Britain is full of remarkable hotels but very few measure up to Bailiffscourt in Sussex for sheer idiosyncrasy. Waking in a four-poster bed with a hammer beam roof above and mullioned windows that let in a pale mediaeval light feels like slipping back in time.
The embers in the large stone fireplace have died down now but the old gold paint on the bedroom walls still glows. Your bedroom is completely quiet, not even surge of the distant English Channel disturbs. Outside is a medieval village with thatched cottages, a brick gatehouse, a dovecote and chapel. And these are real buildings, nothing synthetic or pastiche. Only the large Nespresso machine on the table opposite your bed anchors you to the present. And even that is a big old Nespresso that could have been one of Mr Favre’s prototypes from the 1980s.
Bailiffscourt was built in the 1920s by Walter Guinness, Lord Moyne and his wife, Lady Evelyn. Moyne’s father was the Earl of Iveagh, the wealthiest man in Ireland. His older brother was Rupert Guinness who in due course succeeded to the title and encouraged (and financed) the bar-owner, Giuseppe Cipriani to open a hotel in Venice. For this reason it can be said that the world-famous Cipriani Hotel and the fabulously unique Bailiffscourt are cousins within the Guiness family
Unlike his older brother, Lord Moyne did not set out to build a hotel. He and Lady Evelyn wished to stop indiscriminate development of England’s south coast between Brighton and Eastbourne. So in the 1920s they bought up as much land as they could behind Climping Beach and created what looks like a medieval village. In fact it is a mass of reconstructed old buildings that were either unwanted or simply due for demolition. In this space the Moyne’s created a holiday camp for their rich friends who would drive down from London to party the weekend away.
So while Bailiffscourt looks medieval, it’s actually a time capsule from some 1920s house party. Agatha Christie could have set a murder mystery here, especially as there is an underground passageway that Lord Moyne and his wife Lady Evelyn had built, connecting her bedroom in The Thatched House to his bedroom in the Old Manor House (one of the few original buildings on this site). You can walk through this passageway today, but what if only the hosts knew about it? The murderer would be able to evade detection as he or she moved between cottages on the estate. What if the underground passageway linked all the cottages? What a poser for Poirot!
Breakfast at Bailiffscourt is held in The Tapestry Room which has rows of small tables and remind me of the tea rooms of my youth. Above the tureen of porridge is a free-pour blended whisky to which guests can help their selves. Very civilised indeed.
Bailiffscourt is not just a hotel. It is a happening. Beyond reception lies a circular car park which brings a splash of modernity to Bailiffscourt but the mist blowing in from the English Channel makes me think of Agatha Christie again. The murderer could easily slip away undetected. One of the joys of Bailiffscourt is its proximity to foggy Climpling Beach. Once you have passed the modern spa (cleverly disguised as a barn) you are pretty much there. It is not a pretty beach. It is full of flints and shells and collapsing banks of primeval mud and broken black groynes but it is so romantic, an absolute gift to a TV series like Wallander – to reference another crime series. I am sure the sun sometimes shines on Climpling Beach but never when I have stayed at Bailiffscourt!
Here though you can see the great work that Lord Moyne and Lady Evelyn did by buying up so much land west of Little Hampton. There is only one modern tower block on the horizon to the east. Walk west and you come to Poole Place, a beautiful Arts and Crafts house that used to be staff accommodation for Bailiffscourt. It’s like the house in Howard’s End or many an Agatha Christie novel, except that the English Channel is relentlessly eroding its way towards the house. Scattered on Climpling Beach below are fragments of old walls – in brick and flint – that have succumbed to the waves.
Before lunch a swim in the spa. It’s housed in that modern building that resembles a medieval barn, a nice touch. The spa has an indoor pool and a heated outdoor pool that steams invitingly in the early morning chill. There is an upstairs room for healthy lunches with a balcony outside for good weather. While the spa has all that dreamy, perfumed quality that betokens healthy living, Chris Aigle, the General Manager claims nothing can beat a pint of local ale in the hot tub.
In the summertime the afternoon might be for tennis – Bailiffscourt is one of the few historic English hotels that has not let its tennis court be overtaken by moss or turned into a car park. There is also croquet. But today I’m going to sit in one of the snug drawing rooms with an Agatha Christie novel and work out which of my fellow guests is next…