Resting in the historic village of Ditchling, surrounded by the beauty of the South Downs National Park, The Bull is a wonderful example of good old-fashioned British comfort at its best. The stylishly converted pub is one of the oldest buildings in the village, dating back to the early 16th Century; still providing that hit of rustic atmosphere as soon as you walk in.
My guest and I were warmly welcomed upon arrival, after having parked in the spacious and free guest car park, with a pot of tea and were informed of some exciting news. Having fought off strong competition from over 1,000 pubs in the UK, The Bull had claimed the title of Great British Pub at the Great British Pub Awards 2016 just the night before; so I was officially staying in the best pub in Britain! Suffice to say the staff were thrilled with this accolade, and it certainly heightened my expectations for the evening.
After our tea, we were shown to our room – one of four individually designed guest rooms residing behind a fairly magical hidden door. Alongside the low timber beams, open fire, rustic wooden floorboards, dim lighting and slightly less than symmetrical-looking walls, the addition of a secret doorway was almost reminiscent of a Harry Potter drinking establishment rather than just your standard local. I was very pleasantly surprised by the room (room four), which immediately evoked a sense of luxurious comfort as we entered. The double bed was furnished with a fur throw and all the cushions you could ever ask for, preceded by a sofa and large, vintage suitcase-come-coffee-table, before a flat screen television with a DVD player and a shuttered window looking onto the small streets of Ditchling. The bathroom was contemporary and clean, if a little small – but that comes with the territory here – with a very large shower. A warning though, if you’re tall, you may struggle to fit comfortably under the shower head (fortunately, not a problem for me). The aim of the owners, Dominic Worrall and his wife, Vanessa, is to offer a ‘warm and welcoming pub with an understated, contemporary edge’, and this it certainly does; both in the rooms and the dining area, where my guest and I headed for our evening meal.
We sat in what had quickly become our ‘usual’ spot, on a slightly rickety wooden bench and a more solid chair by the fireplace. Although quite chilly, the fire wasn’t lit, which was a bit of a shame. Nonetheless, I felt warmed merely by the atmosphere, with candles lit around us creating a particularly romantic mood (this is perhaps not somewhere to go in an evening should you need to read anything in detail). We went for a glass each of Ridgeview sparkling wine, as it only seemed appropriate to sample the local vineyard’s produce. This went beautifully with both of our starters: a rabbit terrine for my guest, and whipped goats cheese with beetroot and walnut for me. Both were presented very well. For main course, I decided to try the fish dish, which was skate – something I’d never tried before – with samphire, crushed new potatoes and roasted cherry tomatoes. My guest had a classic Bedlam ale battered cod fillet and hand cut chips with peas and tartare. Both pieces of fish were extremely fresh and full of flavour, with my potatoes accompanying the skate perfectly, and the cod batter apparently nicely crispy, alongside equally delicious accompaniments.
Although very full, we both went for a dessert; I had a vanilla pannacotta and my guest had a berry cheesecake. I must admit, I was quite jealous of the cheesecake, which was indulgently rich and creamy but perfectly offset by the berries on top. I was a little disappointed with my pannacotta, which lacked flavour slightly, but couldn’t honestly say I needed a pudding at all!
The restaurant had in fact been quite hyped up before my arrival, and indeed with the news of it being the best pub in the UK, my expectations were quite high. I would describe it as a pub meal with a difference, so if you’re looking for somewhere to keep that laid-back atmosphere but with an element fine dining, this is the place to go. Equally, if you’re looking for a home-from-home overnight stay, The Bull is ideal. The rooms feel very private, with only four of them, so it suits a businessman or woman who desires a more quiet, undisturbed overnight stay. However, saying that, there was an element of noise come the morning with traffic building just outside and floorboards creaking as other guests walked by. Again, this is to be expected in an old building like this, and can be viewed as simply adding to the character.
Breakfast was served from around 7 till 9.30 AM, and it was welcomingly quiet in the dining area. We were offered our choice of morning paper alongside the usual breakfast choices – of course, both my guest and I opted for the full English, which was well-sized and tasty. You can’t go far wrong with a fry up!
The staff throughout our stay were extremely friendly, accommodating and professional, making us feel like we were guests in their home rather than paying customers. The pub as a whole struck a perfect balance between looking after guests and not encroaching on personal space – a balance that’s fairly hard to strike in some more corporate focused hotels. I will reserve judgement on whether The Bull is indeed the best pub in the UK, in my eyes at least, as I can’t say that I’ve experienced that many, but I would certainly recommend it as an overall dine and stay experience, particularly if you want the comfort of home with the extra luxuries of a guest-house or hotel.