Spread Eagle

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 29th December 2009.

You sort of want to shake it. Give it a bit of oomph. Or alternatively, to go back in time to when it was one of the most notable coaching inns in the country, patronised by the rich and famous (both Elizabeth I and Nelson are said to have stayed here).

It's still a very fine building, redolent of the past. In my imagination I can see a coach and four in the lovely courtyard (perhaps the town's principal stagecoach, the Earl of March, that left the inn for London every morning at 10am). I have visions of a pot-bellied innkeeper and his aproned, rosy-cheeked wife proffering tankards of ale to weary travellers, of great steak-and-ale pies and sides of ham, roaring fires, pretty serving girls and a constant hum of animated conversation.

Oh stop. This is 2009. It's lucky the Spread Eagle even continues to operate as a hotel, let alone expecting it to be "that most revered of all prime inns of this world" as Hilaire Belloc described it. And it's not that it's bad, not at all; it's just that it somehow feels a shadow of its former self.

The strange ornaments hanging from the beamed ceiling in the old-fashioned dining room speak volumes: dozens of earthenware pudding basins, complete with linen covers, some with names and dates etched on them. What are they? Every year, guests were given two Christmas puddings: one to eat, the other to mature for their annual return visit. The tradition was kept alive until only recently, but now the bowls merely dangle from the ceiling.

Today I find a moribund mid-week evening scene. A few quiet couples plod through indifferent food in the dining room, but I prefer to sit in the really lovely slope-roofed conservatory that runs the length of the building. As I pick at my Waldorf salad, a loved-up couple, quite different from the rest, wander in for coffee. She's slightly tipsy, dressed for a nightclub and tottering on six-inch heels. I can see why they chose this romantic spot, just off the beautiful Market Square in Midhurst, for a tryst, but they can't have reckoned with the sotto, elderly atmosphere.

From then on, however, things greatly improve. I'm perfectly happy in my "traditional" room, offered for £100, quite a drop from the advertised rate of £150, single occupancy (£200 double). I have pretty passion flower wallpaper, an antique chest of drawers, flat-screen TV, comfortable bed and serviceable bathroom.

Descending from the warren of creaky corridors, I find the ground floor filled with light, and friendly locals serving breakfast. An elderly widow is engaged in conversation by the kindly waitress; the conservatory and courtyard sparkle in the sun (there's a spa and swimming pool beyond). Upstairs I'm shown the best rooms: one with a secret passage, the other, beautifully panelled and painted in white, with an original wig closet. Plenty of good things to shake after all.

South Street, Midhurst (01730 816911; www.hshotels.co.uk) Double b & b from £180 . Access difficult for guests with disabilities. More reviews by Fiona Duncan at www.thehotelguru.com

The Hotel Guru verdict

Rooms
4 out of 5

Many are small, but prettily decorated, with antiques

Service
3 out of 5

Mixed: distant in the evening, engaged at breakfast

Character
4 out of 5

A historic inn in a lovely setting but lacking the importance of the past

Food and drink
2 out of 5

Indifferent

Value for money
3 out of 5

Good value if you get an offer, otherwise not

Your shortlist (0)