On a recent Saturday evening, in an old cow dairy somewhere in Sussex, I had an epiphany.
I was slumped beside a roaring woodburner with a nightcap in hand. Our muddy boots were drying by the barn door and my stomach purred from the best meal it had experienced in, well, at least 24 hours. It dawned on me that there are just three simple ingredients to a perfect weekend away.
They are: a special place to stay, a cut-above meal in a ‘proper’ pub, and a soul-cleansing countryside walk. That is all you need.
Well, there are obviously countless other elements involved in constructing a perfect escape to the countryside. A dash of good weather, a smooth journey there, a car boot full of wine. And a few non-negotiable prerequisites (good health, good company). But it is those three core ingredients that form the building blocks of a perfect weekend jaunt.
I landed on something that ticked all the boxes in the most satisfying way the other weekend. The setting? A quiet village in West Sussex, on the fringes of the South Downs National Park, which is so unassuming that it has proved popular with the celebrity set over the past half century: Ashurst.
A night in a cow shed
I can explain. My fiancée and I had decided to take my mum on a weekend away to celebrate her sixtieth birthday, and while researching options I stumbled across an intriguing property in the village of Ashurst, a bucolic half-way point between Horsham and Shoreham.
The property is, in short, a cow shed. But, crucially, a cow shed that no longer houses cows nor any traces of cow pat. Quite the opposite actually.
Gold Top Barn (0117 204 7830; canopyandstars.co.uk; £175 per night) may have spent its first hundred years as a dairy, but it has been ingeniously transformed into a special place to stay. The barn is mostly set on one floor, but a mezzanine level offers views of nearby fields from the double bed, making clever use of the space. Below, the kitchen is equipped with a Smeg fridge which, on our arrival, was chilling a jar of homemade truffles.
Aside from the cosy qualities (the ready-to-light fire, the deep sofa, the miniature spherical lights illuminating the backyard, the long bathtub), host Nicola nods to Gold Top’s heritage with giant recording jar lamp shades, milk churn bedside tables and raw plaster walls.
While we stayed as a trio, Gold Top would be equally suitable for a couple looking for a quiet getaway, or two couples who know each other quite well (the second bed is found on the ground floor in its own room). And while it does have a kitchen and dining area, since we were celebrating a big occasion it only felt right to eat out on the Friday and Saturday evenings. We didn’t have to look far.
A meal at Laurence Olivier’s old local
Somnolent Ashurst slips happily and quietly under the radar. But its 300-odd residents are treated to a truly delightful 16th-century country pub, the Fountain Inn (01403 710219; fountainashurst.pub), which delivers high-quality meals while retaining its ‘proper’ pub status: roaring fire, real ale, low beams, flagstone floor, and the like. None other than Laurence Olivier used to sit by the fireplace with a drink; he was local to the area, and his funeral was held just around the corner in St James’s Church.
Baron Olivier wasn’t the first nor the last celebrity to visit the Fountain Inn. More than four decades ago, Sir Paul McCartney visited the pub to shoot the music video for his festive classic ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’, as confirmed by a plaque on the front of the building, which I only spotted on departure. Rumour has it that Adele, who has a home just around the corner in Partridge Green, pops in from time to time too.
It’s no surprise. The menu keeps things simple, but the food is of a far superior quality to your average village boozer. We had the Battered British Cod, the South Down Lamb Rump and the vegetarian tagine, all divine and perfectly paired with a bottle of Santa Ana Malbec.
If you have two nights in the area, a 15-minute drive from Ashurst you’ll find one of the best dining pubs south of the Thames, the Ginger Fox in Hassocks (01273 857888; thegingerfox.com). More restaurant than pub, it stands out for its long wine list (we opted for the Mas Puech Picpoul de Pinet) and moreish puddings, with a standard of service worthy of the Michelin Guide, in which it features.
A historic hill fort (with extraterrestrial credentials)
There are plenty of walks and bike rides accessible from Gold Top’s front door, including a pedal along a disused railway line and a walk to the River Adur, where a couple of harbour seals sometimes swim upstream. But we were drawn to a nearby ridgeway of historical (and extraterrestrial) intrigue.
The Chanctonbury Ring is a prehistoric hill fort, thought to date back to the late Bronze Age or possibly early Iron Age. It was abandoned and then reoccupied numerous times over the centuries, as a cattle enclosure, religious shrine, defensive outpost, until an 18th-century landowner named Charles Goring planted a ring of beech trees to beautify the site. The trees came down in the Great Storm of 1987, although a replanting effort has restored the site to its former glory.
Today, it makes for a perfect weekend yomp. The full loop is 2.6 miles and should take around 75 minutes to complete. Heading immediately uphill from the car park, you are rewarded with an early view across Washington village before reaching the hilltop ring of trees, which you can wander via thin winding paths. The views are quite something. On a clear day you will be able to make out Truleigh Hill, a high point of the South Downs at 216m.
There have been numerous alleged UFO sightings over the years and as a result, some believe the Chanctonbury Ring has extraterrestrial significance. But there’s plenty to keep the imagination whirring on this peaceful, historical hilltop, alien interference or not.
Things to do a 30-minute drive from Ashurst
For a rainy day
Head to the Komedia in Brighton, a 30-minute drive away. The live entertainment venue hosts comedy, music gigs and cabaret, and has a Picturehouse Cinema at Duke’s upstairs. The beating heart of Brighton’s cultural scene, which feels a world away from the countryside.
If the sun’s shining
Make a beeline for Lancing Beach, a 20-minute drive away. The shingle beach is fringed by a row of pastel-coloured beach huts, and is popular among sailors and windsurfers in the summer months. Stop by the easy-going Perch Cafe on the seafront for a flat white with sea views.
For a day of shopping
Hit the antique shops of Lewes, a 30-minute drive away. Start from the two-storey Flea Market, filled with a cacophony of curios, and then mooch down Cliffe High Street which has a series of well-stocked antique shops and a couple of rickety pubs.
For a wildlife experience
Look no further than Knepp Farm, a 3,500-acre estate 15 minutes from Ashurst. The estate is a unique rewilding project, and houses rare species such as turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies. They can organise family-friendly, enlightening wildlife experiences, such as a Butterfly Safari from £60.
For a splash of luxury
Go for a luxurious spa at South Lodge. The site has a state-of-the-art gym, spin studio, indoor pool, outdoor hydrotherapy pool and a wild swimming pool, if any of that takes your fancy. There is also a Mediterranean inspired restaurant, Botanica, with splendid views across the South Downs.