11 MAR 2019:  The hilltop parish of West Hoathly, set in the heart of the Sussex countryside, just 25-minutes from Gatwick Airport, is a picture-postcard village with a steepled 12th century church, idyllic views and achingly beautiful historic homes. But what steals the show is The Cat Inn and its Michelin listed free-house.

Andrew Russell, formerly GM of nearby Gravetye Manor, took on this once run-down pub in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. He’s achieving everything the local community want in a traditional village pub - a genuine homey atmosphere in the bar, really good food and four superb double guest bedrooms with all the mod-cons.

The Cat Inn, a 16th-century timber-framed hall house, once part of the estate of Thomas Sackville, the 1st Earl of Dorset (whose family coat of arms depicted a Lynx cat), is a fine medieval wattle and daub building, with a Victorian extension. Over the centuries it has been comfortably modernised without losing its character. With a tile and brick exterior, originals oak ceiling beams, wood panelling, plank floorboards and large log-burning inglenook fireplaces, there’s plenty of period charm.

Eat & Drink

Being a free-house (a pub that is owned independently of the breweries that supply it) The Cat Inn, which stands opposite an ancient village church, is a haven for real-ale enthusiasts. The bar is well stocked with quality, well-kept ales focused mainly on local micro-breweries.

On either side of the traditional dog-friendly bar, filled with colourful locals and hung with hops, are two distinctly different dining rooms. One is airy, modern, furnished with teak and leads to a walled garden, whilst the other is old-fashioned with dark beams, traditional wooden furniture and stained floor boards. It simply oozes history and showcases local artistic talent from the Ashdown Gallery.

As attested by the numerous certificates on the walls, this is a foodie pub that has earned itself a place in the Michelin Guide so, to avoid disappointment, you’d do well to book a table.

Head chef Alex Jacquemin and his team make the very best of the region’s produce, creating revelationary menu options with something for modern foodies, for traditionalists and for small appetites. Fish from nearby Newhaven takes care of the seafood, the beef comes from Trenchmore Farm just a few miles away, Courtland Nursery delivers the vegetables - everything is locally sourced and traceable from farm to fork.

A lot of thought has been put into the menu, which is bolstered by a blackboard of daily specials. The wine selection is impressive with a strong focus on English wines like Bluebell and Albourne Estate. The menu is unfussy and has a great selection, including a few ‘Cat Classics’ like their steak, mushroom and ale pie (which seems to be a favourite). I see what’s appearing at other tables and decided on a melt-in-the-mouth haddock fish cake, which sits on a bed of braised leek, topped off with a poached hen egg, and béarnaise sauce. For mains I polished off a wild skate wing with crushed ratte potatoes, broccoli and caper butter. Be sure to leave room for at least two desserts - it’s the highlight of the show!

Do not disturb

Four individual bedrooms, painted in varying shades of Farrow & Ball white, are well-groomed and comfortably dressed, with quality beds, crisp high-end linens and thick pile taupe coloured carpets.  There are antique touches throughout like ornate fireplaces and drop-leaf tables. The mood lighting highlights a selection of box-framed watercolours; the bathrooms are fresh with luxury organic Bramley toiletries, thick white towels and honeycombed dressing gowns hanging behind the bathroom door.

Ask for Room 2, which has a separate seating area and a dramatic mustard-coloured wingback chair taking pride of place; four steps up leads to an immense bedroom and a Vi-Spring luxury bed, cloaked in a Hungarian goose down duvet. There’s a Nespresso machine, ideal for an early-morning coffee, or an indulgent Prince & Sons (East Sussex) artisan tea. On the landing outside, which permeates with the gorgeous subtle fragrance of Bramley’s soothing camomile, lavender and geranium, is a small bar fridge that keeps the farm milk ice cold.

What’s for breakfast?

Breakfast is beyond superb, starting with a continental spread of just picked berries, freshly squeezed orange juice, thick Greek yogurt, muesli, cereal, apricots, prunes steeped in tea, a steaming cafeteria of coffee, toast, homemade marmalade, local honey – all laid out on individual tables. If you’re big on your breakfasts, this is followed by numerous cooked options.

The Cat Inn, popular with foodies and ramblers, is everything a historic country pub should be – a roaring log fire, a room filled with affable locals, a good pint and great food. You may find you’ll return regularly as you too will fall under its spell. What a find!

A brief history of the Cat Inn

Records show that the Brookes family were the landlords at The Cat Inn from 1678 to 1724. John Brookes of Hever built up the business and sometime later his son, William Brookes, inherited the estate – records show that he owned the Inn and two houses in the village.

What was once the old stable yard and an area for keeping pigs, was turned into a place to park bicycles, and eventually cars. During more recent renovations, a well was uncovered. There is evidence that it was still in use in the 1800s when this, and most other wells in the region, were closed due to fears over the spread of typhoid.

The Cat Inn, North Lane, West Hoathly, RH19 4PP www.innplaces.co.uk 

And while you’re there...

• Just down the road from The Cat Inn is the 700-year old Priest House. It was seized by Henry VIII in the 1500s and belonged in turn to Thomas Cromwell, Anne of Cleves, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

• Stroll through the quiet churchyard of St Margaret’s which has been adding a little touch of nobility and grandeur to the landscape for more than 900 years. If this church was in North America, people would travel from all over the country to see it. Here it’s just another anonymous country church, treasured by a few aging parishioners, and will go almost entirely unnoticed because it is just one of near 13,000 ancient parish churches in England.

The Cat Inn
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Cindy-Lou Dale

Cindy-Lou Dale is a professional editor, writer and photographer, specializing in high-end travel, luxury motoring and affluent lifestyles. She also writes compellingly of current affairs, African politics and introduces her readers to new-age philanthropy.

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