On the way to the Royal Oak, we’d passed lots of houses built in the strange style distinct to this historic region – their walls ornamented with neatly arranged rows of flint. ‘The thing is,’ I say, ‘if we’re going to stay at places like this West Sussex pub, we need to start knowing about local architecture, and things like that.’
We’d spent that afternoon in the venerable market town of Chichester, gearing ourselves up for it, pretending to be grown-ups. First at the Cathedral, and then at the farmer’s market, we’d done our best, nodding wide-eyed at the tapestries and samples of ash-covered cheese. But when the farmer asked us our opinion, we’d fled, regressing to Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe.
So it was uncertainly that we pulled into East Lavant in search of our Sussex restaurant with rooms, as evening drew in. The village seemed serious, a place full of quiet money, silent driveway gates that open automatically. ‘For God’s sake, it’s just a pub’, says Mrs Smith.
The Royal Oak is certainly a pub. A fire in the grate, a dog. But the dog has a luxurious coat, and all around are wine bottles, and I swear somewhere there’s a giant bunch of lilies. Are we up to this?
Our hotel room is a blend of poised Georgian classicism, (three large white sash windows, an antique white chair, a smooth white fireplace), with deep-hued country elegance (the low black timbers, the deep mahoganies of the other furniture). But there is also a force-field of contemporary design emanating from the bed, (the modish leather headboard, the pillow-sculpture, the boutiquey throw.) We look round nervously. There are framed posters for the Ballet Russes on the wall. There are bottles of wine urging to be assessed. Isn’t this the kind of place Mrs Smith’s parents might stay while we’re all at the Travelodge?
Shutters pulled open, we admire the view, the misty fields, the warm-red, worn-bricked cottages embedded with local flint. What shall we do while we’re here? Outside the room, wellington boots and binoculars have been provided for our use. We read also that the inn can arrange shooting, spa days, all sorts. What ought we to do?
Thirty minutes later we are lying on the bed in white bathrobes watching rom-com Sleepless in Seattle, knocking back a bottle of wine, and right in the swing of this. The bed is improbably voluptuous – creating the sense that we are on some vast downy meadow, across which we occasionally range to scoff the treasures we amounted in the Sweet Shoppe.
We make an appearance in the Royal Oak restaurant at 8pm, and two dozen conversations are already roaring. We are suddenly gleeful. To start, I have seared Scottish scallops on a chickpea and chorizo stew, but rather envy Mrs S’s grilled mackerel fillet with shaved fennel et al. For the mains, I get my own back, with a sea bream whose skin was cooked to a salty crisp. But tonight is all about dauphinoise potatoes. Mrs Smith’s beef medallions are meant to come with some kind of mash, but across a crowded room she catches sight of those creamy, crispy spuds, trembling beside some pork loin. They prove too much to resist even for Mrs Smith, who normally maintains a lactose-free regimen. By the end of the evening, following an encounter with a large cheese board, Mrs Smith’s non-dairy reputation is irretrievably in tatters. But we are feeling right at home.
In the morning, we come down for breakfast, and all is now calm in the restaurant. The first meal of the day here progresses in serene stages, (self-service mueslis, yoghurts, fruits; then toast and croissants; then a cooked breakfast). It’s all marvellously unhurried – apart from the timely arrival of the next course we are left alone with our complimentary newspapers and the spring sunshine, feeling like we could stay there all day. Phrases such as ‘an Englishman at breakfast’ flit through my mind, absurdly. Despite last night’s dauphinoise dairy-shame, Mrs Smith has the cheek to ask for soya milk, and that’s no problem. And then there’s the day ahead of us.
There’s a great deal to do in this historic county, and within 10 miles, although you probably need either a car or a bicycle to really get around. On our weekend we went to the beautiful beach at West Wittering, paid homage to the mediaeval tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel in Chichester Cathedral, (the inspiration for Philip Larkin’s rather grown-up poem about love, An Arundel Tomb), and visited Arundel itself, where Mrs Smith bought a Susie Cooper cake-platter, and I had an unexpected conversation with the Town Crier. That evening, we walked to Lavant’s other gastropub, The Earl of March, and had another fine meal.
Half-committing to go on a walk the next morning, we trudge from our pub up a flinty track. At first there isn’t much to see. Glimpsed through gaps in hedgerows, the West Sussex country fields are pleasant, soothingly curved but nothing particularly remarkable. We pass a field of windy cauliflowers. We’ll just get to that bit at the top and then we’ll turn round…
Then we notice the cars gathered at the top of the hill. What are they all here for? It slowly becomes apparent that we’re climbing to the top of an Iron Age hill fort (the ‘Trundle’). All of a sudden we become aware that the view here from St Roche’s Hill is utterly sensational. And with each step something new is revealed. From up here we can see Goodwood Park and racecourse, Chichester, the sea, even the Isle of Wight. Far below, guided by an almost invisible sheep dog, a flock of sheep form and reform like a flock of birds. This is our kind of place.