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Muddy review: The Dorset Arms, Withyham

This lovely gastropub with rooms, private dining space, and revamped garden (hello woodfired pizza oven!) is a dead cert for a family get together or weekend away. Read the new Muddy review.

THE LOWDOWN

Owned by the De La Warr family and part of the Buckhurst Estate, The Dorset Arms is fairytale-meets-Downton Abbey (read on to hear about his Lordship…). It’s perched on the edge of Ashdown Forest (the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh’s ‘Hundred Acre Wood’). Those who want to complete the AA Milne experience you can even pop down to Hartfield, minutes away, and throw sticks under Poohsticks Bridge.

There’s dining inside and out and at the end of the garden, wafty pink and white flowers surround a pretty red brick cottage that houses six bedrooms… it’s all just begging you to turn a long lunch into a weekend away.

Over the last 18 months, the outdoor space has had a complete makeover and now boasts the essential gastropub accessory – an outdoor woodfired pizza oven (used at weekends only), plus outdoor dining marquee, should the weather not play ball if you’re dining alfresco. A keen foodie, Lord de la Warr oversees the restaurant menu, which features organically-reared meat and game from the estate, as well as plenty of Sussex produce.

THE VIBE

A gentle bustle, even on the Monday lunchtime when we visited (normally a bit of a dead zone for rural pubs). There were lots of young families and over 60s clearly making the most of everyone else being busy. The place has lots of character with nooks and crannies, an inviting fireplace, aching bookshelves and comfy chairs. Although the clapperboard exterior is a little imposing, the interior feels loved and welcoming.

There’s plenty of choice of ambience for groups, including the impressive Gun Room for private dining (above) and The Garden Room with its Wimbledon-style retractable ceiling (perfect for families and kids with its direct access to garden at the back). Lord De La Warr’s enthusiasm for his prize-winning cattle is on full display, with rosettes adorning the fittings… Basically, there’s no shortage of pub curiosities if you’re after a talking point over a long lunch.

QUAFF & SCOFF

Since lockdown, the new head chef Nick Bailey has given the menu a refresh. New dishes like whole roasted Grouse with bacon, game chips, bread sauce and green beans (above), showcase the pub’s wholesome rural location. But regulars fear not – the favourites remain, such as chargrilled flat iron chicken, Sussex Buckhurst bar steak and the enduringly popular Sunday roasts (must book ahead!). They’re all served on De La Warr-crested plates – this is as close as it gets to dining like the landed gentry, with its estate sourced game and family crockery.

We started our lunch with a selection of well presented starters –bavette steak tartar (served with the golden yoked egg sitting on top in its shell, ready to pour), a fresh and enticing courgette and mozzarella salad, and a good old fave, prawn cocktail, generously furnished with plump prawns.

Mains were butternut squash and pea risotto (a personal summer favourite), magret de canard with charred Pineapple and parmentière potatoes and the formidable Buckhurst beef burger stacked with Brighton blue cheese and fries.

Looking at the photos of the burger from our previous review, you can see these have been upped a notch with a softer seeded bun and more variety of fillings. The Irish côte de boeuf for two looked enticing when we craned our heads to the next door table, but we decided it was a little heavy for us for lunch. 

Dessert? Of course. A sharp gooseberry fool, ever popular chocolate and hazelnut brownie with hot fudge sauce, and a roasted apricot on brioche with vanilla and honey yoghurt entered my record books of best desserts ever.

SLEEP OVER

The Dorest Arms has nine bedrooms – three over the pub and six in the Old School House Cottage behind. A chocolate box setting with the quintessential flower garden, the house can be booked as a whole (if you bag it early), or as separate rooms. 

The décor is light and airy with deep featherdown duvets, gorgeous curtains and soft lighting. The bathrooms are spacious and there are Nespresso coffee machines in each room. Given the choice, ask for one of the bedrooms at the front to enjoy the tranquil views of the green ahead where you might glimpse the village cricket team in action on a Sunday (it’s worth checking the website as there are often special offers to dine and stay on a Sunday night).

OUT & ABOUT

There is lots to explore in the local area including the local market towns of  Hartfield (5 mins), Crowborough  (10mins) plus excellent shopping in Royal Tunbridge Wells (15 mins). Things for kids include the afore-mentioned Pooh Corner (5 mins), plus Spa Valley Railway (15 mins), Penhurst Place and Gardens (15mins), Drusillas Park (45 mins),  Hever Castle (15 mins drive) and  Battle Abbey and Battlefield ( 45 mins).

If you really want to throw yourself into the Downton Abbey life, country pursuits can also be arranged in advance including clay pigeon shooting, pheasant shooting and quad biking, or the pub reception can help with walking routes if you feel you need to earn your supper.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

We loved this country pub. Its imposing exterior belies the warmth of the welcome, the charming décor and quality of the kitchen.

Good for: Treating yourself to a top notch lunch or dinner with your partner, family and kids – it has a variety of spaces so be specific when you book. If you have an occasion to warrant staying for the weekend, I would recommend staying in the Old School House Cottage. I could just imagine a fabulously indulgent New Year there or a boys’ weekend complete with country pursuits.

Not for: Those looking for urban glitterati and a lively girls night out.  This is a genuine country pub, which plays on tradition and provenance.

The damage: Typical gastro pub pricing for pubs outside of London, and worth it for the quality. Starters £6-£9, mains £14-£18.50 and desserts £7-£8.50

The wine list was extensive including reds and white from France, Italy, Chile, New Zealand and it was good to see some local Sussex sparkling wines too. The prices varied from a bottle of Pinot Grigio (2019) costing  £25, right up to £149 for bottle of Chateau Batailley Paulliac (2006).

Room rates: Standard Rooms – £105-£115; Deluxe Rooms £115-150; Twin Rooms £90-£100; Family Room £140-£200 depending on numbers. They get booked out early so plan ahead.

The Dorset Arms, Buckhurst Park, Withyham, Hartfield, TN7 4BD, 01892 770278, dorset-arms.co.uk; Enquiries@dorset-arms.co.uk

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