The driveway that leads up to Amberley Castle is long – very long. On the left, there’s a treehouse with a rope bridge; on the either side, two ponds, one with a small island and a swing-chair in the middle; and there up towards the castle and the entrance, a genuine-article portcullis.
It definitely feels like going back in time – Amberley Castle does, after all, date back to 1380. That feeling persisted; after a warm welcome from the hotel manager (who came out to greet us as there were only three other guests) we were told shortly after two o’clock that lunch was not an option. So afternoon tea it was. Any disappointment did not last long when a marvellous antique triple-tiered stand emerged with crustless sandwiches, artisan cakes and good old-fashioned scones with healthy servings of clotted cream and jam.
This, we soon learned, is the Amberley way. It’s not the type of place where as soon as you walk in, you relax and feel tiredness fall off you as you relax straightaway: that’s hardly possible when suits of armour are watching your every move – but after a while, you learn to go with it. And once you do, it’s great.
Our room, Chichester, was up at the top of the castle, past the dining room and the ladies’ powder room (it’s that kind of place) and it was magnificent. A four-poster bed, a roaring fire, a coat of arms on the wall with the insignia ‘courage’ (more on that, later) and dramatic views of the castle battlements and the marshes beyond. We walked around the grounds but it was unseasonally too cold to play croquet or golf on the 19-hole putting green; instead we checked out the two alpacas and crossed the rope-bridge to Mistletoe Lodge, the romantic treehouse where you can see everything and not be seen.
The Downton Abbey effect kicked in before dinner, which we were told was a jacket-and-tie affair. As it happens so infrequently now, we both enjoyed getting dressed up, chatting as Lord and Lady Grantham might about matters of the house (ie what’s for dinner?). The dining room, though empty, was typically grand: no armour suits but walls bedecked with guns, which was incentive enough to abide by the Amberley rule of no mobiles at the table: if caught, the punishment is to buy a bottle of champagne for the staff and yes, it does happen.
The three-course meal was a gourmand’s delight, made all the better by our wine expert, Kelvin, one of only 200 Master Sommeliers in the world. He chose our tipples for each course, and every one was perfect: a fruity chardonnay accompanied langoustine bisque and a rich merlot complemented local Sussex sirloin. By the time the dessert wine arrived, just before the surprise popping-candy hidden at the bottom of a chocolate mousse took effect, we were fortified enough to ask Kelvin about Emily. ‘Who?’ you ask. The ghost said to stalk two rooms in the hotel.
‘In one room, she has been seen sitting reading a book; and in the other room, she has been known to pull the man’s arm from under the bedcovers,’ he said. Emily, the story went, was a 13-year-old who, in the late 1400s, fell pregnant by a local bishop; when rejected, she jumped from the top of the castle.
Laughing off the tale, my wife vowed to spend the following night in one of the rooms to see what would happen. That was until we visited the room in question – it’s called Herstmonceux (the other one is Pevensey) – the next morning. Immediately, she felt claustrophobic, so we took some fresh air, walking onto the battlements from where Emily is said to have jumped; it was precarious. We decided to stick to our room after all.
A bracing walk later, and we ambled through Amberley and headed for the South Downs. It was a steep walk but worth it for the views; on the way back through the picturesque village, it was so sleepy we wondered if anyone lived in the immaculate houses. Pausing at the Amberley Pottery studio, we went potty for the pots, and bought mugs, bowls and vases from chief ceramicist Caroline, who was as eccentric as we could have hoped.
A second dress-up gourmet meal was more than we needed, so with some trepidation, we asked to eat a light supper in front of the fire in our room. No problem, we were told, and some soup and salad were sent our way. As we listened to the doves on the turrets outside our windows chatter away, it was cosy, warm, peaceful and romantic up in our castle haven.
As for any encounters with Emily? She was invoked when a pair of glasses went missing as we were packing to leave. Did she really steal the specs? We believed it for a while; until we found them under the bed. Clearly 900-year-old Amberley Castle had us under its spell.