The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
The Spread Eagle Immerse yourself in history
England’s most ancient coaching inn combines 15th-century heritage with a 21st-century spa. Sherelle Jacobs dives in
There are historical hotels – and then there is the Spread Eagle, England’s oldest coaching inn, in the South Downs market town of Midhurst. While I do love going to slick new hotels, I also adore a good, really old one, especially if it offers great value – which is why I have been wanting to visit the Spread Eagle for some time.
I had long heard whispers about this mysterious 15th-century pile from various acquaintances and those in the hotel business. Creaking with oak beams and smelling of embers and ancient books, the place isn’t so much steeped in history as sodden in it. Artefacts and nooks are everywhere, from rare Hogarth prints to Tudor-era bread ovens. Visitors, from the notable to the notorious, have included Elizabeth I and Herman Goering.
Not that it is musty or forbidding. On a rainy winter’s afternoon, stepping into its conservatory – all wicker sofas and bergamot-scented candles – was like walking into a delicious summer’s day. This place stays true to its heritage but has a breezy luxuriousness, too.
Though relatively small, with just 39 suites, it is endlessly mysterious and dense with detail. Highlights include two sets of original Flemish stained-glass windows from the 17th century, peacockishly ablaze with colour and once requested by the British Museum. Another quirk is the dining room with Christmas puddings hanging from the ceiling, the oldest dating back to 1954 (each November, the hotel hosts a “stir-up Sunday” at which guests can mix their own pudding and then either take it home or leave it to eat on a return trip).
Yet I never felt like I was walking through a museum. History here is something guests have the privilege of grazing over at their leisure. I was forever finding something new in a hallway I had walked through before: among the curiosities lining the walls, I spied a telegram from King Edward VII politely declining an invitation to visit, and a framed original dinner menu from 1958 with a “bill of fare” featuring turtle soup and roast suckling pig “with guts full of stuffing”. I also spent an hour holed up in the first-floor living room, slouched on
Instead of creeping under low-beamed ceilings, you can swim under a Scandi-style vaulted roof
a couch with a glass of wine and sifting through the yellowing newspapers recently found under the floorboards.
But then, in an unexpected twist, the Spread Eagle has a bijou spa where one can just as easily while away the day. It is quite a contrast with the main inn; instead of creeping under low-beamed ceilings, one can swim laps under a Scandinavian-style vaulted roof. Yet it isn’t jarring, perhaps because the spa is intimate and serene, in keeping with the hotel’s atmosphere. A couple of circuits between sauna, steam room and corner hot tub are recommended, as is a Temple Spa treatment; if my mind was stimulated by the historic surroundings, then a facial and massage left my body energised and rejuvenated to match.
Don’t miss dinner in the candlelit restaurant. With white table cloths, crackling fires and dogs napping at their owners’ feet, it is immensely relaxed. Start with a glass of sparkling wine from the nearby Ridgeview Estate. Expect unapologetically rich and filling English fare: starters include braised venison in Yorkshire pudding and lasciviously rich gravy, and a devilish wild mushroom mac’n’cheese. The stonking chateaubriand with zippy peppercorn sauce is a staple main, and seasonal gamey treats include pheasant with chestnuts and mash. And while the warm chocolate and olive cake is divine, it would be a shame to pass up the local Sussex cheese board.
But perhaps the highlight of any stay is the evening procession back to one’s room through those corridors with a glass of port in hand. The Queen’s Suite (where Elizabeth I is believed to have stayed) is the jewel in the crown, with its tapestry-draped four-poster and roll-top bath. I found it quite the experience to brush my hair at its dressing table, set in England’s last remaining wig closet, dating from 1430. Another “Feature” room has a secret 17th-century passage once used by smugglers. Even the entry-level “Cosy” rooms are spacious, with sofas and large showers.
Breakfast was the final indulgence, with a slap-up full English available alongside quirky offerings such as pina colada salad. Departing, I felt refreshed, whether on account of the soothing, crackling fireplaces, the back-cracking massage or both. This hotel really does offer the best of both worlds.
Cosy rooms from £160, with breakfast