The Spread Eagle, which dates from 1430, was described by Hilaire Belloc as ‘that oldest and most revered of all the prime inns of this world.’ Originally a coaching inn—both Elizabeth I and Admiral Nelson were patrons—it retains a higgledy piggledy charm, with exposed beams, leaded windows, creaky floorboards and uneven, slightly precarious staircases.
There is a fine gin bar attached, with open fires, comfortable, squishy leather sofas and armchairs, an extensive list of gins (55) from all over the world, and an extremely knowledgeable (and persuasive) barman. At the front of the hotel a light-flooded conservatory with wicker furniture, pretty cushions and a jungle of greenery, serves afternoon tea and snacks throughout the day.
The appealing contemporary spa, with floor to ceiling windows underneath a Scandinavian-style vaulted wooden ceiling and skylight, is set around a small courtyard dominated by a beautiful old apple tree: an uplifting view as you swim in the mosaic-tiled pool or wallow in the hot tub. And my deep tissue massage, which really sorted out some painful knots, was as effective and professional as they come.
We were in the Queen’s Suite, where Elizabeth I reputedly stayed, which was an old-fashioned delight, all dark wood furniture, floor length velvet curtains, plush carpets and soft furnishings in muted, faded shades of rose and old gold. The four poster, complete with rich damask hangings, was one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in, and the marble-tiled bathroom, with power shower and claw-footed bathtub, offered just the right amount of contemporary luxury. The loo was positioned underneath a low beam, which had been padded in the same upholstery as one of the armchairs—presumably to prevent tall people bashing their bonces. A nice touch, and great attention to detail.
There was a small sitting room with a sofa bed and second TV attached, which makes the Queen’s Suite a popular (and economical) choice for families. Should you wish to go the whole hog and really splash out, the larger residents’ lounge outside the sitting room, complete with lovely old piano, can be incorporated for an even bigger (frankly enormous) suite (price on application).
An original wig closet dating from 1430—believed to be the only one still in existence—acts as a wonderfully idiosyncratic dressing room, and freshly-baked biscuits on the tea and coffee tray added to our happy sense of being cossetted. I’ve now stayed in all three of the Historic Sussex Hotels (see Ockenden Manor and Bailiffscourt) and though each is unique, there are certain trademark details shared by all: generous supplies of Temple Spa toiletries, velvety white orchids in every room (including the bathrooms), charming, attentive service, and a pleasing respect for each building’s heritage, without being twee or sacrificing modern comforts.
The restaurant, with its inglenook fireplace surrounded by gleaming copper pans, is warm and welcoming, with a relaxed atmosphere—less formal than in the sister hotels—and the food was sublime (probably the best of the three, though it’s a tough call).
We had planned to share our starters, a trio of crab (baked crab and herb custard with white crab mayonnaise sandwich and crab bisque) and hot foie gras on toasted brioche with caramelised apple and hazelnut salad—but they were so yummy that we each greedily hung on to our own (‘I’m not sharing this’).
The crab was an exemplary lesson in how to use every bit of the beast to maximum advantage: brown meat in the rich, green-flecked custard, white in the finely cut sandwich, shells in the bisque, whose depth of flavour lingered beautifully after the elusive delicacy of the sarnie. You can’t really go wrong with foie gras and brioche, and the seasonal accompaniment of hazelnuts and caramelised apple was perfectly judged, adding both crunch and sweetness, while the lightly dressed leaves went some way to offsetting the richness.
At this point we were offered a bonus starter—we were sitting close to the kitchen and suspected that the chef had heard our rhapsodies—or perhaps Chloe, our delightful French waitress, had told him how much we were enjoying it all. Either way, we were very happy to be given an oatmeal biscuit, topped with blue cheese whip, pear jelly, mushrooms and walnuts; a superbly autumnal concoction, though one that might have been more suited to the end of the meal. Andy was very pleased with himself when he correctly guessed that it was the chef’s savoury take on a walnut whip.
My brill with homemade pasta and wild mushrooms was—erm—brill (sorry), the fish beautifully cooked, the mushrooms bosky and well-seasoned. The noodles weren’t the silky strands I’d been expecting, but had been crisped up into a kind of spaghetti rosti, a nice textural contrast to the delicate fish. Andy’s roast partridge with celeriac puree, cherries and more foie gras was, again, exemplary, with tender meat beneath its savoury crust, and a deep, rich sauce. He pronounced it ‘game heaven.’
For pudding, Andy went for the special—crème brulee with chocolate ice cream, accompanied by a small glass of Sauternes—while I had the chocolate and orange delice with Bailey’s ice cream and Muscat. It’s testament to the chef’s skill that we were able to eat anything at all by now, but force it down we did, reckoning there was plenty of time for the rest of the week (and our lives) to exist on kale and lentils. Needless to say, it was all just as delicious as the courses that preceded it, though critical faculties might have become blunted by overload at this point.
The barman from the gin bar tried to persuade us back for a couple of digestifs, but with remarkable self-restraint we declined and waddled our way upstairs to the warmth of our luxurious cocoon, where we slept extremely well indeed.
Who goes there?
Difficult to say, as we visited on a Monday in autumn, so there were very few other customers, but those that there were confirmed what the barman told us: professional couples from London, many of them regulars. You can see why. It’s an easy distance from the capital (our train journey took less than an hour and a half) and could easily become a favourite for special occasions.
Also the inevitable well-heeled retired couples, taking advantage of the fact they don’t have to wait for the weekend for a mini-break. More families, natch, at weekends, when it gets very busy—all year round, so we were told.
Out & about:
The Spread Eagle is situated right in the middle of Midhurst, a pretty West Sussex market town with a pleasing mish-mash of medieval, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture, easily explored on foot. It was voted one of the best places to live by the Sunday Times in 2016.
Also within walking distance are the magnificent, somewhat spooky, ruins of Cowdray House (one of the great Tudor houses, partially destroyed by fire in 1793), set in Cowdray Park, in the heart of the South Downs National Park. There’s a fabulous, romantic walled garden here, filled with statues, fountains, roses, clematis and other sweet-smelling flowers. The farm shop was shut when we visited but in the summer would be worth a visit to stock up for a picnic on the Downs.
Further afield, Petworth House houses the National Trust’s finest art collection and has grounds designed by Capability Brown.
The worst thing:
We were very much looking forward to our room service breakfast (having to get up and dressed a couple of hours before checkout time just to catch breakfast in the dining room is a pet hotel gripe), but sadly it was cold, with partly congealed eggs—a shame as everything else was spot on.
The best thing:
See above! Almost impossible to choose, but if pressed, I’d have to go for dinner (all of it) followed very closely by the Queen’s Suite.