Barometer: Travel

A Weekend Retreat: The Bell Inn

It’s a Thursday night and somewhere in East Sussex, a neatly dressed man with a beard is talking about beauty. “In art and design, beauty goes beyond looking good,” he says. “Mathematics to some people can be as beautiful as the greatest poetry.” There are murmurs of agreement from the audience.

Less than two hours ago we were on a commuter train speeding away from London, following the unspoken rule of avoiding eye contact with other passengers and burying ourselves in iPods and books. Now we’re jostling for elbow room at The Bell Inn’s debate night, listening as four speakers discuss the nature of beauty with a chatty audience that includes a table of women sharing a bottle of wine, a grey-haired man with his daughter, and clusters of young friends. It all feels pleasantly further from London, and work, than we actually are.

The warm, relaxed mood is exactly what the owner of The Bell Inn is aiming for. Richard Upton, chief executive of property development group Cathedral, used to occasionally stop at the pub on his way home from a round of golf, but arrived one evening to find it shuttered. Asking around he found out that the previous owner had died, so he decided to buy and renovate the former coaching inn as a personal project, creating a bustling pub with boutique bedrooms that would help bring new life to Ticehurst – a tiny village in hilly, hedgerowed countryside southeast of Tunbridge Wells.

The Bell’s licence dates from the 16th century, and thanks to Upton’s £2.8m refurb, completed in late 2011, the place feels both restored and revamped. Exposed beams, wooden floorboards and antique sideboards are offset by playful touches – a pillar made of vintage books; tenor horns transformed into urinals in the men’s toilets. In an ingenious flourish, the sunken floor of the old carriage room – where horse-drawn coaches used to be loaded – has been fitted with a single, long oak table, creating an event space with balustraded galleries on either side. This is where the monthly “Table Talks” debates take place, the brainchild of radio DJ Emma B, who also acts as chair. Their popularity testifies both to Emma’s charisma and the owner’s determination to build a “community hub” that people actually want to use.

The Bell Inn’s debate night

The inn’s seven bedrooms are each named as whimsically as they are decorated, their only common feature a silver birch branch that appears to erupt out of the floorboards and twist into the ceiling. Our room, The Moon Wild, is directly above the pub. For noise reasons it’s best avoided if you’re looking for an early night, but a deep copper bath, an Apple TV in a picture frame, and freshly picked bluebells nodding in a glass bottle all pleased in their different ways.

Food is from Richard Kirkwood, head chef at J Sheekey before joining Upton’s team. My husband thought his fish and chips the best he’d tasted. It’s this level of sourcing – of staff, events, furnishings and food – that makes The Bell stand out. That, and a welcome warm enough to make this not just a rural retreat for city escapees but also a focal point of village life.

The Bell Inn

High Street, Ticehurst, East Sussex, TN5 7AS

01580 200 234;; Doubles from £90

Getting there

The nearest station is Stonegate. Direct trains from London take just over an hour

Hot holidays: Luxury Lake District


Staying in the Lake District used to mean choosing between a damp cottage or a fusty country house hotel but a string of stylish new properties is raising the bar. Opening at the end of this month, the Brimstone hotel, on the Langdale estate near Ambleside, offers 16 suites with glass walls, wood-burning stoves, balconies and in-room spa treatments. Doubles from £225;

Coachmans Cottage

A few minutes’ walk from Coniston, this hideaway for two is a chic reimagining of the traditional holiday cottage. Furnished with pieces by Conran, Liberty and Roger Oates, there’s a Bose music system, Smeg appliances and a mountain view from the bath. There’s also a concierge service, offering spa treatments and yacht charter. From £450 for three nights;

Askham Hall

Grade I-listed Askham Hall, which overlooks the River Lowther near Penrith, is currently being converted into a luxury hotel with 26 bedrooms, the first 13 of which open in August. The building dates back to the 13th century but the owners promise a relaxed rather than formal atmosphere. With chefs from Le Gavroche and Noma, food will be a highlight. Doubles from £150;

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