The bit between the city and the sea
As the clocks go forward, are you tempted to celebrate the arrival of spring with a trip to the countryside? I'm not, says Cole Moreton
Sunday 29 March 2009
Yes, very pretty, but what is the countryside actually for? That is what I wonder every time I speed through it on the way from one interesting destination to another, looking out at all that eerie stillness. Field after field of bright yellow rapeseed waiting to be turned into ... well, what?
When was the last time you ate a rapeseed cake? The actual food we fry and throw down our gullets is flown in from Kansas in bargain buckets, while Poles pick the stuff nobody wants, like vegetables, from wide-skied fields in Kent to be shipped out.
The last time I actually went and had a proper look at the countryside it was full of dead animals, smoking pyres of sheep and cows. But I know what goes on out there because I hear it every day in The Archers. Not much. And I remember the countryside from childhood holidays, when to an East End boy born within the sound of the North Circular (the traffic drowned out Bow Bells) it was like a huge theme park – with no rides.
You couldn't ride the tractors; you couldn't ride the horses; you couldn't do anything except sneeze from hay fever. Or walk. Put your wellies on and trudge through fields with cowpats and ankle-twisting rabbit holes, until the rain came down, the mud swashed around your knees, the birds prepared to peck your eyes out and the bull looked ready to charge, and you cried and your mother didn't notice but just said: "Isn't this nice?". No. I dreamed of something else: the sea.
I'd seen it in Ladybirds books. Golden sand, cute crabs, bright, inviting blue water and happy children with yellow buckets having the time of their lives. That was what I wanted. Still do, even after learning the reality of howling gales and sand in your sandwiches. So, after a lifetime of fantasising, I took myself and my family off to live by the sea, in a town that everyone thinks is dull and dying but is actually elegant and calm. But there's a problem. To get from where I live to where I work I have to go quite a long way by train, passing through the Downs then up to London. All the way I wonder why it's there. Whither Wivelsfield? What's the point of Plumpton?
All the little settlements are so puzzling. Why live 30 miles inland, surrounded by drab fields that look good for nothing but walking dogs, without the benefit of even a post office or a pub these days, and, inevitably, right on a road along which the lorries roar? There are life-affirming bits, sure, but there is so much more scenic dross – flat bits of land, pockmarked with broken barns or abandoned machinery. They don't know how to be tidy out there, with so much space.
The bottom line is that, for me (and this is, as you will have worked out, a wilfully ignorant personal view and not at all the view of the travel editor, who insists on filling the pages with bucolic propaganda), the countryside is what you have to go through on your way from the city to the sea. I don't see the point of living or being somewhere that hasn't got either; a) something to do or b) the lovely, calming sea.
All of which is a way of saying I was not exactly thrilled when invited to go to Arundel. A dozen miles inland, neither one thing nor the other. Purgatory. But the first thing you think when you turn off a lane near the town is "Wow". A fairy-tale vision: verdant lawns mown in stripes, on either side of a creamy path leading up to a castle. A proper one with turrets, and battle-ments you can climb on and
thick walls and tiny leaded windows and a dungeon and an armoury and a couple of dozen knights lounging around with broadswords ready to slay dragons ... actually, I got a bit carried away with those last three items, but Amberley does that to you.
The second thing you think is: "Our car's going to be the tattiest vehicle in the car park." And that's right, next to the new BMWs. There is, let's be honest, something intimidating about a place like this, to those of us who are not used to doors opening magically as you approach (and not because of an electronic system but because there is a member of staff behind the heavy oak door who responds to your thanks by thanking you, as if this is the calling of a lifetime). Am I dressed right? Am I behaving properly? Worrying about it can ruin an expensive weekend. How do you act in a place where there are signs saying "Please keep the door closed to avoid peacocks coming in".
Luckily, Amberley is so extrava-gantly over the top (in an elegant, solid, old way) that it's hard to imagine anyone other than royalty feeling immediately at home. The manor house at the centre of the castle was built in the 12th century, but the fortifications went up 200 years later. The room we have is in the castle wall, next to one of the two towers, so the windows are small. Add an enormous carved mahogany four-poster and thick, richly embroidered upholstery, and it feels quite medieval. With central heating. And no plague. The Jacuzzi helps, too.
Henry VIII – exactly the sort of bloke to have a splash in the Jacuzzi with a floozy – is said to have come here to consult the bishop about his first divorce. He liked the place so much he seized it. A Royalist diehard lost the castle to the Roundheads, but it was won back again five years later. Charles II visited when he was on the run, and again as king. It was in ruins when George V and Queen Mary visited in 1929, and when Princess Elizabeth visited in 1945. Then, 20 years ago, Amberley Castle was restored by Joy and Martin Cummings. These days, it is part of the Von Essen hotel chain, so you're not getting quite such a personal service, but we have no complaints.
The question is whether Von Essen can maintain the high standards that saw Amberley voted the top castle hotel in the world a few years ago. The decor says yes, because the detail is staggering. Suits of armour and ancestral portraits accentuate the grandeur, but the shared rooms have a sense of being lived-in that makes them more comfortable. (One thing though: fake books in a library should be illegal.)
To dinner, then. The chef is James Dugan, who worked in Michelin-starred kitchens in Hampshire and Soho before coming to Amberley three years ago. "I wanted a blank canvas, so that I could try to gain a Michelin star for myself," he tells us. All but 10 per cent of the ingredients are British, as often as possible sourced locally. Grown on local farms, he says pointedly, having heard my views on the countryside.
I have tartare of Shetland (hey, that's not Sussex) trout with cucumber jelly, caviar and duck egg gribiche (no, I don't know either). Then "Guinea Fowl, crisp braised Leg, deconstructed Borlotti Bean 'Cassoulet', Three textures of Beetroot" as the menu says. I don't know much about cooking, but I do know his capital letters are all over the place. And I do know enough to say that the food is extraordinary. As magnificent as the Queen's Room in which it is served, if less ornate.
It's one of those places where you feel you have to whisper but we have fun with Kelvin Lees, a master sommelier who plays games with his customers. He picks a wine to complement each course, and we guess where it's from in the world, which variety and so on. I can only just tell merlot from Irn Bru, so there's no chance of getting it right, but the two of us have a stab. "France? California? Chile? Albania? The Isle of Wight?" When he has stopped laughing, Kelvin tells the story of each glass, but the revelation is what his choices do to the taste buds in combination with the food. It's dizzying.
So (he says with a link as creaky as the old wooden steps) is the view from the top of the battlements, where we find ourselves after dinner. We have no idea how we got there, with heads spinning from Kelvin's alchemy, and when we turn to look back down one of us nearly has a panic attack. The walls are 60 feet high, and there are no barriers to stop you falling. The view is, however, and I hate to say it, lovely. Mist hanging over the marshland and water meadows of the river Arun as the sun goes down. OK, so maybe it is time to give up my prejudice.
I don't want to go home, back to a place where you have to cook your own food and open your own door. I love it here. The cattle in the fields you can keep (to eat) but give me a fairy-tale fortress with a superior chef, a master sommelier, a four-poster and a couple of peacocks and even I begin to see the point of rural England. I came to Amberley thinking the countryside was that place you had to go through on your way from the city to the sea. Now I must repent. I see that it is vital, vibrant and indeed essential. Where else would you keep the castles?
How to get there
B&B in a double room at Amberley Castle costs from £190 per night through Relais & Chateaux (00 800 2000 00 02; relaischateaux.com). Until 30 April, a two-night, half-board package is available from £520 per room, including breakfast and dinner each day.
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