White Horse, Chilgrove: a hub at the heart of the community

There are pubs in the country and true country pubs. The rebirth of The White Horse at Chilgrove firmly belongs to the second category.

It’s not merely a stunning old inn tucked at the foot of the Downs in one of the most scenic parts of West Sussex - it has the DNA of the country way of life running through every part of its extraordinary refurbishment.

As part of that rediscovery of its past, no detail has been overlooked in understanding its own heritage.

Landlord Paul Gidley explains that for years locals knew it as the Swinging Pussy - because of an early attempt by a signwriter to paint a horse and creating something more akin to a cat.

As a result of that local tale, images of cats are tucked everywhere. On the roof. On the menus. How many can you spot?

And the inn that was famous for its glorious wisteria has had it replanted. The return of the wisteria is as clear a symbolic statement as there could be that The White Horse is returning to its roots.

The establishment has had a roller-coaster ride in recent years. It was extravagantly refurbished as The Fish House and won critical acclaim.

But it could not stay the course.

Paul is delighted now that he and his team are at the helm. As well as re-establishing the pub’s traditions, he is also creating something new - a decor and ambiance which is as diverse as it is contradictory.

It stretches from one end as a typical country pub to the other which is the Baron Lafite room - a masterpiece of dining room which sends a clear message that the very best wines are also served here as well as traditional ale.

In between is the eclectic Room of Mirrors - an area both spiritual and sensuous in feel, comprising an extraordinary range of mirrors from which gentle lights reflect warmly around. What a glorious environment in which to share a meal with friends.

Paul is very clear. He doesn’t do pretention.

The White Horse doesn’t have a restaurant - it has a ‘dining room.’ Nor is he comfortable with the term A La Carte for the menu.

He wants the pub to be truly welcoming. A hub at the heart of the community. A place for respite for downland walkers - who are welcome with their muddy boots and their dogs; a centre for the county and the country set - with lots of innovative ideas to show its empathy with field sports.

It also has a long-standing relationship with the London End - which is why the national media is taking a keen and positive interest in the new enterprise.

This curious mix of style and audience manifests itself in the menu and wine list.

There’s lots of game, sourced locally - as well as all the traditionals.

Venison, venison burgers, and an amazing South Down Big Game Pie, are amazing. The breast of Chilgrove Wood Pigeon is their top starter.

There is a clear nod to its previous incarnation as The Fish House.

The whole grilled lemon sole and the Punters Ale battered fish were so fresh they could have been caught within the hour.

The English scallops in the shell - served with sweet onion puree, confit red onion, and roe dust are the best I have ever tasted, and my experience is wide.

And there are the traditionals - the Goodwood rib eye and the 24 hour slow cooked pork belly.

Only just open, the menu is a work in progress. It’s being developed all the time based on constant customer feedback as well as the palate of a Michelin two star chef who has been giving advice.

Even in the first week, my verdict was close to perfection. The thin strips of crackling on the pork were too soft and lacked crackle. The wholemeal bread was too doughy in the core.

But these are mere detail. The food is at Michelin standard in all but name.

The wine is in a league of its own. There are no house wines but a fabulous range by the bottle and the glass. The Gunnar and the Synchroncity were amazing.

And Paul is the perfect host - a real landlord who welcomes everyone, knows his customers and wants them to know how much he values their custom.

This is not the cheapest place to dine. But the value is superb. More than that, at a time when many pubs in the country are closing, this is a visionary enterprise to bring back a country pub that is in every sense the genuine article.