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Muddy stays: the Cowdray Estate, Midhurst

Chances are if you're planning a trip over the next months you're back to thinking - UK, self-catering, countryside. And as it happens, I've just reviewed the perfect cottage for you!

THE LOCATION

Does Cowdray need any introduction? It’s the destination that is part of the ‘one name’ brigade, along with Blenheim, Chatsworth, Cliveden and Beaumont, a private Sussex estate covering 16,500 acres in verdant countryside and woodland in the heart of the South Downs National Park., with its own, now ruined castle, historic house, polo club, golf course, farm shop (let me just say – incredible) and holiday lets.

The appeal of self-catering accommodation in a woodland setting has just shot through the roof – er, thanks Omnicron – and lordy knows what’s going to happen with overseas holidays over the coming months, so it seems like a good time to give you the tour of my cottage stay. Shall we?

THE VIBE

This is clearly an estate with money to burn – everything is kept pristine, from the many estate houses (painted in Cowdray’s distinctive ‘Gold cup’ yellow across the window sills and doors) to the elegant golf course with its views across to the castle ruins in the distance and Cowdray House itself (above) set in 110 acres that once included the original polo field at the estate (guests can snaffle polo lessons whilst here if they can tear themselves away from the indoor swimming pool and bowling alley.

Rather like the National Trust’s jewel of Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire where its beautifully situated Stables café and gallery space are a draw for casual visitors, Cowdray has as a huge cafe, with a mix of indoor and outdoor space along with a mind-blowingly gorgeous Farm Shop, a lifestyle shop stocking Cowdray produce, a deli, butchery and…. you get the picture.

Despite the grandeur (and commerciality) of the set pieces, the big star of the show at Cowdray is of course the countryside. Cowdray’s estate is made up of 36% is woodland, three times the national average, and it’s unquestionably beautiful, which is why it’s well worth booking accommodation on the estate to best explore it.

STAY

Let’s assume for a second that you don’t to sell off a kidney to rent out Cowdray House, and that The Lodge on the golf course isn’t quite your Pringle bag. Instead, head past Benbow pond to the bijou cluster of four cottages, painted in tasteful, muted French Grey with direct views onto the woodland. I stayed in the split level Heathend cottage, which was perfect for me and two smallish kids, though if you’re a bigger four, I’d suggest the more spacious Broomhill. You’re a two minute drive from the road, there’s no car noise, and greenery all around, so it feels like a proper retreat. Though there are clearly ‘neighbours’, the cottages are all separate so you’ll have your privacy fix. Certainly when I visited, though there were cars outside other properties, I didn’t actually see anyone else at all.

The interior of Heathend cottage is tastefully if conservatively appointed with plenty of taupe, exposed floors and enough flora, fauna and local wildlife on the walls to keep Chris Packham occupied for days.

Expect a storming Cowdray produce goodie bag on arrival – bacon, eggs, freshly baked bread, apple juice, and all the self-catering trimmings that make a rental stay feel like a home.

I’d have liked a slightly more slouchy sofa on which to luxuriate on an evening as I crashed out in front of the telly, but the supercomfy bed made up for it.

The weather wasn’t quite right for us to sit outside in the garden but on a warm spring day it would have been a lovely addition – all cottages have BBQs in readiness and this is the view from the kitchen window. Just gorgeous.

SCOFF & QUAFF

The cottages are self-catering, but we did venture out a few times. It’s worth making a pit stop at the Cowdray café if you’re with your family – there are loads of tables inside and out (prettiest tables out the back if you want to try booking), and they’re clearly used to running a slick commercial operation. The portions were huge for our burgers.

There’s a gorgeous rustic pitstop called The Flint Barn Café (above) that is on a main route heading up to the top of the South Downs – we had a lovely cake and coffee sitting outside amongst ramblers and bikers in its pretty stone-walled courtyard, and it seems to be very popular locally. One pub I was strongly recommended to try but didn’t quite make it was The Fox Goes Free in Charlton, near Chicester – I can’t personally vouch but the restaurant looks rustic and elegant and garden is huge, so it could be worth a punt. I did eat out at The Half Moon in Midhurst but have just seen it’s currently closed due to Covid issues and under new management so hold off on that one for now.

THINGS TO DO AT COWDRAY

One of the best things about self-catering is that you can go at your own pace, but if you want to really experience Cowdray my advice is to get out and about because there’s so much to do. One of the best things I did with the kids was take an e-bike tour. I’ve always been quite snooty about e-bikes, and they’re seen as a lazy option by many (mostly die-hard mountain bikers with resting heart rates of 40), but when you’re confronted with 16500 acres to cover and want to keep your children engaged when they’re half way up a 20% incline, let me tell you, an e-bike on its ‘booster’ is holiday catnip.

I went with All Ride Now and I’m giving them a huge recommendation – Ant, who co-owns the company, is very easy company for adults, charming with children (my 12 and 14 year olds really took to him), has lived his whole life in the area and is passionate about the South Downs and biking – he bats for both cycle teams, as he’s he’s also a serious mountain biker. In three hours managed a 50k route – yep, you read that right, unbelievers – taking in the ruins, the top of the downs (the clouds came in just as we should have seen views for miles, but don’t let that stop you), a couple of pretty villages, a pitstop for a treat. The kids were just buzzing with it, it was the success of the trip.

Our view from the top of the South Downs

A more gentle expedition was a local Wildlife Tour with Barry Martin, one of the Cowdray rangers. This will probably appeal more to those who aren’t already country based pheasants, red kites and rabbits are pretty common out where I live, and that’s pretty much what we spotted from the Land Rover.

We did do an early evening trek to private woodland to wait for badgers but they’re pretty temperamental and didn’t show (I know, so rude). What was interesting was the bombing around private parts of Cowdray estate that you wouldn’t otherwise get to see, and Barry was just the loveliest guy. Lovely little picnic dinner that he provided too.

Into the forest to see the badgers

OUT AND ABOUT

The sand dunes of West Wittering

If you want to step outside the Cowdray bubble, you’re in a lovely part of the country to do it. You’re 40 minutes from arguably Sussex’s loveliest beach of West Wittering, you’ll find Winchester and Brighton both an easy hour’s drive. Closer are Arundel with its medieval castle and Roman Catholic cathedral and the county city of Chichester (one of our Best Places to Live in 2022!) with its gothic cathedral and Roman villa- both around 20 minutes away. You’re also in Glorious Goodwood country – Cowdray’s border actually skirts Goodwood’s perimeter.

Winchester Cathedral

THE DAMAGE

Prices start from £359 for a three-night stay. Book here.

Cowdray Estate, Cowdray Park, Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 0AQ. Tel: 01730812423.

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