Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck find themselves spending a blissful night in Cloud Cuckoo Land
We had heard that The Bell Inn in the small Sussex village of Ticehurst was ‘unusual’ and a glance at the website confirmed this. So, having read of rooms with strange poetic names, each containing a birch tree, a floor to ceiling stack of books in the dining room, top hats used as lampshades, tenor horns converted into a gents’ urinal, dentist’s chairs used as chaise longues, a Banksy in the hall – and ubiquitously, the enigmatic use of the word ‘apparently, what were we to expect?
Well, first impression on entering the long room which serves as bar and restaurant was, thank goodness, it is still a village pub. There were plenty of the aforesaid decorative elements, plus some items of taxidermy but a big log fire was burning, families were finishing their lunch and locals who looked as it they were permanent fixtures were sitting over their pints. Fear number one, that this would turn out to be a poncey, pretentious place, was duly dismissed.
We were welcomed by the manager who carried our case the few yards across the garden to our room – which was in fact not a room – but one of the new lodges, The Love Nest. A circular rather yurt-like wooden building tucked into the hillside with a staircase leading up to round roof terrace, edged with a nest-like fringe of twigs, it was certainly unlike any hotel room we’d seen.
Rather than lingering however, we wanted to explore the village before dark. It was Monday and almost everything was shut so we made do with a look round the church which was big, impressive… and chilly.
We weren’t cold for long though, as the wood burning stove in our nest had been lit in our absence and the room was cosy. There were fresh scones, strawberry jam and cream waiting for us (with tea making equipment in the cupboard) and as we fortified ourselves we took in the fact that the room was excellently equipped. There was a curved sofa and a free standing copper bath in the main room with a double shower, basin and loo in a separate little curved room behind the big bed. (One little niggle here we discovered later – It needs more shelving for make up, wash kits etc)
The walls of the nest were decorated with painted clouds, seven (mercifully silent) cuckoo clocks and five little bird boxes two of which were occupied by small stuffed birds. The wooden floors were covered with sheepskin rugs and there was a big flat screen television – which we couldn’t turn on. We tried, heard some funny noises and decided to call for help. The manager arrived quickly and, hiding a smile, solved the problem. Instead of the T.V remote control, we’d been using the device for opening and shutting the circular skylight screen over the bed!
We spend sometime reading the material put out about the room. It included an intriguing poem by a local writer, Craig Melvin
The hush of the trees, I am here.
Watching you blue against the window
With the moon behind you, I just knew
There is nothing stranger than truth
Uncertainty lies behind the closed door
Anything is possible
This is the here and the now.
Between the benefit and the doubt
And that certain something is you
Simple things that echo make smiles of memories.
This poem, as we were to find, contains hints of the names of several of the Bell’s other rooms. It further invokes the feeling that here you can and maybe should, leave everyday life behind you and enter the world of imagination.
Listening to the Archers on the radio however, brought us back down to earth after which we prepared to go over to dinner. At the bar we learned the significance of the word ‘Apparently.’ When the present owner Richard Upton purchased the property he and his designer Richard Brett set about a massive (it cost £2.8 million) refurbishment. Naturally enough the building under wraps provoked intense local speculation. Gossip ran that, ‘apparently this would happen,’ or ‘apparently that would be the outcome…’ and thus ‘apparently’ became a sort of mantra encapsulating something of that area between reality and fantasy which The Bells seeks to occupy.
With that sorted it, was time to eat. The atmosphere in dining room was warm and friendly with the candles on the tables casting a gentle glow over the red painted walls and yes, here were the top hat lamp shades and the floor to ceiling tower of books. The furniture was unpretentious, many of the mismatched the chairs and tables having been in use here prior to the refurbishment. The diners, several young couples, a family and some older people were obviously there to enjoy themselves, the room was buzzing with conversation and laughter.
The service was efficient and friendly and the menu consisted of eight starters and nine ‘main events’ which Dennis judged to be an ideal number for a kitchen of this size to produce well – and so it proved. Pleased to note that the scallops came from Rye just down the road, he chose them served with braised fennel and lamb bacon as his starter and pronounced the dish excellent. Patricia opted for honeyed goats cheese which came topped with slivers of tender roasted butternut squash, pine nuts and a tasty salad of lambs lettuce and red leaves.
The starter portions were generous but nothing compared with the mains. Patricia’s pork chop served on a bed of delicious mustard mash and kale was almost big enough to cover the plate! So large and so good that, hating waste, she asked for half to take away and was later presented with it in the sweetest doggy bag she’d ever seen – a little basket fashioned from aluminium foil. Dennis’s pan fried fillet of monk fish with courgettes and puy lentils was also generous and perfectly cooked.
The puddings were, in the main traditional old favourites but apple crumble with custard, sticky toffee pudding and bread and butter pudding, ice creams and also a cheese board.
At this point we took our postprandial tipple and made our way to the little Snug where we slumped on one of the old leather Chesterfields in front of the fire. Finding ourselves surrounded by odd artefacts and old fashioned children’s book it was as if we’d stumbled into a cabinet of curiosities.
At one point Dennis visited the men’s room and I asked him what he made of the tenor horn urinals. “Possibly a triumph of form over function,” was his comment. A previous user had missed and the floor was wet!
At this end of the building too is the Stable with a Table, a room converted from the inn’s original carriage shed with a long sunken table running its length. Here larger groups can dine beneath the benign red neon sign which says, “I will always love you my friend.”
And so back to our nest and after a deep bath in the copper tub, to bed. The bed with its hand-made Somnus mattress, downy pillows and crisp white linen was the epitome of comfort, so much so that we almost overslept and had to hurry to catch breakfast.
By morning light the dining room still looked charming (something few pubs achieve) and the Bell vibe was still apparent with the packets of cereal presented in an old leather suitcase. The buffet was laden with cereals, yogurts jams and the excellent artisan breads from the Lighthouse Bakery up the road. Eggs Benedict and Royale were available as well the Full English – so although we thought we’d never eat again after last night’s feast in fact we broke our fast with considerable style.
Before leaving we were lucky enough to see a couple of the rooms in the main building and yes, each does have the trunk of a silver birch tree stretching from floor to ceiling, the furnishings are, as one would expect, eclectic and the names are echoes of that poem. Each room is quite different in décor and atmosphere and the act of reaching some of them by climbing steep stairs and squeezing along tiny corridors, only adds to the fairy-story feel of the experience.
So not only has The Bell in its new incarnation managed to save a British pub but it has added something to the local community as it hosts debates and runs a film club.
As we reluctantly shut the door on our Love Nest we felt that to call it Cloud Cuckoo Land was not quite right. That saying, which comes from Aristophanes, refers to an unrealistic state in which a person is duped into thinking everything is perfect. No way had we been duped and our stay had been as near perfect as a night away can be.
|The Bell Inn
Tel +44(0)1580 200 234.
Email — email@example.com
Reservations – +44(0)1580 202 300.www.thebellinnticehurst.co.uk