The village of Tillington (pop 550) is so fantastically, quintessentially English, you'd swear it was going for some kind of prize, or hoping for a star appearance in The Great British Village-Off, should that ever become a thing. It stands on a hill overlooking the rolling South Downs. Just down the road is the 700-acre Petworth Park, landscaped by Capability Brown, and featuring Petworth House, a gorgeous 17th-century mansion whose biggest fan was JMW Turner. He painted the house and the park umpteen times – there are 19 Turner originals on its walls – and the house played itself in the Mr Turner film, as Timothy Spall harrumphed and growled his way through its immemorial rooms.
The village's chief landmark is All Hallows Church, a sturdy four-square building surmounted by a Scots Crown tower which joins up the square's four points. Turner painted that too, as did Constable (but not, one hopes, on the same day, or there would've been fisticuffs). Across the road from the church is the Horse Guards, a 300-year-old pub that got its name from the regular arrival of the household cavalry; they'd stay in its rooms while escorting gold bullion from London to pay the navy in Portsmouth.
I offer this potted history to introduce the Horse Guards as a (mostly) spot-on combination of authentic and pastiche English pub style. The main room is a cabinet of antique curiosities. Wherever you look, your eye falls on the cute and the characterful. Here's a horse's saddle, there's an old church notice board. Check out the stuffed wild boar trophy with a chaplet of dried roses on its head and, beside it, a collection of soda siphons. Glance up at the line of clothes pegs over the bar, and the line of bisected doilies, resembling white knickers, on a low beam. Antlers are everywhere, reminding you of the Petworth Deer Park. Amid the bric-a-brac, you spot several items – a suitcase full of condiments, a spindly shrub from which dangle heart-shaped biscuits bearing messages – which you associate more with a gift shop than a pub. So that's the look of the place – part Olde England Inne, part Twee Tearoom.
We settled in on stools at the bar (tables at lunchtime are like gold dust) and ceased finding fault as we watched a handsome youth called Jack construct two Bloody Marys. They took ages, as Jack piled on extra ingredients, like Rowan Atkinson's sales assistant in Love, Actually: Tabasco, sherry, Lea & Perrins, red wine, carrot and cucumber strips, celery salt... The result was a tastebud-shattering triumph.
Homemade bread was deliciously crusty and soft. Angie's carpaccio of fennel and pear with aged gouda was an inventive way of serving salad, light and refreshing, a spa-restaurant starter given some butch notes with fennel crisp and pumpkin seeds. My salt halibut fritters, a variant of salt-cod brandade, was lovely, the fish-to-mash ratio just right, each fritter dropped in eggy batter, beautifully browned and crunchy, served with aioli and a flick of cayenne pepper.
The Czech owner, Mischa, and her chef Mark Robinson, have all their beef supplied by Rother Valley Organics, a mile away: it comes from Aberdeen Angus cattle, grazed all year on herby pastures, then hung for 35 days. My four tranches of roasted organic rump was rare and raw-liver red, and was sublimely, meltingly rich and soft. The meat lay like a crimson tarpaulin over a spectacular array of casserole ingredients: small roast potatoes, parsnips, kale, Jerusalem artichokes and (slightly too salty) salsify hash. Horseradish cream was brilliantly balanced, a smear of onion marmalade less so. Let me say this loud and clear: the beef I'm regularly served at Sunday lunchtimes in west London gastropubs cannot hold a candle to the beef they serve here.
Bodyswerving the main-course offer of Bouillabaisse, Angie tucked into a pan-fried fillet of wild bass. It was divinely flaky, spiced with a harissa dressing, a touch of Marrakesh in the South Downs, and accompanied by a julienne of buttered leeks and crushed ratte potatoes equally full of butter: perfect, if hellishly filling, comfort food in chilly late February.
From a small puddings list, we chose a custard pie with pomegranate-poached quince, in which the custard is the main event, served in a carapace of Greek filo pastry, with the fruit outside. Poached quince was a revelation, as were the trio of textures, soft, sharp and tangy.
I ordered a Muscat to complement the quince, and soon couldn't see any reason why we should ever leave the Horse Guards, with its stuffed boar, charming service and Jack the handsome barman. Authenticity is a fine thing in an English country inn, but it's not half as important as serving top-quality pub food with generosity and flair. I urge you to try this place before the summer comes and there'll be a queue for tables stretching all the way to Portsmouth.
Upperton Road, Tillington, West Sussex (01798 342332). £28 a head for three courses, without wineReuse content