchen attached". As the evening wore on, more and more empty bottles were placed, offering-like, in front of the log fire. A young couple opposite us appeared to be on their third bottle of red and were leaning toward each other slurring "jammy tobacco mocha", "unctuous truffle cedar" and "consistently chewy notes". A smartly dressed elderly couple paid their bill, rose to their feet, then the gentleman crashed into the wine rack. A middle-aged foursome - the ladies coiffed, and dressed in floral two-pieces - made their goodbyes, then overshot the exit, giggling like Beavis and Butthead. Dessert wines, more than fairly priced at between pounds 2 and pounds 5, seemed only right and proper.
By the time we were back in Forge Cottage, seated opposite an orange- faced couple called Pam and Bill, while Neil the chef made us a bedtime drink by melting the finest bitter-sweet chocolate on the Aga and whipping it up with creamy milk, it was hard to believe the good time we were having was real: especially when Pam took one sip, hiccupped, and dec-lared she preferred Cadbury's cocoa. 8