Strand House Winchelsea – Review

Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck stay at this charming and historic luxury B & B in East Sussex

Having once lived in a cottage of around the same vintage, we were interested to see how a building, part of which dates from the 15th century, would react to being turned into a twenty-first century B & B. To be fair, Guest Accommodation is the more correct appellation because Strand House, a member of the Wolsey Lodges group, is a certainly a notch above the average B & B and only a just notch under many boutique hotels.

Our first impression was that it certainly looked the part; old brick chimneys, wattle and daub-type exterior, mullioned windows, and crooked roof – all very medieval. We soon noticed however, that the antique- looking front door was equipped with a state-of-the-art entry phone system which could instantly summon the owners, Mary Sullivan or Hugh Davie from wherever they were, by calling their mobile phones. This was our first indication of the adaptations they had undertaken to bring the old house in line with today’s hospitality industry. Not that it was needed this time as Mary was in the garden and she, accompanied by her well trained 6-year old helper Polly (who offered to take out cases for us!) hurried over and welcomed us warmly.

Once inside we were forcefully reminded of the cottage we’d lived in, low ceilings, old wooden doors, uneven floor boards, steep stairs and that palpable sense of age which is of course Stand House’s USP. We also learned that the building in fact consisted of two houses, one behind the other. The main part, through which we entered, had been Winchelsea’s workhouse in the 15th century, amazingly housing 24 inmates. It had still looked sufficiently picturesque around 1817 to catch the eye of JMW Turner, who sketched it.

Our room called Inglenook, together with two more rooms and a small sitting room, was in the rear part which had been a malt house and which dated from even earlier, around the 1300s. When we opened the door however, what we discovered was a very prettily decorated bedroom containing a large comfortable-looking (and it was) bed, a chest of drawers, a cupboard in which to hang clothes, chairs, a TV, tea and coffee making equipment and ( as we’d observed throughout the house) masses of good books and magazines. There was also a French window leading to an outside sitting area with the garden beyond and beyond the garden, meadows in which sheep grazed and lambs frolicked.

In the 1300s people were smaller and neither of us is very big which was advantageous under the circumstances as the beamed ceiling was on the low side and the en-suite shower, loo and minute wash basin the smallest we’d ever seen. These facilities had been squeezed seamlessly into a section of the room behind a false wall and represented another notable concession to modernity. Obviously washing hardy featured when the house was built and as for lavatories, let’s say health and safety would not be happy with the original arrangements. The shower however, proved efficient and there were White Company toiletries and towelling bathrobes, so one had all one needed – although a few more shelves for wash kit stuff would not have come amiss and yes, there are a few inches of wall free to accommodate them.

We looked at the two cosy sitting rooms and the light, pleasant dining room and everywhere we observed similar clever use of the limited space. Then, as we didn’t know Winchelsea, we set off up the hill behind the house to explore. Although now only 580 people live there, Winchelsea is not a village but a proper town with its own mayor. We were immediately struck by the fact that the streets are not narrow and twisty as one expects from an ancient town, but wide and set out in a grid pattern. We were also impressed by the smartness of the houses and the impeccably kept gardens; there wasn’t a jarring note anywhere. It was also incredibly quiet, we encountered perhaps five people and 3 of them were in the village shop which was excellently stocked and contained a café. There was a pub and a museum (which was closed) and a tree under which John Wesley preached a sermon but the main feature is the Church. This rises from the ruins of an earlier building which was apparently almost as big a cathedral and inside we admired some ancient tombs containing marble effigies of knights and ladies. One of them provided the backdrop for the painting The Random Shot by Millais which depicts a little girl who has been accidentally injured and has been placed on the tomb and covered by a soldier’s jacket. The tombs, we read, had been rescued from the church of Old Winchelsea which had been swallowed by the sea in 1287. This town on the hill was in fact was built as a replacement by King Edward I (the only likeness of whom in fact looks down on one of the tombs.). Looking round this utterly tranquil little town perched high above acres of green fields, it was hard to take in the fact that Winchelsea had at that time been not only one of the principal ports of Sussex but of the whole country. It was from Winchelsea’s great anchorage that the English fleet set off to one of its few victories in the Hundred Years War.

Regaled by so much history we made out way back to Strand House where a variety of cream teas were on offer but in view of dinner to come, we settled for a simple cuppa – although Patricia appreciated the gluten free biscuit thoughtfully supplied.

After a short rest and a stroll around the garden, we made our way to the dining room for on Friday and Saturday dinner is available. Mary changes the menu every time to take advantage of what is on offer locally and her standards are high. She also invites guests to discuss their requirements and as everything is cooked to order, is happy to adapt.

With Hugh very efficiently taking the role of waiter, we began with little cups of tasty sweet pepper soup with rocket and watercress pesto – just the right amount to get one’s palate zinging. There was then a choice of local hot smoked salmon with organic cucumber salad with a mild smoked chilli and yogurt dressing which Patricia chose and deemed well balanced and delicious and creamed wild mushrooms en croute drizzled with truffle oil which Dennis demolished with gusto.

Both main courses were very local, Dennis’ choice of Rye Bay cod roasted with sumac, lemon and nigella seeds and a sizzled with Rye Bay scallop and Patricia’s Romney Bay lamb served 2 ways, sliced rump and a cutlet, with a red wine and rosemary sauce was not only excellent in flavour and presentation but even the accompanying medley of vegetables was exceptionally good. Neither of us needed a pudding or a cheese course but how could Dennis resist warm chocolate pud with rich melty middle and raspberry cream? And that being the case Patricia felt obliged to keep him company with Taywell Farm coconut ice cream with berry salad and passion fruit sauce. Thus ended a delicious and memorable meal which was certainly worth every penny of £35.00.

And so to the lovely comfortable bed. At Strand House part of the charm is that all the rooms are different. As well as those in the old house three larger modern rooms are available in a newly built annexe. The prices of the rooms vary from roughly £55- £150 per night and it is a good idea when booking to discuss and clarify what sort of room you need. Some have showers and some baths and most importantly there are some in which larger people might feel constricted. Mary will help you to select a room to suit your requirements.

Although we had retired thinking we’d never feel hungry again, we managed to consume a fine breakfast. A copious buffet was laid out (one minor thought here, there was local apple juice but at breakfast nothing quite sets the tone of an establishment like freshly squeezed orange juice…) Patricia selected plain yogurt on which she drizzled honey from Hugh’s hives which we’d seen a few yards away in the garden. Dennis chose fruit and we both then opted for a selection of the items in the full Sussex Breakfast, including Hugh’s home-made baked beans ( pleasantly different), local bacon and fresh flat mushrooms. Toast, croissants and brioches were available with jams and honey as well as very good home baked gluten-free bread.

For anyone interested in history a visit to Winchelsea, Rye and the atmospheric Romney Marsh is a treat and to stay at Strand House and sleep where people lived and slept 700 years ago would add an extra dimension of enjoyment. It is to the credit of the owners that having brought this building so skilfully up to today’s star rating levels, even those whose idea of history goes back no farther than last week, will feel thoroughly at home here.

And yes, I think the old building is happy to find itself smartened up and still in business, possibly enjoying the company of today’s jolly guests more than that of its previous unfortunate incumbents.

Strand House
Tanyards Lane
Winchelsea, Nr Rye,
E.Sussex TN36 4JT
Tel 01797 226276

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