Adrian Mourby

Back to Inspirations
Anyone arriving in Britain will scan their road atlas in vain for the Home Counties. It’s a term we British often use but it lacks a specific definition. What we mostly mean by “Home Counties” is those shires that surround London - and the attitudes of people who live there. The term may derive from the nineteenth-century Home Circuit of Assizes, which sent judges out from London to deal with local misdemeanours in neighbouring counties. Or it might come from the way that nineteenth-century railway developments made it possible for wealthy men working in London to commute back to a home in the leafy counties surrounding what was then the world’s biggest metropolis. Today the term conjures up images of big mock-Tudor houses built down the pretty country lanes that connect prosperous towns and villages.  

To those who love the Home Counties it’s a term that speaks of affluence and respectability and postmen delivering mail by bicycle. To critics the term conjures up respectability and a lack of creativity. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies Ralph, one of the schoolboys marooned after a plane crash, hears another approaching and jerks up his long school socks “with an automatic gesture that made the jungle seem for a moment like the Home Counties.” Socks never dropped round your ankles in this part of England, certainly not in 1954.

Today the Home Counties remain expensive, mostly respectable and certainly beautiful. Bohemian they are not but there’s plenty to see and do. There are historic buildings and seaside resorts to be explored. There are areas of  great natural beauty too and some of the best country house hotels in Britain to enjoy. So what do I mean when I write about the Home Counties? Well there were originally four counties that abutted the borders of London but when Middlesex was absorbed into Greater London in 1965 that left just three, Surrey, Kent and Essex. Most people today would probably add in four more counties that surround the core three - Sussex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Herefordshire. I certainly do.

Visitors to Britain could easily spend an entire holiday motoring out from London and never once leave the Home Counties. So if you are tempted to visit during these “staycation” times here is a guide to ten delightful hotels and what sights to see nearby. To limit my selection I’ve just looked at hotels in the counties of Sussex and Surrey this time. Next year I’ll venture further into this tranquil English garden.  

Nothing says Home Counties more than Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin playing Pooh Sticks in the Hundred Acre Wood? Before the Norman Conquest Ashdown Forest was an ancient area of open heathland in Sussex. Soon after 1066 it was planted with trees and turned into a hunting ground for the new French-speaking ruling elite. By 1283 a 23-mile palisade had been built to keep the deer in and the Anglo-Saxon peasants out of a 13,000 acre forest.

Right up until Tudor times Ashdown was used by the British monarchy and nobility for sport. Henry VIII had a hunting lodge at Bolebroke Castle in Hartfield from where he courted Anne Boleyn at nearby Hever Castle.

The current hotel in Ashdown Park can be traced back to the early in the nineteenth century when permission was given for a substantial house to be built within the forest. The records are unclear as to whether it was Thomas Bradford Esq or Rear Admiral Henniker who constructed the first house on this sloping site but it hardly matters because in 1867 the wealthy Thomas Charles Thompson, MP for Durham bought the estate and demolished that original house to build the Ashdown Park we see today.

With the death of Thompson’s grandson in the First World War, this neo-gothic mansion with its large, interconnected drawing rooms, sweeping baronial staircase and lofty bedrooms was sold by his widow to a company who chopped down all the trees on the estate (to make lucrative pit props for mining) and then sold the mansion to the Saint Agnes Order of Notre Dame who wanted to establish a convent in Sussex. The order was well-financed and was able to extend the house to the west and to the east to create two wings of new, well-appointed study-bedrooms for the nuns, as well as a church and a school for local children.

Their extended building is the Ashdown Park that stands today, converted into a hotel in 1993. It’s a remarkably elongated building on the top of an escarpment that overlooks a nine-hole golf course, a muddy lake with two fountains and an 18-acre wood. Inside the hotel, beyond reception with its open fireplace and three Victorian drawing rooms there are 106 bedrooms - though you would never guess it. To stay at Ashdown Park is to enter a quiet, slightly old fashioned hotel with long corridors, unremarkable décor, comfy faded sofas but very attentive staff. It also has a deconsecrated church which is used for functions and weddings. The well-stocked cocktail bar with a stained glass window of the Virgin Mary above it is an arresting.

Ashdown Park is its own USP but it can also lay claim to be the nearest hotel to Cotchford Farm where in the 1920s playwright A. A. Milne wrote the Winnie the Pooh stories for his son, Christopher Robin. It’s just a 10-minute drive northeast to Cotchford Lane where you can park and look down on the Milne’s substantial house. Bizarrely this was where, 40 years later, the farm’s new owner, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones drowned in its outdoor swimming pool.  But enough of that: From the farm there’s a 10-minute walk away through Posingford Wood to what is now known as the Poohsticks Bridge over Millbrook stream. It was from here that Milne and his son used to play Poohsticks, throwing twigs into the stream to see whose would emerge first on the other side of the bridge.

On the war memorial in Midhurst the name of Alfred Moses Freemantle is inscribed as one of those men killed in action during the First World War. A little further down the hill stands The Spread Eagle, a pub that Alfred’s father, also Alfred Freemantle used to run.
Mr Freemantle Snr was very ambitious for his pub with rooms. In the 1920s he advertised that his hotel provided garages for those touring Sussex by car, but his greatest public relations coup occurred long before the Roaring Twenties and even before World War I. Alfred Freemantle was determined to get England’s playboy king, Edward VII to visit the Spread Eagle.  This wasn’t an easy job. On the staircase above the hotel’s reception there is a framed letter from Lord Knollys, secretary to the king declining Mr Freemantle’s invitation to inspect his “house” in June 1906. Edward VII was due in Midhurst that month to visit a tuberculosis sanatorium that he had founded in 1901 after a visit to a sanatorium in Germany. The king had decided to build something similar near Midhurst on bright, south-facing slopes with open views of the South Downs. 

Alfred Freemantle was not deterred however, and he continued to invite his Majesty to visit. Eventually the publican seemed to have worn him down. Edward VII liked to inspect his new Sussex sanatorium every year and in June 1909 he agreed to call in on his way from the King Edward Sanatorium to lunch at West Dean House. (The owners of West Dean, Evelyn and William James were friends of the king and in 1907 he had agreed to stand as godfather to their son, also called Edward.)  So it was a brief visit, but it was enough for Mr Freemantle.  He told the press that the King had admired carvings in the drawing room and a picture of “The Infant Hercules” by William Dyce RA. As that painting actually hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland, we assume the two gentlemen were looking at a print.

To commemorate his great coup Mr Freemantle designated a large timber-framed room above the Spread Eagle bar The King Edward Room. He also hung a sign “Patronised by King Edward VII and the Duke of Connaught” (the king’s younger brother) outside the Spread Eagle. Today the King Edward Room is a resident’s lounge with comfortable sofas, a working fireplace and lots of historic newspaper cuttings on display. 

The Spread Eagle is in fact two historic buildings with 39 bedrooms between them, some with four poster beds. Half of the hotel is a fifteenth-century public house and the other half a rather grand seventeenth-century  farmhouse. The two were joined together in the early twentieth century – possibly by Mr Freemantle - when the passageway that ran between them was roofed over. Today when walking from reception to the Edward VII Room, you go over this passage and see the old external walls of the pub and the farmhouse facing each other. The rest of the hotel is a warren of old wooden corridors, decorated with an eclectic collection of old paintings and antique artefacts.

The Spread Eagle takes its name from the coat of arms of Sir William Fitzwilliam. The lower right quarter of his shield shows is a red eagle on a field of gold. In 1529 the wealthy Sir William bought Cowdray House, which stands close to Midhurst on low ground to the east of the town. There’s an attractive walk from the Spread Eagle to Cowdray House via St Anne’s Hill and the remains of Midhurst Castle. It takes no more than ten minutes to get to Cowdray House which was one of England's great Tudor mansions until it burned down in September 1793. What remains however is so impressive that the ruins are Grade I listed.

Once upon a time Barnett Hill was once nothing more than a wooded hill, which from its topmost point offered impressive views across the Surrey hills. This stunning location caught the eye of Frank Cook, grandson of renowned travel agent Thomas Cook. In 1905 he constructed here a Queen Anne-style mansion as his family home.

Following Cook’s death in 1940, his wife loaned the house to the British Red Cross as a convalescent hospital during WWII, and it served as a rehabilitation centre for civilians injured in bombings. Four years later, Mrs Cook sold the house to the Red Cross, who turned it into their National Training Centre

In 1996, the house was leased to the Chudley family, the owners of Highgate House, Britain’s first conference hotel. They went on to actually purchase Barnett Hill in 2005 and expanded its facilities to include accommodation, dining, weddings and private events.

Then in 2016 came the Alexander Hotel Group who specialise in Home Counties properties. They bought the hotel in October that year and greatly glamourised the hotel's interior while retaining all original features. They also converted Frank Cook’s stable block into a series of mews-style suites and restored the delightful summer house and tea house in the gardens.  (Look out for the lightwell at the west end of the house, a most elaborate circular structure with a suite named after Frank Cook leading off it.)

The hotel stands in 26 acres of grounds and there is an impressive trail through its redwoods, if you fancy an early morning jog or an after-dinner stroll. Dinner is in the Oak Room which is where the Cook family took breakfast. Its panelling and muted tones are a marked contrast to the glitzy 1905 bar next door. 

Outside the hotel gardens is divided up into a series of lawns with a Silent Pool Gin Garden on its Wendy House lawn. Silent Pool, Barnett Hill’s local distillery, has created three bespoke gin-based drinks to make afternoon tea just that little bit more exciting.

Silent Pool Distillery is based less than four miles away from Barnet Hill. It takes its name from the actual Silent Pool that lies along the A25. Here one of England’s best gins is created in unremarkable buildings. You can tour the distillery or just visit the shop, which has some good offers for visitors (ask about the three-bottle package that comes with lots of free tonic). Also in this small complex is the Norbury Cheese Company which produces a tasty Norbury Blue derived from the family’s herd of Friesian cows. There is also a cheese known as Dirty Vicar. (Ask Neil and Michaela if you want to know why.)

Hidden away behind tall yew hedges, Langshott Manor is like stepping out of Surrey suburban reality into the Tudor past. The hotel has been created out of the remains of an old manor house that originally sat here behind its own moat.  Five hundred years ago this south-eastern part of Surrey was run from a number of fortified manors including Haroldsea Manor, Langshott Manor, and of course Gatwick Manor, the site of which disappeared long ago under terminal buildings, duty-free shops and runways. 

Over the centuries the land around Langshott was built over until the manor house was left marooned in a sea of suburbia. In 1923 the old house was sold to Major Jim Jennings and his brother Major Alec Jennings, who turned it into a hotel. During World War II a boys’ school was evacuated to Langshott and if you ask reception for their photo album you’ll see the two retired soldiers pictured at Langshott with their young charges. You’ll also see that the room layout in the main house has hardly changed since 1923. A new restaurant has been added on – The Mulberry – and the stable block which housed the Jennings’ cars has been turned into a mews with eight bedrooms.

But possibly the best part of the hotel to stay in is the Moat Mews, a relatively modern construction that references the hotel’s Tudor origins and which overlooks what is left of the old moat (pretty much reduced to a duck pond today). All the bedrooms are named after Henry VIII and his wives. The Anne Boleyn on the first floor has a lovely four poster bed, a fireplace and mullioned windows that gaze down on to the former moat. But if you take the Henry VIII, immediately below Queen Anne, you get your own private deck over the duck pond.

Invisible behind its tall hedges in three acres of grounds, Langshott Manor is a haven from the under-inspiring housing estates that encircle Gatwick airport. It’s less than three miles from that busy hub and so makes for a wonderful alternative to the usual kind of UK airport hotel if you’re flying out the next day. Langshott is also a glorious place for a wedding. There are only 22 bedrooms so it is possible to book the whole hotel and Langshott is licenced for ceremonies in the garden. There is even a hotel wedding tradition of ringing the old bell mounted on the roof above reception whenever a couple get married.

Leith Hill was the childhood home that most English of composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Though born in Gloucestershire, Vaughan Williams came to live with his aunt in the Surrey hills after his father’s death. The house also has connections with Charles Darwin and Joseph Wedgewood, both of whom were related to the composer. When he inherited his aunt’s house in 1944 Vaughan Williams gave it to the National Trust. Today it’s in need of restoration, but contains a number of mementoes of both Vaughan Williams and Wedgewood.

The Denbies estate resembles a prelapsarian world where the landscape glows green with grape vines and locals wander through with their dogs or go jogging or visit the Farm Shop or the Surrey Hills Physiotherapy Health and Wellbeing Centre. Sir Adrian White, engineer and now Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey, bought this 620-acre estate in 1984 as a home. It was a pig-farm at the time and White asked a neighbour Professor Richard Selly to survey the site for him. Selly’s speciality was advising on drilling for oil, but he worked out that Denbies’ chalk soil and well-protected location were ideal for wine production. Sir Adrian had never intended to be a wine producer but in 1986 he planted thirteen varietals as an experiment to see which would take. Thirty-four years later, in 2010 Denbies medium dry Surrey Gold became the best-selling English white wine. 

These days the vineyard produces 10 per cent of all English wines. Other Denbies’ blends are geographically named: Flint Valley, Ranmore Hill, and Redlands.  Single varietals include Bacchus and Pinot Gris. Despite a lot of success with its sparkling wines, 40 per cent of Denbies’ output remains still.  It also makes wine for other companies, like the Albury Vineyard near Guildford.

The visitor centre with its great central tower and Disneyfied wine train attracts 350,000 visitors a year. There is also a modern hotel created of an old farmhouse on the estate. With a ten-room extension designed by Tony Oke, the architect of the visitor centre, the hotel offers eighteen modern rooms and a restaurant which opens up on to lawns where people can drink Denbies wines. There are even two cabanas for cozy wine tastings.  Up in amongst the Pinot Gris and Muller Thurgau grapes there is a tasting platform built around an old oak tree that also doubles for weddings.

Future plans for the hotel include a new visitor lounge where guests can take time out and help themselves to Denbies wine using the Enotech system. This easy-to-operate device works using your room keycard. Guests put a certain amount of money on the card and can then decant as many glasses of wine as they want until the card runs out of credit. Then it’s time to head back to reception.
This truly is a great hotel for wine-lovers.

Polesden Lacey is less than three miles west of Denbies. It’s a very grand house indeed and owned by the National Trust. The original Regency mansion was extensively reworked in 1906 by Margaret Greville, an ambitious Edwardian hostess. Margaret was the illegitimate daughter of millionaire brewer William McEwan but inherited his fortune, married well and became an intimate of the royal family. The future George VI and Queen Elizabeth spent part of their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey. Margaret’s collection of porcelain, silver and Dutch paintings is displayed in the house’s immaculate reception rooms and galleries. 

Bailiffscourt is one of the strangest hotels you’ll find in Sussex. It looks like a medieval village by the seashore but is actually a number of historic buildings that were taken apart and reassembled on Climping Beach. Only the thirteenth-century chapel is in its original place.

The eccentric couple who created Bailiffscourt were Walter Edward Guinness, 1st Baron Moyne and his wife Lady Evelyn. This hugely wealthy pair built Bailiffscourt as a place for country parties during the Roaring Twenties. She had her bedroom in Bailiffscourt Manor (above what is now the hotel’s reception) while he had his in the Thatched House, a dismantled and reconstructed medieval building that he shared with their children. An underground passageway linked the two houses - and still does today - so that Lady Evelyn could visit her family when she wasn’t entertaining an admirer or two.

Over the years, more buildings were added to the estate by the amateur architect Amyas Phillips, whom the Moynes had met and befriended when he was running a Sussex antique shop. After World War II, and following Lord Moyne’s assassination in Palestine, the Guinness family sold the estate to a German refugee, Emmy Birrer who with her husband, Hans turned it into a 39-room hotel. Frau Birrer was still running the hotel well into the 1970s.  

The fact that Lord Moyne bought up all the surrounding shoreline to make sure modern building did not undermine the integrity of his historical folly means that Bailiffscourt today represents a merciful gap in the overdeveloped English coastline between Brighton and Bognor Regis.

In 1993 Sandy Goodman, owner of two Sussex hotels, The Spread-Eagle in Midhurst and Ockenden Manor in Cuckfield, bought Bailiffscourt to create his small private portfolio called Historic Sussex Hotels. This family chain is now run by Sandy’s daughter Miranda and her husband Pontus Carminger.

Staying at Bailiffscourt can be a very romantic experience, especially in winter, as seven of the 39 bedrooms have open hearths and real log fires. 
There is also a modern spa, with heated swimming pools indoor and out, that has been cleverly built to resemble a wooden Sussex barn. 

Petworth House is a late seventeenth-century country house 17 miles north of Bailiffscourt. It contains intricate wood-carvings by Grinling Gibbons and many paintings by J.M.W. Turner, who was a friend of George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837). Anyone who had seen Mike Leigh’s film will remember Turner spending some time at Petworth with his benefactor. Since 1947 the house has been owned by the National Trust who opened it to the public. As well as a substantial art collection, Petworth has an extensive deer park, landscaped by Capability Brown. 

Ship Street in Brighton sits in one of the town’s famous cobbled alleyways that are collectively known as the Lanes. Ste two buildings back from the famous seafront on Ship Street stands Brighton’s Hotel du Vin. It’s a composite of several buildings in neo-gothic and mock-Tudor styles with the entrance through a half-timbered archway.  Parts of this building, which served previously as a wine merchant’s premises, date from the seventeenth century. In those days the Lanes were a considerable distance from the shoreline, but a great storm of 1703 changed all that, washing away 13 shops and cottages and putting what is now a Hotel du Vin within just a few yards of the beach.

As well as the splendid dining experience that one would expect of Hotel du Vin, there are some cozy bedrooms to enjoy here. Colour schemes by Anita Rosato of London feature ice cream-sundae pinks and seascape blues, coupled imagery of beaches, fish, whales and flocks of sea gulls. There is even the odd flamingo in the design because, as the hotel itself says, as anything goes in Brighton!
It’s difficult to imagine anyone less Brighton in outlook than the influential Bloomsbury novelist, Virginia Woolf, but her country home, Monk’s House is only 11 miles in land.

Mrs Woolf and her husband, the political activist, journalist and editor Leonard Woolf, bought Monk’s House in July 1919. Later when their house in Bloomsbury Square was destroyed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid, this became their home. Here they received a tranche of famous visitors including T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, and Lytton Strachey. Sadly it was also from here that Virginia walked to commit suicide in the River Ouse in 1941.

Sussex has a long coastline that includes Brighton, Bognor Regis and Eastbourne, but only Eastbourne’s part can claim to have inspired Claude Debussy. The French composer completed his orchestral masterpiece La Mer while staying at the hotel where he had fled with his mistress in 1905.  Debussy was said to be very taken with the acoustics of the hotel’s Grand Hall, which rises the full height of the hotel. These days it is home to the hotel’s Palm Court Strings, who play during afternoon tea on Sundays under their leader Shelly Van Loen. You’ll find her ringletted portrait displayed in the hotel’s two lifts along with other leaders from the past: Leslie Jeffries who led the Grand Hotel Orchestra 1934-38, Tom Jones (no, not that one) and Tom Jenkins. The Grand is a hotel that lives up to its name, and its Mirabelle Restaurant is equally grand with a live pianist most evenings.

In the nineteenth century the seaside resort we now known as Eastbourne was part of the Compton Estate, owned by the wealthy dukes of Devonshire whose seat is still at Chatsworth. As sea-bathing became fashionable, successive dukes divided up their estate, making part of it a golf course and the rest a southwestern extension to the town of Eastbourne, with a series of sea-facing terraces that wouldn't have looked out of place in Cheltenham or Bath. At the western end of this estate the dukes decided to construct a grand hotel. The architect was William Earp, who was given a hefty budget of £50,000. The new Grand Hotel opened in 1875 and confirmed Eastbourne's place on the Victorian holiday map. This massive building's dimensions and lofty public spaces spoke of Britain's imperial aspirations. The dukes themselves always stayed at the hotel when in Eastbourne, and entertained the royal family here too, so it had to impress.

In May 1901 Edward VII, who had only been king four months, came to Eastbourne for a royal house party at the Devonshire's home, Compton Place and the 7th Duke of Devonshire brought the King here to inspect his Grand Hotel.  

WHAT TO SEE NEARBY: The Seven Sisters

The Seven Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs, forming part of the South Downs in East Sussex. They run east from Eastbourne to the town of Seaford and are within the South Downs National Park. These striking white cliffs have been used in filmmaking, most notably at the beginning of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and at the end of the film Atonement where Robbie (James MacAvoy) and Cecilia (Keira Knightly) enjoy the fantasy honeymoon that reality has denied them.

Nutfield Priory is a Victorian mansion dating back to 1872. It was built for Joshua Fielden who was a Lancashire MP in need of an imposing home near London. The architect was John Gibson who claimed to have taken his inspiration from the Palace of Westminster, - although to our eyes today the style of the building looks more pseudo-Tudor than neo-Gothic.

When Joshua Fielden died in 1887, his wife lived on in the house until 1920. In 1930 Nutfield Priory became a hotel with golf course owned by Mr Oliver Picton Davis. After a spell as a school, it became a hotel once more in 1988, when it had a sympathetic renovation by Handpicked Hotels that restored its stone carvings, wood panelling, marble fireplaces and organ.

Another remarkable Home Counties home, this time not a hotel, is Standen House which lies 14 miles south of Nutfield Priory. It was built over three years from 1891 to 1894 to designs by architect Philip Webb, in the Arts & Crafts style, as popularised by William Morris. Webb actually designed Morris' home, the Red House in Bexleyheath for him. When work on Standen House was completed, his clients the Beale family presented him with a silver snuff box, engraved with ‘When clients talk irritating nonsense, I take a pinch of snuff’, a witty testament to their working relationship.

Buxted Park was constructed in 1722 in extensive grounds in East Sussex. One of its subsequent owners was the British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool (1770 -1828) who had the unenviable task of running Britain for King George IV during and after the Napoleonic Wars. In his spare time Liverpool undertook to move the local village of Buxted so it did not spoil the view from his park.

The current internal layout owes a lot to some celebrity owners in the twentieth century. Basil Ionides was an important English Art Deco architect who redesigned the Savoy Theatre in London and the Savoy Hotel's restaurant in the 1920s. When Buxted was severely damaged by fire in 1940, he took the opportunity to fill it with architectural items salvaged from bombed-out houses, thereby creating an eclectic interior.

After Ionides, Kenneth Shipman, the owner of Twickenham film studios bought Buxted and invited the likes of Marlon Brando, Dudley Moore and Gregory Peck to stay (all at different times). Shipman even built a small cinema for his guests which remains in operation today. Latterly the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi used the hotel as an English residence for his wives. 

Today there are 44 bedrooms and suites, some with huge sofas and most with great views of the park. The Queen Mary Suite is named after George V's wife, Mary of Teck, who stayed at Buxted Park while it was owned by Ionides. There is also a Winston Churchill Suite – probably the best in the hotel – named after the British Prime Minister who once quipped “I am easily satisfied with the best.”

Downstairs there's a bar with a huge stone fireplace (salvaged during the London Blitz) and a lounge that serves afternoon tea but, as the boots lined up by reception well attest, Buxted is also a great place for walks through its 312 acres of grounds.

WHAT TO SEE NEARBY: Sheffield Park Garden

Sheffield Park Garden stands seven miles from Buxted Park. It was originally laid out in the eighteenth century for the Earls of Sheffield by Capability Brown. In 1876 the third earl laid out a cricket pitch in the grounds on which his team subsequently played an Australian XI in 1884. The Australians won by an innings and 6 runs.

In 1885, an arboretum was established. When Arthur Gilstrap Soames purchased the estate in 1909 he continued large-scale planting. Today the gardens are owned by the National Trust.