I grew up near Amberley Castle and my parents still live closeby. Imposing medieval ramparts surround the grand hotel and restaurant, about which I had heard enticing snippets - fairytale wedding receptions (we see the newly-weds' helicopters taking off and landing there), sumptuous rooms, absolutely top-notch meals in the plush dining room and whopping prices.
To justify the prices, I saw staying there as a life experience, and took advantage of their autumn deal - £350 for dinner, bed and breakfast for one night. Ouch. Ignoring that, my companion and I were absolutely going to make the most of this and were really excited to drive up towards the huge floodlit stone walls and wide towers, and through the portcullis.
The welcome was warm and down-to-earth - really helpful and pleasant staff. We were taken up grand and then narrow stairs to our large, beamed room in the roof, with lovely gas fire that had actual fire-like flames. Nice bathroom. Huge bed. Fabulous original features and great interior decor. We had to get the sheets changed, as they seemed to have sand in them, but that sort of problem can happen anywhere. I lifted the table cloth on the curved dressing table to find that it was constructed out of MDF. Come to think of it - I thought - the carpet on the stairs was quite scruffy.
I tried not to feel disappointed. But couldn't help wondering how people could make such a very real castle feel like a fake one...
Anyway, I ignored all that and got dressed up for supper, my companion looking dapper, and we made our way to the dining room.
The dining room was hushed. I loved the gas fire in the bedroom - like having a real fire but without the responsibility - but I was let down by having a larger version in the dining room, because I had expected a real log fire, complete with crackles and woodsmoke smell. Even a little one would have been nice. Apart from that, the suit of armour and old portraits on the stone walls made for a suitably castley room.
The hushedness was almost deafening and made me want to be rowdy. Everyone was whispering. Even in the poshest restaurants people should surely be enjoying their meal and each other's company, rather than acting like they're at a funeral wake? How did Amberley Castle manage to create this sombre atmosphere that obliged whispering?
I am not going to go into massive detail about the meal, but give an overview: Imaginative and enticing menu, pretty food, lovely flavours, several basic mistakes (e.g. over-cooked sweetbreads). The dishes didn't match up to the descriptions on the menu. The sommelier's advice was difficult to extract and was off the mark. The waiter didn't listen to my questions properly - he was distracted.
All-in-all, it was a special meal, but not in any way deserved of all the hushed pomp it was served in. I enjoyed the food but the price made it hard to swallow, especially as the deal did not include any wine! Another £40...
Medieval dining room
If I had eaten the meal in more normal circumstances it would have been great, but high prices make you notice every negative detail and each slip feels like you're being sold faulty goods. Ditto the rooms.
After supper, we found that our champagne glasses had been taken out of our bedroom. We immediately rang reception but there was no answer. We left the room to go to reception, but suddenly the castle was dark and silent. We had only left dinner a few minutes earlier, but now everyone had gone home or gone to bed! We called out, went to the kitchen, but couldn't find another soul. In the end, we just took some glasses off the tables that were laid for breakfast and tip-toed back to our room.
Breakfast was excellent. Tasty local sausages, plenty of choice, all really good. The dining room seemed friendlier in the morning, and the fire was less conspicuous and more cosy on that blustery wet day. Very enjoyable indeed.
Hugely overpriced. For what they are charging, everything should be perfect and proper - far less pomp and way more attention to detail. I had been so excited about my stay but by the time I left I could no longer ignore all the things I had been ignoring, and overall felt an underwhelming disappointment. And a bit ripped off. And slightly indignant. Nice castle, though.