Walking down a country lane, I turn a corner and catch my first sight of the 12th century, Amberley Castle, in the South Downs National Park in the south of England. I have lived all my life just 15 miles away yet had never visited before. When my mother asked me what I would like for my 50th birthday I knew straight away – afternoon tea at Amberley Castle.
As we head towards the castle I ask Neill, my fiancé, to drop me off before we could even see it so that I can walk the rest of the way. As it comes into view the castle and lawns look suitable impressive in the winter sunshine. The car park is discretely hidden off to the right behind some trees so doesn’t spoil the view. As I walk a little nearer I spot the pretty little tree house looking out across the lawns where afternoon tea can be taken in the summer I’m told.
On up the drive I stroll, drinking in the view before me, meeting up with Mum and Neill just outside the castle gate.
Exploring Amberley Castle
Passing under the portcullis is like stepping back in time and while much of the oldest parts of the castle are now in ruins, plenty of it isn’t and the outer wall still stands proud. In Medieval times it would have been bustling with servants – cooks, gardeners, grooms and soldiers – a huge entourage, there to look after and protect their lord and master. Now it is the epitome of tranquility.
As we stroll around the gardens we discover the ancient ‘his and hers’ no more than cubbyholes in the outer walls. While the bench to sit on is long gone, you can still look down the hole that opened up high above the ground outside the castle walls.
On the other side of the garden, adjacent to the entrance gate, lies the guard-room and through an inner door the Oubliette (which translates as the forgotten place), a seemingly bottomless pit. Often political prisoners were kept in such places. I wonder how many people were forgotten here.
Having enjoyed this stroll around in the sunshine, we eagerly settle down by an open fireplace in one of a number of cosy drawing rooms inside the castle and tuck into the most delicious afternoon tea. Finger sandwiches, including my favourite smoked salmon, plain and fruit scones served with the traditional strawberry jam and clotted cream plus some delightful little cakes and of course a pot of the tea of our choosing. I’m not a great tea drinker but a coffee didn’t seem to fit the bill, so I opted for the peppermint tea, while Neill selected the smokey flavoured Lapsang Souchong and Mum choose the Darjeeling.
We sit, chat and eat for so long that we are offered a second pot of tea each. By the time we leave it’s getting dark. I was rather sorry to go; I’m sure any girl (even a 50-year-old one) would feel like a princess staying here.
This was so much more than simply afternoon tea, which was superb in itself, but the whole experience, including the walk around the grounds and a look at a few of the castle rooms (of which there are many) makes a great afternoon out. My birthday treat cost £30 a head (thanks Mum), while other options start from just £5.50 each for tea or coffee with homemade biscuits.
Amberley is just an hour and a half by train from London Victoria with the castle, less than a mile from the station. For more information visit the castle’s website AmberleyCastle.co.uk.
Do you think anyone would notice if I snuck back in and curled up in the four-poster bed? Better not.