By Chris McBeath

On a whim, I had opened the private, oak door from our bedroom and crept up the dark, narrow stone spiral stairway; it was lit only by the moonlight piercing through the narrow shafts of the thick castle walls. As the sound of my feet echoed back trough the centuries, I wondered how many had gone before me.

Now, standing on the battlements while my husband slept below, I basked in the moonlight of a mid-summer’s night, and my imagination took on a dream-like quality. Except this was no dream. This was Amberley Castle, a luxurious, 900 year-old Camelot, once owned by Queen Elizabeth I, and now the only castle-hotel in southern England.

Capturing the spirit of dreams and legends, the reality of Amberley Castle must be seen, to be believed. It starts with a sweeping drive that winds between vast expanses of neatly trimmed lawn, curves between two lakes, and delivers you to an enormous gatehouse and magnificent 14th century walls. Cross the drawbridge, pass beneath a two-tonne oak portcullis (which is still lowered at night), and you’re suddenly in another time and place. Standing amidst gardens where white peacocks strut through the hedgerows, ruffling their feathers, and roses scramble across the castle’s beautifully restored manor house, framing the mullioned windows, you’re about as far removed from the 21st century as you can get.

For almost 900 years, Amberley Castle has always been private, concealing from the outside world its grace and charm. But when Joy and Martin Cummings bought the castle in 1988, it was the fulfillment of a dream to transform an historic castle into a fine country house hotel and restaurant. They have since made the castle their home, and with flair and imagination, have created an enchanting, historical treasure for all to enjoy.

The castle’s very antiquity brings alive its magical history as guests experience modern-day comforts within a centuries-old environment, complete with suits of armor, crossbows, and tapestries that adorn the hallways and stone-arched doorways. Lounges are filled with Persian rugs on baronial polished oak floors, deep-cushioned sofas and antiques, and the guest rooms, each named after a Sussex castle and bearing a medieval ambiance, are equally comfortable.

Amberley provides guests with a choice of 19 bedrooms and suites, many with four poster beds, and all with an ensuite Jacuzzi whirlpool tub. Against a backdrop of fabrics in lovely shades such as turquoise and terra-cotta, or lilac and pale green, look for welcoming touches like homemade cookies, and fresh fruit. The Hertmonceux or Pevensey rooms are the only two offering guests a secret doorway up to the battlements.

Five suites, all with private lounges, have been created from two 17th century stone buildings situated within the dry moat, outside of the portcullis. This section is known as The Bishopric, and the suites are named after the five Bishops of Chichester instituted after the year 1103, when Amberley Castle was first built. In fact, for most of its 900 years, bishops, Royalists, dukes and other nobles have occupied the castle, some of whom were tenants to Queen Elizabeth I who owned Amberley from 1588 to 1603.

There’s even a resident ghost, although not one you’re likely to meet. Believed to be a young servant girl, her main occupation is to play games with the housekeeping staff such as chucking all the cushions onto the floor after the room has been serviced.

For all its castleness, Amberley Castle is, in fact, not a castle at all, but a fortified manor house, originally built as a hunting lodge for the Bishops of Chichester. Back then, bishops lived quite a luxurious lifestyle, and their persons and possessions were coveted by peasants and pirates alike.

Hence, in 1377, Bishop William Reede was granted a ‘licenti crenellandi’ by King Richard II, which allowed the curtain walls and massive gatehouse to be built. Bishop Reede also added The Great Hall, and an “oubliette” – a deep and sinister pit, into which Amberley’s bishops could swiftly mete out justice to any local agitators. Miscreants would simply be cast into its dank depths and literally, forgotten. Only one other oubliette survives in England in such good condition.

Over the centuries that followed, Amberley Castle was let to a succession of tenants, including one Royalist during the English Civil War who refused to pay the taxes demanded by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. As a result, Cromwell’s troops laid waste to much of the 14th century building and today, the Great Hall still lies in ruins as testimony to the ravages of battle. In later years, Amberley welcomed King Charles II and his queen, Catherine of Braganza – visits that inspired a mural of the king and queen hunting in a pastoral setting. The mural is, appropriately, in the Queen’s Room, Amberley’s gourmet dining room that also features a magnificent arched barrel ceiling.

Nowadays, only peace and tranquility reign behind the great curtain wall. The grass-covered moat now serves as a croquet lawn, an 18-hole professional putting course crosses the sweeping lawns, one of only two such courses in the country; and a menagerie is yours to enjoy: more than 200 jackdaws and doves, black swans, white peacocks, goats, alpacas, koi, mirror and grey carp, Pyrenean mountain dogs, a Persian Chinchilla cat, an African grey parrot, and two miniature Shetlands, in addition to what the farm has to offer.

As if the castle weren’t enough to satiate even the most persnickety traveler, Amberley Village itself, which nestles up against the Castle walls, is arguably one of the prettiest in Sussex. Its picturesque thatched cottages epitomize the England of storybooks, surrounded by well-tended gardens, country pubs and a medieval church. Inside, you’ll see the great Norman chancel arch with its zigzag chevron moldings and faded 14th century wall paintings depicting The Passion. Beyond, lays a countryside where sheep crop the close downland grass of Amberley Mount, copses cluster in the folds of gently rolling hills, and The South Downs Way, an historic footpath, beckons walkers and horseback riders alike. Be sure to explore the hauntingly beautiful water meadows of the Amberley Wildbrooks, a nature reserve, for a stunning variety of flora and fauna including rare damselflies which dance on the summer air, and graceful Berwick swans which fly in from Siberia every year for the winter.

There are enticing explorations further afield. Visit the great houses at Petworth, Parham and Goodwood, or antique hunt in Arundel, Brighton, and Sotherby’s South, at Billinghurst. Chichester, with its elegant shops and theater of international repute, is close by, as in Jane Austen’s house at Chawton and the Roman Mosaics at Fishbourne.

Despite such wondrous reality, standing on the castle battlements beneath the sparkling constellation of Orion, still felt like a dream. A cool breeze swept up from the downs, and I hugged my robe closer to my nightgown. “This is my Camelot”, I whispered – my mind drifting towards knights on white stallions. Then, as if by magic, my husband appeared by my side. But rather than question my absence, he gently put his arms around my waist. “And you are my Lancelot”, I thought, letting the truth of the moment say the rest.

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Header image Antoine Lamielle, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons