A Romantic Weekend In The South Downs

After 4 months of lockdown in our little London flat, we decided it was time to escape. It took us a long time to find an airbnb – it seems everyone else had the same idea – but we eventually found one that seems really nice, although a bit of a gamble as it had no reviews. So one Friday we set off in Matt’s little Citroen to Plum Cottage in the South Downs, ready for a romantic weekend in the British countryside.

Day 1 in the South Downs

It wasn’t the nicest drive out of London, but once we got into the South Downs, we really started to relax and get excited. The roads became overshadowed by forests, breaking occasionally to reveal rolling green hills. We drove through the small town of Haslemere with its short, stocky Tudor houses, and eventually the roads wound their way to the tiny village of Henley.

Arriving at Plum Cottage

I was immediately in love. The cute little cottage was clearly brand new, the plants just starting to creep up the masonry. We took a moment to admire the surroundings – a beautiful view over fields to one side, the road winding into pine forest on the other – before following our airbnb hosts instructions to get inside.

Henley, South Downs
The first view of Plum Cottage

Everything was perfect. The dinky entry way was neatly stocked with umbrellas and welly boots (not to mention face masks and disinfectant). Plus, and I never got over this for our entire stay, it smelled incredible. Like walking into a Jo Malone shop. It was all just spotless, with everything arranged just so, the compact space used so well that it felt roomy and cosy at the same time.

Cara, our airbnb hostess, and her partner Andrew, did such a great job on this place. One of them (or both) clearly has a designer eye, and had carefully chosen the right colour palate and eclectic combination of cute cottage and rustic cabin, with beautiful antiques for the decor. As we walked around I found myself hoping we’d be able to make the most of absolutely everything, and I’m glad to say now that we absolutely did.

Idyllic Cottage in Rural Surrey Airbnb
The cosy living room with working fireplace

On the table in the open plan kitchen we found an envelope addressed to us, with a warm welcome inside from our hosts (as well as the wifi password). They’d also left us some tasty goodies to enjoy during our stay.

Upstairs we found a snug bedroom, with sloping ceilings and a MASSIVE bed (take me back to that bed), complete with window seat and reading nook. The window looked out over that view I mentioned earlier, and the whole room smelled even nicer than downstairs.

Idyllic Cottage in Rural Surrey Airbnb
Cosy bedroom with HUGE bed

Last but not least, the bathroom, where the star of the show was a deep traditional bathtub, with an inviting pot of rose scented epsom salts along with various other nice smelling bath things.

In the garden around the back of the cottage (which, as you can see, was also the cutest view of the cottage itself) there were benches and sofas to relax on in the sunshine, as well as a BBQ that could be brought out. We thought about chilling out, but with the knowledge that the weather forecast wasn’t great for the next day we decided to make the most of the blue sky and go for a walk.

Plum Cottage South Downs
Plum Cottage from the back garden

The South Downs Way

Step out of the door at Plum and you’ll find a network of connecting footpaths crossing the Cowdray and Leconfield Estates giving you the freedom to explore the local countryside.

Our airbnb host
South Downs Way Henley
Walking through pine forest in the South Downs

So full disclosure, the isn’t technically the South Downs Way. But it is a way, through the South Downs. And look how pretty it is! After months of being in the city, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to be surrounded by pine forest as far as the eye can see.

Let’s take a moment to look into the history of Henley, the cutest little village of cottages you ever did see. Nobody knows just how old the hamlet of Henley is. Cottages in the village have been dated to circa 1575! Up until the 1950’s the old turnpike was laid with pillow-shaped boulders, which must have been quite difficult for horses since it’s quite a steep climb. The forest around it was empaled by Cowdray (from the famous ruins), who came to nearby Easebourne in 1532. It’s likely that the road was resurfaced at that time, when Henley was incorporated into the Cowdray landholding.

The road either side of Henley is so long and straight, Matt and I were sure it was a Roman road. Turns out in 1932 archaeologists dug up the road to investigate its origin. Because of a layer of slag underneath, that couldn’t have occurred before 1550, the road couldn’t be dated further back than that. In 1949 local archaeologists commented that they thought the road almost certainly had Roman origins, even though there was no actual evidence to support that belief.

Dinner with a view

After our wonderful walk, we both treated ourselves to a bath in the luxurious bath tub. Then we popped open the bottle of prosecco we brought with us and the crackers left by our host, and sat outside enjoying the view. We enjoyed it so much that we stayed outside after I’d rustled up a quick gnocchi dinner.

We brought a Gousto box with us so we knew we had food. I was very pleased to find that the kitchen in our cottage was fully equipped with everything I needed. Don’t you hate it when you go to an airbnb and it’s missing something really small but essential like cooking oil? No one wants to rush out to buy a whole bottle when you only need a little bit! But Cara had clearly been very thorough, and included everything from salt and pepper to a pizza cutter and a paella pan!

Even when it got chilly outside we couldn’t tear ourselves away. I fetched a blanket and we sat watching the view as long as we could.

Plum Cottage Henley
Plum cottage with the lights on.

A cosy evening in

We were finally lured inside by the promise of red wine and creamy blue cheese. With the lamps and candles lit, wine poured, and cheese ready to be spread onto crackers, we settled in to catch up on University Challenge before watching a film. What a perfect end to a perfect first day.

Day 2 in the South Downs

A slow morning, with eggs on toast and frothy coffees followed by leisurely baths. We would have been in a rush to get into Midhurst for the Country Brocante Fair, but it was quite a drizzly day, as promised by the weather forecast. We were fairly sure we wouldn’t need to battle for a parking spot.

Midhurst

The town of Midhurst is classically, quaintly British. The old section, where the markets are held, can be found up Knockhundred Row on South Street by St Mary Magdalene & St Denys Church. There are two gorgeous old pubs, The Swan Inn and Spread Eagle Hotel, as well as Garton’s Coffee House if you’re there earlier in the day.

Midhurst Market South Downs
The Country Brocante Fair in Midhurst

The Country Brocante Fair has been running for many years, and has been so popular that they’ve opened a permanent shop in Midhurst. The store floor hosts nine permanent small businesses, however, the look is completely cohesive with the shop style complementing each other.

Everything in the store in lovingly sourced and reasonably priced. You can find utility useful kitchnealia at really great prices, however, you can also find standout pieces for those looking for exquisite treats for their home. Something for every budget, we have grand local home renovation project owners sourcing for their houses to newly acquired cottages on a shoestring budget looking to add quirky finds.

The Country Brocante, Midhurst
Midhurst Market South Downs
Midhurst Market Square

The fair spread over Church Hill, Market Square and West Street, with lots of stalls mainly selling furniture, antiques, art and gardening supplies. Anything you might need to set up your own little South Downs cottage!

Cowdray Ruins

We were completely fascinated by the Cowdray Ruins, but couldn’t find that much information about them on site. It seems it was one of England’s most important early Tudor houses and is known to have been visited by both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. Guy Fawkes once worked at the house, which later caused the Montague Family to be implicated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Then, in the Civil War, the Parliamentarians used the house as a Roundhead barracks. 

We were so curious as to why it had been left to fall apart. It turns out that 1793 it was undergoing repairs and refurbishments for the marriage of the 8th Viscount Montague, and a devastating fire destroyed most of the property.

Since then it’s basically been abandoned, until 1909 when the 1st Viscount Cowdray commissioned a restoration project. He’s credited for saving the ruins from total collapse. And actually, the fact that it was deserted for so long saved it from any modernisation which was popular during that period, so the original Tudor features have been left intact, giving us a unique glimpse of Tudor architecture.

Cowdray Ruins South Downs
Cowdray ruins, Midhurst

It’s been open to the public since 2007, and you can even book to stay in the cute Tudor cottages next to the ruins, however it seems COVID has put a stop to all that. We had a poke around, but didn’t get very far, as most of the property is sealed off with barriers.

Relaxing with a book

In the afternoon we had planned to go to Petworth House and Park, a national trust property nestled in the South Downs, inspired by the Baroque palaces of Europe. But, it turns out you have to book before 3pm the day before you plan to visit. Learn from our mistake if you’re wanting to visit it!

Instead we made lunch and then sat with some frothy coffees and our books. It was still quite a chilly day, and we had the windows open for the fresh air which meant cosying up under blankets. It actually started chucking it down, which carried on all afternoon, and it was total bliss listening to the rain while we were warmly ensconced in our cottage.

The Devil’s Punch Bowl

Our rain-drenched walk around the Devil’s Punch Bowl was great for lots of reasons, but mainly; it’s got a great local legend; the views are amazing; we went back to our airbnb and had an excuse to light the fire.

Devil's Punch Bowl South Downs
The Devil’s Punch Bowl, South Downs

Legend says that the Devil lived at the ‘Devil’s Jumps’, near Churt. He would torment Thor, God of Thunder, who lived at Thor’s Lie (Thursley), by jumping from hill to hill. Thor would try to strike the Devil with thunder and lightning and once the Devil retaliated by scooping up a handful of earth and hurling it at Thor. The depression that remained is the Devil’s Punch Bowl.

National Trust

The other aspect I found really cool was that the A3 used to cut right through it. From 1748-1873 it was the original London to Portsmouth road used by horses and carriages. Then in the 1830s they cut through the hillside to avoid the climb to Hindhead which exhausted the poor horses, especially when pulling larger and heavier carriages. In 2011 the Hindhead tunnel was opened, and sandstone dug from the tunnel was used to bury the old A3. Now the area is being landscaped back to the original contour of the hillside. You can still find the old A3, and whilst it still clearly used to be a throughway, it’s hard to imagine it as a 3 lane road!

The Duke of Cumberland Arms

After spending the afternoon drying off in front of the fire, we got dressed up for our first dinner out since the beginning of lockdown. The Duke of Cumberland Arms came highly recommended by our airbnb hosts, so we made sure to book our table in advance.

People travel for miles to get there, but just a one-minute walk from Plum Cottage you’ll find the Duke of Cumberland Arms. With its own Trout Pond, award-winning Restaurant, pub garden and lounge bar with scrubbed pine tables, the Duke of Cumberland is the quintessentially characterful country pub with a stunning menu and wine list. Book in advance to eat, or stroll up for a drink anytime. Call to make a reservation on 01428 652280 or just pop in.

Our airbnnb host

Unfortunately we couldn’t experience the pub in its prime during these socially distanced times. It seems the inside is too cosy and cramped to open safely, but luckily it has extensive gardens where locals were enjoying their drinks in groups. As we had booked a table, we were directed round the side of the old pub to the back, where there was a sprawl of gardens and a stunning view stretching into the distance.

The Duke of Cumberland Arms South Downs
The pub garden

The pub’s newer conservatory extension was open for dining, along with an outside gazebo area. At first I was disappointed we weren’t seated outside where we could enjoy the lovely evening, but we hadn’t been seated long before the heavens opened again. I was glad to be inside then!

The Duke of Cumberland Arms South Downs
The terrace behind The Duke of Cumberland Arms

For dinner we went straight into the mains. I ordered confit free-range pork belly with apple & Calvados glaze, creamed Savoy cabbage, sautéed potatoes, all with a thyme & port jus. The apple glazed pork went perfectly with my Gospel Green Sussex Cyder (a splendid local drink made using the Champagne method). Matt went with oven roasted duo of English lamb rump, herb & mustard crusted cutlet, pommes sarladaise, Dukes garden courgette, baby carrots and roasted parsnips, with a red wine & mint jus, accompanied by a pint (his first pint of lockdown!). It was all divine.

Verdict

You don’t realise how much you miss the country side until you get out of London. What a gorgeous weekend. We couldn’t have asked for better! Granted, the weather could have been a bit nicer on Saturday, but then we wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the fire, and that would’ve been a real shame. Instead we managed to make the absolute most of our stay in what is for sure the nicest airbnb we’ve ever booked.

If you’re looking for a country escape, I couldn’t recommend this cottage in the South Downs more. For other romantic British staycations you can check out my posts Staying In A Victorian Gated Village or Visiting Arundel Castle. Otherwise there’s always Oxford, Brighton, Norfolk, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, and closer to London you have St Albans and Richmond, both lovely spots for a day outside the city. Just because we can’t fly doesn’t mean we can’t get away!

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South Downs Pinterest
Sophie Whitehead
Sophie Whitehead

I’m Sophie, a writer and blogger living in London, traveling, eating, and telling you all about it.

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