Gin is a thing as the moment, it seems. But long before it started to enter the realms of trendy tipples, The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa has been championing it, with 75 gins and counting, packed into its little bar, accompanied by 15 different tonic waters and various garnishes. Fans of mothers’ ruin will be in their element here; those who aren’t, will surely be swayed by a well-judged prescription from the knowledgeable bartender – it worked on my beau, who’d sooner settle down with a pint of local ale (of course, there are those too). From the olive and rosemary tones of the Gin Mare, to the seemingly magical qualities of the German Black Forest Monkey 47, which turns a subtle pearlescent blue when mixed with the citrus oils of an orange peel twist; to the crisp, delicate Silent Pool, there’s much to keep you quenched. This oak-beamed lounge bar, sitting in fire-side arm chairs, was our pre and post dinner hangout one eve, safe in the knowledge that a mere three short flights of stairs away, lay a plump four-poster bed in waiting.
The Spread Eagle is a unique, family-run bolthole in the market town of Midhurst in West Sussex. Dating back to the 1400s, it’s one of England’s oldest coaching inns and a member of the Historic Sussex Hotels group of privately-owned, luxury properties, along with nearby Bailiffscourt and Ockenden Manor. Aside from an impressive array of gin, it’s a place to head to when you want to tick the homely, pampered, fine food and British boxes; and if it’s dog-friendly you’re after, it ticks that box too. This part of the country – in the heart of the South Downs National Park – is a walkers’ paradise, so Fido will be in his element.
Very old juxtaposes seamlessly with the new here. Every one of the 39 bedrooms is unique in shape, size and décor; an eclectic mix of antique furniture lends interest and warmth, and sumptuous soft furnishings and goose feather bedding a touch of luxury. There are also thoughtful treats to be found: homemade cookies, tea and espresso making facilities, fresh flowers, and milk at the dial of 0. There are suites with four poster beds, roll top baths and separate lounges, and others boasting additional quirky features, such as the secret passage in the White Room, thought to be a former smugglers route. The crowning glory is the spacious Queen Suite which counts Elizabeth I as one of its former guests. It has the added charm of a ‘wig powder closet’, dating back to 1430 and possibly the last in existence, and a cupboard which pops out a television, James Bond-style, at the touch of a remote. Beneath the carpet, the original floorboards creak and bow in such a way, you feel quite drunk walking on it before you’ve even set foot in the bar.
In contrast, at the opposite end of the building, the Scandinavian-inspired Aquila Spa feels so fresh you can almost smell the paint. Bright and well equipped, with a vaulted wood and glass ceiling through which the sun floods in; a 14 metre, perfectly heated pool, glistening with blue mosaic tiles, a trio of thermal areas and intimate courtyard garden. A suit of armour and a cuckoo clock – permanently pointing to 5:45 – which is said to have been carved for the house of Queen Victoria’s grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II mingles with framed telegrams to and fro various past society and regal guests and witty illustrations depicting times gone by. While scenes of the town and hotel through various ages are shown through black and white photographs and newspaper cuttings; a though-provoking mix to match the variety of notable guests to have passed through over the centuries: from Edward VII to Elizabeth I, HG Wells to Hilaire Belloc, Prince Charles to Sir Cliff Richard.
The dining room, where breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner is served, is another charming space, with stained glass windrows, candlestick chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and a row of Christmas pudding bowls dangling above the stone inglenook fireplace – ask reception for the little book on the history of the hotel for the story on this. Silver cloches are dotted about the shelves and copper pots hang from the fire surround. The Historic Sussex Hotels group’s ethos is very much on championing the local area and excellent products grown and created within; as such you’ll find Sussex wares throughout the wine and food menu. With the luscious South Downs National Park on its doorstep, there’s a wealth of award-winning producers to source from.
Dinner is exactly what you’d expect from a fine country hotel such as this: well presented generous portions of seasonal ingredients, with homely touches such as freshly baked bread rolls. A crispy grilled potato terrine with Melton Levin Down cheese, morels and spinach, perfectly met that trans-seasonal need for warmth and freshness that our Spring stay craved. Foie Gras on toast with pear, hazelnuts and lamb’s lettuce was a similarly rich treat for my companion. Duck breast cooked to a perfectly punchy pink and sliced, placed atop potatoes and charred leeks, was a cosy contrast to the rain pounding against the leaded light windows. A good hunk of tender venison kept my beau happy, and the dessert of Sussex cheeses, a fine end to the evening. There was of course a little room for a gin night cap, back beside the fire.
Breakfast here is similarly satisfying. The inclusive buffet table is laid out with bircher muesli, prunes soaked in Earl Grey, fruit salad, pastries, freshly-squeezed juice, and all the makings for a bloody Mary, while the optional a la carte serves up a cooked selection from porridge to the full cooked Sussex works.
After checkout we took advantage of the offer to use the spa facilities for longer. Adam went for a final swim in the perfectly warm, 14 metre pool, while I took up residence in one of the four treatment rooms, for 55 minutes of Wake Up Massage bliss. Some body brushing and a good dose of pummelling with hot oil, was made even better by the pre-treatment consultation decision to enjoy the full treatment face down, so my trouble areas were spoilt rotten and I avoided that half-time, groggy turnaround. A perfect end to our 24-hour break.
Midhurst itself is a pretty little town with antique/vintage, craft and charity shops to browse and pick up some great bargains. A little further, there’s the 16,500 acre Cowdray Estate with park and ruins to explore – it’s also where the crowds descend each year for the polo season – and of course there are plenty of places to walk and cycle in the South Downs National Park. But really with 75 gins to sample, food served all day, various lounges to sink into, a spa to come and go as you please, and a bed to loll about in, you’ll be hard pressed to tear yourself from the hotel.
Stays at The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa are from £119 per night, based on two sharing a Standard Room, mid-week, on a B&B basis. For more information, see The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa’s website, or call +44 (0) 1730 816911.