Rosie Paterson shares tips for a weekend away in East Sussex.
Is it just me, or has East Sussex been far too often overlooked, in favour of its chocolate box neighbour, West Sussex? Until recently, I knew little about it, save for a few spots on the coast, despite the fact that my mother spent a large chunk of her childhood in it.
East Sussex, as it turns out, feels more organic than the West. More authentic. Take the pretty village of Firle, for instance: a twisting row of wonderfully lopsided cottages covered in roses and vines and framed by worn picket fences.
And it’s Firle, and nearby Alfriston and Lewes, that are currently the talk of the town, thanks to a new hotel opening. The Star.
Where to stay
Opening a hotel in normal times is tricky; opening a hotel in between lockdowns is…well, watch Channel 5’s My Hotel Nightmare to find out. The show’s stars, Olga Polizzi, from the Forte Hotel dynasty, and her daughter Alex have done just that.
The Star in Alfriston: 30 bedrooms spread across new and old buildings—the oldest, a 15th century pub with beamed ceilings. In the newer buildings: a courtyard garden, library, large, welly boot nook (guests can also borrow panama hats and dog bowls) and large dining room.
The menu changes, but we particularly like the roasted tomatoes on toast with labneh at breakfast, and the homemade gnocchi at supper. A glass of Sussex sparkling wine from neighbouring Rathfinny Estate didn’t go amiss.
Upstairs is where the older Polizzi, arguably the doyenne of British boutique hotels (Tresanton, Endsleigh…) and interior designer at heart, is most keenly felt. The rooms, all grey, muted yellows and greens, and linen backed cupboards, feel deliriously calm; the sort of thing you’d try to emulate at home and fall far short of.
Where to eat and what to do
In (very pretty) Alfriston itself you’ll find independent bookshop Much Ado Books, and vintage fashion store, The Dressing Room.
If you only have time for one thing, make sure it’s a trip to Charleston Farmhouse — home to several of the feted Bloomsbury Group, including Vanessa Bell. Visitors are ushered from room-to-room, guide-to-guide to learn about the house and (staggeringly beautiful and wild) garden’s inhabitants, their art and individual quirks.
The walls, furniture — even some of the textiles and ceramics — were decorated, and often then re-decorated by Bell, her lover Duncan Grant, husband Clive Bell and others with paintings, patterns and murals. Look out for the old copies of Country Life in Grant’s studio.
Visitors can also call in on St Michael and All Angels Church is Berwick, famed for its Second World War-era paintings by Vanessa, Clive and Grant (all, interestingly, were atheists).
And if you fancy replicating a bit of Bloomsbury bohemia at home, artist Amy Balfour, who lives and works in East Sussex, hand paints lights, boxes, mirrors and larger pieces of furniture in a very similar style.
Lewes — from the Old English word hlaews for hill or mound — is a ten minute drive from The Star and also well worth a visit. Look out for paragliders on the driver over. When we visited, thirty, maybe more, all with different coloured parachutes drifted lazily overhead.
Lewes’s central street runs down, you guessed it, a hill, protected on one side by steep, chalky white cliffs.
Your first stop should be Flint Owl Bakery (209, High Street) for their homemade almond bonbons. My mother declared them the best sweet treat she’d ever had, and then tried to (unsuccessfully) steal mine. If you’re after something more substantial, make for Trading Post Coffee Roasters (18, Cliffe High Street), or the original Bill’s restaurant (56, Cliffe High Street). Next door to the former, you’ll find an excellent health food shop, The Seasons (16-17 Cliffe High Street) which sells fresh fruits and veggies, as well as single estate olive oils, nut butters and pastas. End on a high with a trip to homeware store Closet & Botts (39, High Street).
This part of East Sussex is at the foot of the South Downs and the South Downs Way and there are plenty of walking routes to choose from. On a clear day, it’s possible to see France from the top of the cliffs. Finish — or perhaps pop in mid-route — to the Beanstalk Tea Garden or The Ram Inn, Firle.
What to drive
A Fiat 500, what else? This might be the countryside, but you’ll be pleased you drove down in something compact, especially if you’re parking in or around Firle. The soft top Fiat Lounge Hybrid, made easy work of the narrow, winding roads and held its own on larger ones (if you’ve packed the boot full, you will find yourself crawling up any inclines).
Follow Rosie on Instagram at @rosielkpaterson