An excursion “brimming with surprises” is how our individually dapper host bills it. “Meet at 17:10 at platform six, Charing Cross, bring an overnight bag, and sport gastro coach-house chic” are his instructions, e-mailed in an invitation etched over the image of a stiff, stuffed squirrel bolted to a rocking chair. Its limbs are crossed in a pose at once casual and pensive. Bar one, who accidentally ventures to King’s Cross, our Quink spill of positive RSVPs – food journalists and food bloggers, and food journalists who PRs obstinately refer to as food bloggers – shoe-horn themselves into rush-hour rolling-stock. Bathed in fluorescent light, and frequently kneed by a bolshy congo of corridor haunting commuters buckled into wan suits, we’re plied with blotting paper dry fizzy English red.
Human cargo slides to secret destination, Sussex down clammy rails, moonlit through a wintry miasma. Exiting at slippery Stonegate, we’re ushered to a 1930s Bentley, its chromium insignia gleaming promisingly proud from a gorgeous crimped bonnet. Announcing himself as “driver”, the plus-four clad chauffeur (who it later transpires is owner of the property we’re heading to) steers half our hungry clop, while others fold themselves into a harshly present tense minibus. Our destination, conveniently located for escapees from The Priory nearby, is The Bell in Ticehurst. It’s a property developer’s pet of a project, recently revamped to the tune of £2m.
One of the evening’s most interesting “surprises” is delivered in the inn’s morning room, which smells of smoky embers and features an arid globe shaped drinks cabinet. As with all open to the public areas and bedrooms, this set has an ash tree, sprouting sloping floor to carefully distressed ceiling. I’m told I’ll be sharing with a fellow writer whom I’d not, to this point, considered romantically… But it’s a better scenario then our wine expert host and the property developer’s PR, who will make overnight camp on the lounge’s sofas later.
Running thinly above the public bar, our room is so dark and shadowy that my fellow food writer dials ‘0’ for bedside illumination. Opening the window, Jalfrezi notes from the Spice House takeaway spread their greasy tendrils into our nostrils. Rather than anything with an ABV, I clock that our minibar contains a solitary pint of milk. Not yesterday’s news, but 10 days-old, a creased Times hides under towels. LED glinting green, we will later cloak the smoke detector in a dulling bathmat. Three spare duvets are Tetrised in the cupboard.
Wine host enters the room, berating me for brewing tea in favour of something of proof. To rectify this misdemeanour, we must gather in the old stable, he says, to sip opulent Nyetimber Chardonnay among re-sanded and reassembled timber. There, a Tracey Emin-esque riot of flamingo pink neon reads: ‘I will always love you my friend’.
Dinner opens with a magician whose wrist tattoo reads ‘125’, presumably in homage to the diesel loco. As part of his act, he requests the signature of a scribe and supper club owner, explaining how it’s as illegal to scrawl a signature across the Queen’s face in marker pen on bank notes as it is to do so in person.
To follow, storyteller Giles is propped, feet at our face level. Lights are dimmed and bar staff temporarily bolster audience numbers. I spend the protracted recital tracing his facial hair experiments with my eyes as he adlibs a series of nauseating tales – one concerns a cadaver preserved by spit! Could his follicular calamity be Movember madness? Might he be blind? Turns out it’s the latter. One of our company falls asleep; another gives the pub’s PR contact details of another professional story maker. I play noughts and crosses (myself, my opponent) then divert to the loos where, by shapely rear of a Fiat citycar’s boot, I clock trumpets plumbed as urinals.
Inviting critics en-masse to review a venue in its second week is either desperado or desperately naive. Billed as five courses of game, only two, prescribed by a geographically distant executive chef, actually features it. Apparently it was decided that the ladies of the trip might not handle truly visceral, sanguine beasts. Vicious tempered in the water, and guilty of so often tasting bland, a fat wedge of sea bass, which smells of Patum Peperium comes with shrimps which a glance at the menu reveals normally belong to another course. Although it simply doesn’t belong here tonight, it’s the best dish of the dinner. Possibly due to Giles’ exhaustive verbal expulgations, local roast pheasant is as tough as the shoe home of the legendary old lady in the nursery rhyme, while the final ‘vanilla set cream’ is as tense as I imagine the latex of Spitting Image’s visage of John Major to be.
Offering some promise, game tea, dispensed from chipped charming teapot, but overly dense (as to suggest being overly-brewed in this format), is laden over rigidly boiled quail’s egg. Fortunately wines from a stylistically problematically arranged list (including chilled Madeira Barbeito with the tea, Hungarian dry Furmint with seabass and de-classified Conterno nebbiolo with bird) couthly flow.
The bar now locked and alarmed, we return to our rooms and the now particularly enticing fug of the curry house. Lying beneath the slightly quelled glow of the smoke alarm, which still manages to eerily illuminate the sticky furniture of a dresser’s decapitated dummy at the foot of our twins, I wonder whether the magician and storyteller were props of deliberate distraction to the could do better food of tonight’s chef, who clearly – fairly – should find his feet rather than have his mistakes spelled by London writers.
My ‘husband’ and I rise to the tinnitus and spectacle of a burly bod in fancy dress hovering the market square. Their horse and cart is escorted by a crumpet of a safety first lady under high vis. waistcoat. To the town crier figure, who guttorily barks news of today’s Christmas fayre at the village hall, my roommate shouts hardly in soft Scotch breath: “Whip your horse! Whip it! Come on cowboy, dig in those spurs!” Only one of the villager’s 4,000 populi stares up to strike up conversation. Despite the fact the pub has pledged 1pc of its profits to local initiatives, the sheer cost of a pint of ale has left a bad taste, they say.
After breakfast of vinegar stained eggs Benedict in company of the pleasantly pelted squirrel star of the original invitation) which gently rocks on the table, we sweep back to the city. But have our motley cargo fallen from favour? Gone is the Bentley to be replaced by a lethargic, late, defiantly racist taxi driver. And instead of a First Class ticket, we sit among standers in standard.
With the enduring imagery of the stuffed rodent, a racist’s bleak humour, and rhythmically lurching tummy from acidic eggs, I exit platform six at Charing Cross and, pending lengthy visit to the gents in the bowels of the concourse, stumble, sleepily, into the Strand…
The Bell Inn, High Street, Ticehurst, East Sussex, TN5 7AS, Tel: +44 1580 200 234, Email email@example.com
Rooms from £90-£145 (including breakfast)
For whom The Bell tolls
If only “local roast pheasant as tough as a shoe” and “vanilla set cream as tense as the latex of a Spitting Image puppet” were the worst things about Douglas Blyde’s overnight stay at The Bell in Ticehurst. His tribulations recall those of Hemingway’s Robert Jordan. It’s a harrowing tale indeed.
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The Bell Inn Ticehurst
Our resident foodie is a former documentary man and utterly gripped by gastronomy: driven by a love of good taste and fascinated by that almost nocturnal, nervously energetic breed known as chefs. He longs, one day, to own a pristine restaurant, boutique hotel, almost mythically revered vineyard and a vast chocolate factory…
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