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Review: Garden House Sussex, Fittleworth

Muddy spends an unforgettable night wild camping at this magical country escape which boasts a range of luxe glamping and self-catered accommodation in the South Downs National Park.

WHAT? WHERE?

I’ve rolled up at a fair few places in my time, but rarely do I arrive and instantly feel not just welcome, but like I belong. Nonetheless, that’s the exact greeting that awaits at Garden House Sussex, tucked away down winding country lanes in the hamlet of Coates, near Fittleworth.

The Garden House itself was once occupied by staff at nearby Coates Castle, and now it’s been turned into an uber-luxe getaway and vintage car hire by owner Lindsay. Accommodation includes the divine Bothy, a luxury cottage next to a Grade II listed walled garden, the authentic and sumptuous Mongolian Yurt, a romantic shepherd’s hut hidden in a glade at the end of a meadow, and Ruby, a head-turner of a VW camper. But the Mudlets and I are here for something a bit wilder. We’re trying out Bluebell, a bell tent in the historic private woodland complete with forest school setup and outdoor kitchen. It’s not quite wild camping in the dig-a-hole-in-the-woods-for-a-toilet, sleep-in-a-bivvy-bag sense, but it’s definitely a hands-on, no-mod-cons experience.

THE VIBE

It helps that we arrive on one of those balmy, enchanted late summer afternoons where the air is heavy with promise and the sun is breaking through the canopy of larch and sweet chestnut, illuminating the woodland floor and sending spiders’ webs spinning like strands of silver. But I think the Garden House must hum with magic whatever the weather and season. Lindsay, who was surely born to work in hospitality, is a likeable, warm and fun presence who manages to make us all feel both instantly at home, but also like our space is fully respected. After a quick poke around in the gardens and grounds, including retrieving eggs for breakfast from the huge chicken coop and sneaking a peek at the Yurt, which is currently occupied by guests, we retire to the woods to set up home for the night. Although we’re just round the corner from the main house, it feels much like we’ve entered another world.

Bluebell is so named because the woods are carpeted with the familiar nodding blue-purple flowers in the spring. The 4-metre bell tent is beautifully decorated with bunting, and has a double futon and two floor mats, with plenty of bedding for all of us. We also have a lovely welcome pack with all the information we need, plus a packet of marshmallows for toasting and biscuits and chocolate to make s’mores. The Mudlets are instantly enraptured by the two swinging hammocks, zip-line and den, and a four-poster outdoor bed stands on the edge of the woods overlooking the meadow below. A composting toilet, ‘shower’ comprising of a shower curtain and supply of water, and cooking equipment are all in situ, along with a huge firepit, plenty of chairs and benches, and artfully hung solar-powered fairy lights.

SCOFF & QUAFF

With no electricity or running water (although there’s a coolbox and plenty of drinking water supplied), it’s all very back to basics. Cooking equipment along with plates, cutlery etc is all supplied but other than that it’s down to us. Which is exactly what you want when spending a night in the woods. I put my fire-making skills to the test in the huge firepit and soon have a merry blaze roaring, perfect for cooking a campfire feast of bacon, sausages, beans and bread. It’s BYO everything and nearby Fittleworth Stores is ideal for a pre-stay raid, but definitely think BBQ or one-pot meals. This isn’t the place to knock up a cordon bleu feast, and nor do you need to because it’s a known fact that everything tastes better cooked over a fire.

STAY

After dark, the children run wild in the woods, giggling on the zip wire and swinging in the hammocks telling ghost stories, sticky with marshmallows and chocolate, just as children should be. The whole site was created by Lindsay and her family as a lockdown project, initially as a forest school area for outdoor learning, and the atmosphere she’s created just encourages exploration and fun.

The woods are so private and welcoming I’d be genuinely happy just sleeping on the floor in front of the fire. The bell tent is minimal but still cosy and sumptuous and thoughtfully decorated with indoor candles, and the odd treasure sourced by Lindsay that add to the magical feel. It’s dark and quiet, the only real noise is the hooting of tawny owls and the occasional squawking of a pheasant. I go to bed deeply calmed from hours of fire-gazing whilst the kids run off all their energy, and all three of us sleep soundly in the darkness. The following morning, I open the front zip to see sun pouring in across the meadow, creeping into the gaps between the trees and illuminating the woodland. It’s so beautiful it’s almost spiritual.

OUT AND ABOUT

Coates is handily located right in the South Downs National Park, next to a number of nature reserves and with a great network of footpaths and bridleways. There’s not a great deal in nearby Fittleworth and the local pub The Swan is currently closed, but a short distance away sits The White Hart, a Muddy Award finalist gastropub right on the River Arun. Fancy a paddle? Hire a kayak or canoe from Fluid Adventures in Pulborough.

Further afield, Petworth is worth a visit for its huge range of antiques shops and indie boutiques, including the Petworth Bookshop, just opposite the divine Cherry’s Deli. Petworth House and Park is a reliable National Trust visit, complete with herds of free-roaming deer. For the coast, head to West Wittering and enjoy sandy beaches and gorgeous views.

John Miller

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: The range of accommodation available means there’s something for everybody at this idyllic getaway. Families with very young children, or who don’t fancy roughing it, will appreciate the mod cons and luxe vibe of the Bothy. Couples or those wanting a creative solo retreat won’t go past the shepherd’s hut, and the Yurt is ideal for families, couples and friends. Bluebell is made for family fun, even one night is an adventure and a weekend would be pure magic. There’s also a range of vintage cars for hire, for special occasions.

Not for: I wouldn’t come here for a silly, rowdy time with girlfriends – the Garden House has a spiritual and intimate feel, for fun and deep bonding. Risk-averse parents of clumsy toddlers might be nervous about the uneven woodland floor and rough and ready feel of the wild camping experience, but they’ll be happy in the Bothy.

The Garden House, Coates, Fittleworth, RH20 1ES, 07908 711092, gardenhousesussex.com

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