Cobbe Place was an old farmhouse once owned by the artist and writer Quentin Bell, son of painter Vanessa Bell and art critic Clive Bell, near the main road to Lewes. This corner of the South Downs is Bloomsbury Set country, and it's easy to see why artists and authors found this area's clear light and undulating greenness inspiring. More recently, Cobbe Place was transformed into Blue Door Barns, a B&B with distinctive character. The new owners wanted it to feel individual and like a proper retreat – the interiors were clearly inspired by their travels across the Channel.
Shabby chic is the clichéd term for such interiors of provençal-style furniture, patchwork blankets, quirky chandeliers and dove-grey-washed everything. Anyone who's browsed the antiques stores of East Sussex may recognise Blue Door Barns's four 16th-century outhouses (sleeping two to four) as having a distinctly "Lewes look".
The "B&B" label represents the key ingredients, but here it should be celebrated as a "B&B&B"– the last "B" denoting a decent bathroom. A slate-tiled en suite shower is a terrific tonic after a deep sleep in the comfortable bed. Two of the barns come equipped with kitchenettes for longer stays.
It's not just a pretty part of the world: that South Downs air has a soporific effect. If nature isn't enough to take it down a gear, there's always the Snug to turn to. Shed on the outside, chic sanctuary within, this micro-spa offers indulgent facials (from £40) from a holistic therapist with magical hands.
The sitting room of the main farmhouse has the same easy elegance as the barns. It is in this lounge-like dining room that breakfast is served. Sinatra crooning, wood-burning stove crackling – it's a home with heart, but with a hotel-quality menu created from locally sourced farm produce. (Self-catering barns get a welcome hamper, or guests can eat in the house for £8pp.)
The genesis of Blue Door Barns is a familiar tale: girl from Eastbourne works in the Big Smoke for 20 years, then sells her successful PR company and moves with her family back to her roots. "I like entertaining and looking after people," says Bryony Johnson, who couldn't be more welcoming or friendly. "It's Emma who makes everything look beautiful," she says. Emma was previously in property and co-hosted Channel 4's House Auction as the expert, so it was the ideal project for them when they made the move to East Sussex with children, Sadie (eight) and Rafe (six).
Follow in the footsteps of the Bloomsbury Set. It's a five-minute drive to Charleston in Lewes, which was the home and studio of Vanessa Bell and her second-husband Duncan Grant. It houses a museum, open April to September (01305 262 538; charleston.org.uk). Virginia Woolf lived at 17th-century Monk's House (01273 474760; nationaltrust.org.uk). Glyndebourne Opera House is only a few minutes' drive away (01273 815000; glyndebourne.com); the festival runs from 17 May to 24 August. Your hosts can help with packing you a picnic.
Antiquing is fun in the historic market town of Lewes. Pastorale Antiques (01273 473259) is packed with treasures. Its Buttercup Café is a winner for large-portion tangy salads, cakes and sandwiches.
The Grade-II listed Ram Inn pub (01273 858222; raminn.co.uk) has been serving ale to the hamlet of Firle for 500 years. Sharing boards are the star – potted crab and whitebait, or Vacherin Mont d'Or and beef-dripping cooked chips. In Lewes itself, visit the artisanal Flint Owl bakery, which also serves a mean flat white coffee.
Alfriston is a village of Enid Blyton cuteness. Moonrakers (01323 871199; moonrakersrestaurant.co.uk) is a suitably dinky dining room ideal for romantic candle-lit three-course dinners (01323 871199; from £35 a head). If you're heading towards Ashdown Forest, pause for the 12th-century charms of Fletching village, then head to The Griffin (01825 722890; thegriffininn.co.uk), half an hour away. A daily-changing chalkboard features hearty salads and just-baked focaccia sandwiches, or full-on feasts of Romney Marsh lamb and Sussex beef.
Blue Door Barns, Beddingham, Lewes, East Sussex BN8 6JY (01273 858 893; bluedoorbarns.com). Doubles start at £100 a night, including breakfast.