Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Sussex Charmers

After the veritable bun feast that was Louis' christening, Stealth, the Ewing and I carried on the adventures with our own version of Three Have Fun in a Caravan, by spending a few days in the lovely surrounds of Rye Harbour (minus Dick and the dog. Not a euphemism).

Trying to prove that we could accomplish more than the self perpetuating drink, sleep, suffer repeat spiral (that wasn't helped with a spot of Bank Holiday wine tasting at Chapel Down on the way to Rye), I decreed we should get a dose of sea air and a measure of culture with a visit to Bexhill to see the Ladybird by Design exhibition, celebrating 100 years of Ladybird books, at the De La Warr Pavilion.

The exhibition was a fascinating, and rather dangerous, slice of nostalgia (I'm ancient enough to say that now). Taking us back to the innocent times when blonde-haired blue-eyed children went shopping with mother, learnt about public services such as gas and electricity and got to play with knives, batteries, matches and boiling water. 

For me the best bit was seeing the classic fairy stories such as the Elves and the Shoemaker, Rumplestiltskin and the Runaway Pancake; perennial favourites that my Dad used to read to me each night as a young child. And whilst the run is finished in Bexhill, you can catch it in London  from 10 July – 27 September 2015. 

Even without the healthy dose of reminiscence, the building itself is well worth a visit being a Modernist gem, especially of a blued-skied spring day such as that of our trip. On hearing of it's opening George Bernard Shaw exclaimed; 'Delighted to hear that Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last, but I shall not give it a clean bill of civilisation until all my plays are performed there once a year at least.'

Another sign of the town's continued emergence from its faded dog days (it's an ongoing process) was our lunch at Bistro45, an unassuming little Belgian spot set just back from the sea front. While incongruous from the outside, it turned out to be one of those gems that even prompted Stealth to chide me for not taking pictures of her lunch so I could write about it later. 

From a strong beer selection (both in scope and ABV), we sampled the Affligem - served in it's own special rack, complete with a separate glass for the sediment, to add or drink separately as you wish - as well as pints of Vedett and, one of my favourites, the classic Trappist ale, Orval. 

Mains were moules, obviously. Most of us have some sort of mollusc horror story, but the allure of a well cooked bowl of mussels keeps us coming back for more. My perfect Pastis version, with Pernod, fennel, dill and cream, was a case in point. Rustling bowls of skinny fries and crisp baguette with butter were provided for mopping the creamy, aniseed infused juices at the bottom of the pot.

Stealth went all fancy dan with a mixed seafood pot with extra squid, cockles and prawns. She also, obviously, veered off piste and requested it extra spicy - or in her words 'with loads of Tabasco' - without even a raised eyebrow from the kitchen (I still didn't get any pictures, though).

Whilst it may seem incongruous to have a slice of Flanders on the South Coast - we found out that the dad of the lovely chap that served us was Belgian, and his son had now taken over the running of the place - everything was perfect. They even, on hearing it was her birthday, put a candle in the Ewing's creme brulee and served up Black Jacks and Fruit Salads with the bill.

The nearest pub to our caravan in Rye Harbour was the Inkerman Arms, a resolutely old fashioned  -in a fascinating 70/80s style, rather than olde worlde - sort of place. There was also the bonus of meeting a wonderfully eccentric and friendly bunch of locals, who even tried to persuade us to join them in an evening of drinking discounted Southern Comfort and lemonade at the Social Club followed by a night of karaoke classics.  

As tempting as it sounded, we stuck with the far more staid option of sitting in front of the fire supping pints of Old Dairy bitter, brewed up the road in Tenterden. The best place to be as the springtime showers battered at the windows.

They also serve a menu of home cooked pub staples, with the locals recommending the fresh fish straight off the boats in Hastings. As it was Friday, we chose to have ours beer battered. A tranche of huss for me (not one of my favourites, but a southern classic that remind me of the fish suppers of my youth) and the legendary Rye Bay scallops for the Ewing. All served with the obligatory chips, peas (mushy for me) and homemade tartare sauce. 

Mere words, and not even when accompanied by this strangely day-glo photo, cannot express quite how good these sweet bivalves actually were; so I shan't bother other than to say they blew the deep fried Tasmanian scallops we ate in the harbour in Hobart out the water, and were even better than the Mancunian battered potato slices that also bear the same name. 

A highlight in an remarkably sugar free week was a Saturday morning trip to Knopps, famed hot chocolate purveyors run by the eponymous Dutchman whose name, rather aptly, translates as 'buttons'. Here you can match your poison - from a creamy 34% white chocolate right through to a bitter 100% cocoa with no added sugar, -with all manner of herbs, spices and fruits. Think orange zest, fresh ginger, pink peppercorns or dried lavender, amongst others.

I'm not normally a big hot chocolate fan, but my 64% single origin dark chocolate complete with homemade vanilla marshmallows had me, not very, surreptitiously licking the bowl. The coffee and homemade salted caramel shortbread looked pretty ace, too.

A day spent in Rye itself meant a visit to the Ypres Castle monument, with the Ewing supporting the old adage 'sun's out gun's out', in between the showers. Tucked away next door we found the Ypres Castle Inn, a little gem known locally as the 'Wiper's', with its stunning beer garden looking out across the salt flats to the sea, live music, comfy armchairs (where we resided most of Saturday afternoon, reading our books) and a great selection of local ales. 

The Harveys Sussex best bitter, brewed in Lewes, was one of the best kept pints I have had for a long time. While I do have a fondness for palette wrecking hop forward beers, with all their skunky tropical fruit and stickiness, this is the perfect example of a deliciously well balanced session beer, hopped with British stalwarts, Fuggles, Goldings, Progress and Bramling Cross.

After liking things here so much, we booked ourselves in for the Sunday lunch the following day. And, after waking to blue skies the following morning, decided a walk along the beach and back through the nature reserve would sharpen our perfectly appetites beforehand. 

Three and a half  hot and sweaty hours later - a large part of it lost in a field full of sheep somewhere between Winchelsea and Rye Harbour, although we did get to walk past the magnificent Camber Castle, built by Henry VIII - we finally arrived. Any crossness was quickly dissipated by another pint of Harveys and a huge basket of warm baguette served with a delicious and ridiculously garlicky (although not quite so good when you're staying in a confined space) houmous.

A crispy rolled shoulder of roast lamb was equally fine, as were the accompanying al dente veg, raisin flecked red cabbage and generous amounts of crunchy spuds. The gravy drenched and rather soggy yorkie may have seemed somewhat superfluous, but, after so much unwarranted exercise, I ate it anyway.

Pudding provided yet more delicious carbohydrates with my absolute favourite of all favourite things, spotted dick. While slightly incongruous in the unseasonably warm weather, it was still absolutely, impossibly wondrous, with that lovely springy texture you only get from a proper steamed suet pudding and served with lashings of hot yellow custard.

What better parting shot than a visit to the picture perfect St Thomas' Church in Winchelsea, often disputed as the smallest town in Britain. It's also the last resting place of Spike Milligan, whose tongue-in-cheek gravestone inscription reads, in Gaelic, Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite. Or, I told you I was ill.

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