You can see for miles from the top of the Trundle (the hill overlooking Goodwood Race Course). Whoever it was round about 400 -100BC who decided that this would be the perfect vantage point on the South Downs for an Iron Age Hill-fort knew what he was doing.
Belated birthday celebrations
But for once it was not the stunning view that had attracted Anna Hyman and a friend to this part of West Sussex, neither was it the close by Weald & Downland Living Museum with its fascinating collection of restored historic buildings (some of them date back to 950AD) including the now famous Court Barn better known by TV viewers as The Repair Shop.
In fact, we were heading for lunch and West Dean Gardens and a celebratory day out in the pretty Lavant Valley following two years of Covid restrictions and neglected birthdays.
The Selsey Arms
I had a dim recollection of once having had a rather good pub lunch a mile or so down the A 286 road from West Dean Gardens heading towards Chichester. I was correct about the distance, but my memory was at fault as to which side of the road it was. However, we found the pub – now called the Selsey Arms – it was open and they were serving lunch.
We were early and the pub was quiet but the greeting from the pub dog was welcoming and friendly, echoed by that from front-of-house Nancy and Carlos.
It’s an unpretentious country pub with well-spaced wooden tables (more tables outside), and incidentally apart from their own four-footed meeter and greeter, the Selsey Arms also welcomes doggy guests. Lunch menus handed out, and with a 200ml bottle of Prosecco each, we settled down to discuss what to choose.
A sensible size menu
It’s a sensible size menu, with enough choice yet short enough to be not overwhelming, and for the locally sourced seasonal food to be freshly prepared in the kitchen by Chef Ian.
One of us decided on breaded whitebait with tartare sauce (£7) – they looked delicious, and evidently were. However, it had been ages since I had last had a ham hock terrine and this one was stunning a really generous thick slice, served with a fabulous homemade chunky vegetable piccalilli plus toasted sourdough bread (£6.75)
It had been two years since I last had fish and chips – and I just happened to spot it on the menu: Beer battered haddock, hand cut chips, ‘mushy’ peas and tartare sauce. Once again, the portion was generous – perfectly cooked fish nestled cosily beneath its beer batter, the hand cut chips were crisp on the outside, fluffy in the middle and the peas were great too. Maybe the batter could have done with another couple of minutes in the fryer, but by then the fish would have been overcooked (£14.95).
Friend had noticed that ham, egg and chips were featured. The slices of honey roasted gammon, plus two eggs and skin on fries (£12) certainly looked good.
The small dessert menu was tempting but sadly we had no time for a sweet treat or even coffee. West Dean Gardens was next on our schedule.
Glorious West Dean Gardens open to the public
For anybody wanting to linger and explore properly this very pretty part of West Sussex manager Erica told us that The Selsey Arms also offer B&B accommodation in the renovated barn behind the pub. Bet they do a good breakfast. Wish we had known that earlier. Next visit perhaps.
I had been before to West Dean, and the gardens thanks to the endeavours of the then gardeners Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain were lovely. Now retired they have handed over the reins to new Head Gardener Tom Brown and his team who must have been working tirelessly during Covid – the gardens look glorious.
The Edward James Foundation
There has been a house on the land since the early 17th century but it was extended and given its grander somewhat castle-like appearance in the 19th century. It was in 1891 that William and Evelyn James bought the estate, which their son Edward inherited in 1932.
Edward James was a somewhat eccentric, philanthropic patron of the arts and crafts, amongst his friends were many Surrealist artists including Dali and Magritte. In 1964 he set up the Edward James Foundation in order to help safeguard arts and crafts.
Today the Foundation has a worldwide reputation for excellence, specialising not only in degrees and diplomas but also in general courses covering the arts and conservation work – plus … gardening. And whilst the house is not open to the general public the gardens most certainly are.
Victorian glasshouses and a kitchen garden
There are the 13 impressive working Victorian glasshouses crammed with interesting flowering plants plus fruit and vegetables that need a bit of protection – the greenhouses incidentally are unheated. As on previous visits I loved nosing round the walled kitchen garden marvelling at the healthy looking and astonishing array of fruit and vegetables, whilst being incredibly envious of the glorious central flower bed, which would originally have been used to ensure that there was a constant supply of flowers for the house.
When we were there the apple blossom was still in bloom. West Dean is noted for its collection of over 100 varieties of apples and pears. Growing beneath some of the trees in the grass was a wealth of dandelions raising their golden faces to the sun, and dotted amongst them, purple and white fritillaries bloomed.
Late spring blooms giving way to summer flowers
We wandered down the 100m long Edwardian pergola which soon will be swathed in festoons of clematis and sweet-smelling roses and honeysuckles. We disturbed a duck trying to take his afternoon nap on the edge of a pergola pool. We apologised and tiptoed past.
The close-by Sunken Garden is always a joy – the early spring plants were giving way to their late spring cousins who would in turn make way in a few more weeks to a froth of summer blooms.
We paused a while and sat on one of the many conveniently placed benches in the gardens watching a blackbird and a robin searching for grubs or whatever amongst the plants.
No time to explore the arboretum
There was no time for us to walk through West Dean’s Arboretum. St Roche’s Arboretum extends for 49 acres, with a two-and-a -half-mile circuit walk – the views are glorious.
I recalled an earlier visit one spring when the azaleas and rhododendrons were in flower, and another walk one autumn when the trees were showing off their vibrant costumes of reds and gold.
A home for a wicked witch?
On our way back to the car park, tea room and the shop selling plants and gifts I spotted, tucked away down the shady path, and partly obscured by shrubs, creepers and trees, a flint building with a conical roof, it was probably the apple store, but it reminded me of a Grimms Fairy Tale where a wicked witch might have made her home – and who might try to lure us in.
To be on the safe side I suggested we didn’t linger and we made our way quickly past taking refuge in the safety of the tea room for tea and chocolate cake.