When you tire of the hectic London pace, just hop in a cab to Victoria Station and catch a train south for the relaxing one-hour ride to rural Sussex . . . and Amberley Castle.
By arrangement, the casual hosts will make the 3-minute run in their Land Rover to the usually deserted local train station, scoop you up, and take you back to the cozy warmth of their small 20-guest room castle.
Overnighting in this authentic castle, furnished with tapestries and suits of armor, offers the opportunity to experience first-hand the regal side of England. Lived in by bishops, trashed by Cromwell's soldiers, and once owned by Queen Elizabeth I, this 14th-century castle is being restored by its present owners. Today peacocks stand sentry inside the walls, and guests can play croquet in the grass-covered dry moat outside the walls.
Ideally, a visitor books in for two nights. This permits time to experience the castle's refined cuisine one night in the barrel-vaulted Queen's Room Restaurant, where service includes Wedgwood china and Dartington crystal and where in season fresh lavender allium balls grace the table. On another night you can enjoy an informal pub dinner in the tiny village outside the castle's walls. Two nights also allows for a full day to explore the nearby village of Arundel.
West Sussex, where Amberley Castle is located, is an unknown area even for Brits. While many guests come here to celebrate a special occasion, others come just to be refreshed by a quick "break"--as the locals call a mini-vacation. In slower months, a value-priced package includes dinner, bed, and breakfast.
On-property activities available by advance reservation include archery, falconry, and horseback riding. Recently a new all-weather tennis court and stocked fishing lake were added, and an 18-hole putting course opens on June 1.
Off-property pleasures include hiring a cab for the approximately 10-minute "castle run" into Arundel to shop for antiques and to tour the majestic castle there that is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Norfolk. This charming village seems like something out of Masterpiece Theatre. When we sat down for tea at Belinda's, I half expected Miss Marple to walk in. Too bad for her that she didn't, because she missed some really good oat cakes (or "flap jacks") and a spectacular sponge cake filled with cream and preserves.
Just outside the castle gates, the tiny village of Amberley provides more diversion. Thatched-roof cottages with gorgeous gardens, a shop selling ceramics made on the premises, and a pub providing cozy refuge from a drizzle are all within a few minutes' walk. A crumbling old Norman church with a picturesque cemetery popular with painters completes the idyllic picture. The rest of the area surrounding the castle is mostly posh fields of tall, soft grass and miles and miles of farmland.
The castle's most important amenity is blessed peace and quiet. A flock of peacocks acts as guard dogs, shrieking if ruffled, and at around 5 a.m. a cacophony of birdsong greets the dawn, but that is the extent of the usual ruckus. Privacy is assured by a 60-foot fortified stone wall and a working oak portcullis that is dropped each evening at midnight.
A longer stay and car rental permits visiting the elegant shops and renowned theater in nearby Chichester, the antique shops in Brighton, and Jane Austen's house in Chatton--where she wrote all of her books ("Pride and Prejudice" was set in Derbyshire in the Peak District).
Dream weddings that would make Madonna blush with envy can be arranged at Amberley Castle. On these occasions, the wedding party must book the whole castleв‰€for their own privacy and so as not to disturb the tranquilty for other guests. To add drama to the occasion, arrange for the bride and groom to arrive or depart by helicopterв‰€or by an authentic Victorian horse-drawn carriage. Add some minstrels on the ramparts, a salsa band in the dry moat, a harpist in the Great Hall, and perhaps even some fireworks.
The castle is also perfect for a honeymoon or romantic getaway. Every guest room has a marble bathroom with Jacuzzi bath and myriad fragrant Body Shop toiletries, a color TV and video player, and a basket of homemade biscuits and fresh fruit, plus some rooms boast magnificent draped four-poster beds.
Tipping at the castle is handled at the end of your stay. When checking out, guests are given the opportunity to leave a tip that can be split by the entire staff or directed to whomever they wish.