Love conquers all – except old VW vans. Bella Todd rescues her honeymoon with a night scaling battlements and treehouses in Sussex.
For my new husband and I, the Amberley Castle experience began in earnest when, hand on hand, we turned the handle of a small door to the right of our four-poster, leaned our weight against it and pushed. With an authentically heavy creak it opened out on to a stone staircase spiralling upwards into darkness while we – abandoning shoes and wine glasses – started towards the ruined battlements, our climb punctuated by shafts of light from arrow slits in the walls and the crescendoing cooing of doves.
Where castle meets hotel
Amberley Castle isn’t just a 900-year-old castle with links to Henry VIII and Charles II, it's a half restored hotel, half picturesque ruin. Now run by French company Relais & Châteaux on the well-mixed principles of good taste, tranquillity and trust, it feels like the recompense for every disappointment you’ve ever endured at the hands of the heritage tourist industry: all those fussy interventions into history, all those fantasy-thwarting ‘private, please do not enter’ signs. In our case, it was also the cure for a honeymoon that had recently come to a very abrupt standstill on the A1 (thanks to the meltdown of our hired retro camper van).
Romantic road trip wrecked, we fled to this ancient fortification near the beautiful village of Amberley and were surprised to encounter a couple’s getaway package that understands that real romance isn’t so much about luxury spas as licensing roving hands and feet. Here, stately suits of armour co-exist with hundreds of birds and tradition goes hand in hand with a feeling of freedom.
Sky-high pathways and a secret garden
The staircases and battlements, sky-high pathways to deserted rooms and crumbling vistas are free to be explored at your own risk. Mallets and balls can be discovered in a cranny at the end of the former moat-turned-croquet pitch whenever the mood takes you. Wander through the secret garden formed by the overgrown medieval walls and you’ll get a subtle education in history. Turning through one rose-covered nook we found ourselves in the ‘Oubliette’, a cell reserved – we later learnt from a copy of Stephen Biesty’s ‘Cross-Sections Castle’ that had been thoughtfully lined up on our windowsill – for prisoners the castle had simply wished to forget.
Finally, we returned to dine in the castle’s own treehouse where, with the sun setting through tiny casement windows, we made use of the in-(tree)house CD player and danced to a song we’d forgotten to include at our wedding. Back in the castle, I was so drunk on romance I forgot to listen for the famous two-tonne portcullis being lowered at midnight. Better start saving for our first anniversary.
Nearest train station
Amberley station (1.5 miles away). Pick up the Wey South Path through Amberley Wildbrooks (01273 492630) from Hog Lane in Amberley Village.
Things to do
Wander on the haunting former floodplain that is Amberley Wildbrooks, explore the slanting antique shops of neighbouring Arundel and spend a sleepy afternoon in the Cass Sculpture Estate in Goodwood, 20 minutes’ drive away, where 80 sculptures have been hidden within sprawling ancient woodland, promoting more randomly magical encounters per square yard than Alice had in Wonderland.
Cass Sculpture Estate Goodwood, PO18 0QP (01243 538449, www.sculpture.org.uk). Open 10.30am-3pm Tue-Sun throughout winter (closed Nov 9-15 while new exhibition is set up). Admission £10.
Where to eat
Amberley Castle’s real coup de theatre, this treehouse at the edge of the grounds, comes complete with a waterside swing, a balcony and a bloody great oak tree through its centre. The bespoke menu is all served cold so that lovers can enjoy their dinner in complete seclusion. We shared head chef James Dugan’s local salads of crab and avocado and ham and figs, mains of rare roast beef and pepper and ricotta tart, and lemon tart and artisan cheeses to finish. The Mistletoe menu is imaginative and fun, though frankly a McDonald’s would be magical in this context.
Three-course meal for two with wine from £300; keep an eye out for cut-price weekday offers. Two-course meals in Amberley Castle’s Queen’s Room restaurant from £25 per person.
Where to stay
The accommodation at Amberley is a rare mixture of grandeur and homeliness: on the one hand, dark antique furnishings and a schedule set by a working portcullis; on the other, homemade biscuits and doves nuzzling on the window ledges. All 19 rooms have a whirlpool bath and most have four-posters. But ask for one of the nine in the central Tower House, where a sign reads, ‘Please keep the door closed to prevent peacocks from entering.’ If you can put ‘Jane Eyre’ out of your mind for the time being (not to mention the castle ghost), the Herstmonceux room has private access to the battlements.