The Cat Inn, West Hoathly
A genuine destination pub with spacious and quirky rooms, that oozes charm and quality and showcases the best of Sussex produce and hospitality.
For obvious reasons it’s been *a while* since Muddy got out so excitement levels were high when we descended upon The Cat Inn in the delightful village of West Hoathly, well located for the Ashdown Forest.
Owned by the lovely Andrew, under the watchful stewardship of official pub dog Harvey, Muddy award-winner The Cat has been a watering hole of some form or other since its inception in the 16th century. The building itself sits opposite a picturesque 900-year-old church and the drive over was full of rural charm, through lanes really more suited to cycling (Muddy’s boyfriend, who we’ll dub ‘Dave’ because everybody knows a Dave, is a fan of the steep Cob Lane which leads from Ardingly to West Hoathly itself) and several stops for herds of passing deer.
Enough patter, what about the sanitation methods? Andrew’s spotless Covid procedures include a one-way system, sanitisers strategically positioned including upon entry, and screens for diners. These are no identikit clear-plastic numbers though, instead the team have created gorgeous upholstered screens in the most divine nature-inspired fabrics and patterns, from autumn fruits to nesting birds. Andrew says that far from killing the vibe, the screens give diners the feeling of comfort and privacy required to forget to lower their voices, meaning the place is still buzzing with atmosphere and chatter which is, let’s face it, one of the reasons we choose to go out in the first place.
The gaff itself is sumptuously cosy, all timber beams and inglenook fireplaces, and there’s not much Andrew, a former general manager at Gravetye Manor, doesn’t know about hospitality and creating an atmosphere. ‘Dave’ and I were ushered to a roomy table next to a window and plied with the kind of unpretentious menus that let you know everything is going to be seriously good.
SCOFF AND QUAFF
Muddy’s teetotal, making me a nightmare at the parties I don’t attend, but ‘Dave’ manfully tried the local IPA while I nursed a frothtastic latte. The wine list is accessed via a QR code, which is quite exciting when you don’t get out much, and features Sussex still and sparkling action from local vineyards Kingscourt, Albourne and Bolney. There’s also plenty of French, Italian and New World options should you wish to venture further afield with your tipple.
We both wanted pretty much everything on the menu, but I was seduced by the promise of buffalo mozzarella with aubergine, basil, pine nuts, pomegranete and Lavosh cracker, while ‘Dave’ went for a chicken and chorizo Scotch egg with chilli jam, bitter leaf and apple. I always find it quite intriguing when ingredients are listed with little to no idea of cooking method or presentation, it smacks of confidence in the end product. In The Cat’s case, the confidence is justified. My Mediterranean jumble was the perfect combination of flavour and texture, and the chicken and chorizo Scotch egg was enough to persuade me there’s more to this ‘delicacy’ than the ghastly dishrags you buy in garages halfway through long bike rides.
I had a burger for a main course. I think you can tell a lot about a place by the way it serves up a burger. This one – made with Sussex Angus beef and served in a brioche bun with Monterey Jack cheese and sriracha mayonnaise along with the lightest, crispiest fries – was pure luxe. Joy in a bun. ‘Dave’ went for the steak and ale pie, with a proper pie crust top and bottom served with somehow equally light and crispy chunky chips and veg. He also seized the chance to sample some Sussex red – we know the county does sparkling wine that beats Champagne in taste tests but it’s also turning out some seriously good Pinot Noir.
You’ll have to prise my cold dead corpse out of a pub before I pass on the dessert menu but the caramelised bread & butter pudding with white chocolate, salted caramel and clotted cream ice cream I went for was so satisfying and rich, with a crunchy texture that put me in mind of good old-fashioned fried bread, that I couldn’t finish it. ‘Dave’, having piled down a trifle boozier than my mother’s traditional Sherry number that has been known to create hangovers in six-year-olds, to the rescue.
TIME FOR BED
Food coma incoming, we stumbled upstairs to our room. There’s only four at The Cat, in a Victorian extension above the pub, but they’re all hotel-class with crisp linen, Nespresso machines, waffle robes, delightful toiletries and a selection of high-end mags and books to choose from.
Covid measures include hand sanitiser and wipes for the communal milk fridge and Andrew has invested in one of those awfully futuristic-sounding foggers that instantly disinfects – as The Cat is currently open Weds – Sun there’s a natural pause early in the week for any nasties to dissipate.
But it’s fair to say no amount of sanitisation measures can dim the charm of the Cat’s timbered, quirky but spacious rooms complete with outrageously comfy beds and, in our case, a view of that sensational church. Elsewhere there’s an actual suite, with a lounge area and sofa bed.
The next morning Andrew was ready to greet us bright and early (ish) with a selection of fruit, yoghurt and cereal on a beautifully-laid table followed by a full English. It was all delicious and so high quality – the yoghurt was thick and creamy, the fruit perfectly ripe, even the dried apricots were a revelation. There was also a big bottle of water, a carafe of orange juice and decent-sized glasses. The availability of basics like adequate hydration is often overlooked by chain hospitality. Not so at the Cat.
Good hospitality isn’t just about what you eat and drink, it’s all about how you feel, and Andrew has absolutely mastered the art of making guests feel unobtrusively pampered at every single turn. We left happy, admiring the apple tree and sage growing in the small patio courtyard. Small things, but happiness is often made up of small things, done well, and enough water to wash it all down.
AROUND AND ABOUT
West Hoathly is well positioned on the edge of Ashdown Forest and close to the Bluebell Railway and Kew Gardens’ sister site Wakehurst, and also not far from Borde Hill and Sheffield Park. The 15th century Priest House, which once belonged to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, is in the same village and Kent’s Hever and Leeds castles are an easy day trip.
You could also consider The Cat Inn as a dinner spot or an overnighter if you’re catching a show at The Hawth in Crawley or a flight from Gatwick (less than 10 miles away). Ardingly’s South of England Showground is a stone’s throw away. But the area is so lovely, and the Cat so welcoming, it’s a genuine destination in and of itself.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Date night. It’s grown-up good, but not intimidating and the vibe is cosy, relaxed quality. Some places reflect their people and The Cat is all Andrew (and Harvey) – friendly, a bit gossipy, but high-end and charming to a T. It’s also one for family celebrations with grown-ups or over 7’s. Fido’s welcome in the bar area.
Not for: Children have to be 7+ to stay over and there’s a patio but no garden or play area, so it’s one for a break from, rather than with, the littles.
The Cat Inn, North Lane, West Hoathly, West Sussex, RH19 4PP, 01342 810369, catinn.co.uk