A step back in time on a Sussex walking weekend at historic The Spread Eagle in Midhurst
It’s possible I have Dr Beeching to thank for the fact that I am standing on a railway bridge overlooking an abandoned train line in the West Sussex countryside as an April shower unleashes its full force for a committed but mercifully brief few minutes.
According to Michele Facer, the woman who has led me through tranquil woodland via some extremely deep mud, the famous Beeching cuts, which closed many of England’s branch lines 60 years ago, may have been the commuters’ pain, but they’ve been the nature lover’s gain in towns such as picture-perfect Midhurst, which has avoided most of the sprawling development experienced by places more easily accessible to London.
We’ve set off from the market square on foot – one of Facer’s rules is no driving to the start of a walk – which is just as well since Midhurst’s high street is currently closed to traffic after a fire in March devastated the Angel Hotel.
The plan is to follow a guided circular route through the local countryside, one of eight in Facer’s new book offered as part of the Step into Sussex package at The Spread Eagle Hotel.
Wise to the fact that today’s mini-breakers are as much inclined towards health and fitness as they are to getting sozzled (apologies to Bridget Jones), the historic hotel is tapping into the Fitbit-induced obsession with step counts to balance the indulgence involved in staying at a cosy coaching Inn.
The book itself offers time and distance guidance for each route, but the hotel has printed out two of the walks measured in steps, one a 5,000-stepper, the other a full day’s ration of 10,000 steps.
It’s the ideal encouragement to slow down and look more closely. Facer’s guide makes fascinating connections between the ancient English landscape and the local history of this pretty part of England — and there’s plenty of that in the vicinity.
Facer points out the custard gloss paint on many of the local front doors and window frames, which show we are in the heart of the Cowdray estate, with its famous polo ground. The Cowdray gold historically showed rent collectors which houses to approach.
We also pass the famous Cowdray ruins, all that’s left of an important Tudor mansion, burned down in a fire in 1793, that played host to King Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and possibly Edward VI.
Midhurst itself was founded in the 12th century with The Spread Eagle dating back to 1430. I’m staying in the Queen’s Suite, so-called because Elizabeth I is believed to have stayed there on a visit, reportedly speaking to people in the market square from one of the windows.
All the elements of Tudor England you could want to see are in here – exposed beams, fireplaces and a four-poster bed – but mercifully there’s a modern bathroom and other 21st-century luxuries, such as cosy robes, mineral water and an espresso machine.
Not strictly necessary for many contemporary visitors (Cher and Donald Trump aside) but completely charming, is the Wig Room and Powder Closet, hidden behind a rickety dark wood door.
We return after our afternoon exertions to glasses of Sussex fizz and cake on sofas having relinquished our boots for a clean up, before the spa beckons to restore us before dinner.
As I enjoy a hearty three courses I discover a possible piece of personal history connected to the hotel too. My late godmother ran the restaurant around the time I was born and sitting in the restaurant, it’s lovely to think she might have made one of the Christmas puddings hanging over the fireplace, some of which date back several decades.
After a spectacular night’s sleep – the bed frame may be Olde style but the mattress and pillows most definitely are not – it’s up for a big breakfast before heading out to try a solo walk from my new book.
This time I decide to hit up ‘The One With the Castle, The Ruin, and Royal Connections’ — all the walks have these Friends-style names — in a quest to see the Queen Elizabeth Oak, under which Elizabeth I (her again) is believed to have sheltered from the rain.
It’s pretty and rambling, a nice mixture of views and woods, although there’s a little too much golf course for my personal tastes. But the 800-year-old tree is well worth the 9km trip, short, and stout with widespread branches and a hollow centre, it’s truly mind-blowing to imagine all the world events it has lived through.
Walking back to the hotel it occurs that things don’t have to be far away, hard to access or flashily spectacular to have a truly epic scope. You only need take a short journey out of London for a single night to travel back hundreds of years in time.
The Step Into Sussex package costs from £258. Book here