Point the car in the direction of the south coast and, an hour-and-a-half out of London is Midhurst, a stopping point on journeys from the capital to the coast for more than 500 years. (If the delights of the A3 don’t appeal, trains from Waterloo to nearby Haslemere, take less than an hour.)
True to ancient tradition, weary travellers are entertained in style at one of the oldest coaching inns in England. The Spread Eagle dates back to the 1430s and is one of the trio of country-house hotels owned by Pontus and Miranda Carmiger (another is their Michelin-starred establishment, Ockenden Manor, at nearby Cuckfield).
The Carmigers specialise in restoring historic buildings to create relaxing retreats for weekenders, indulging their love of rich textiles and antique furniture as well as their passion for 21st century finishing touches such as swimming pools and steam rooms.
If the Spread Eagle is booked up, an excellent alternative is the 16th century Angel Hotel. Its Georgian facade overlooks the town, while its attractive courtyard is backed by water meadows and the ruins of Cowdray Castle. Pretty self-catering cottages can be hired on the nearby Cowdray Estate (www.cowdray.co.uk).
Once settled in your weekend retreat, take a stroll down West Street and view Midhurst’s attractions: the gorgeous old buildings that line the street, some of the earliest half-timbered, others in local brick, many with the handsome saffron yellow woodwork that denotes they are owned by the Cowdray Estate.
Don’t miss the picturesque medieval church, St Mary Magdalene and St Denys. There is even an opportunity for retail therapy: at the top of the hill in Knockhundred Row. Cabbage White, a relative newcomer to Midhurst, stocks lovely colourful tableware, including stainless-steel cutlery with vivid resin handles, from French firm Sabre, and China tableware and linens by designer Susie Watson.
There are several side trips worth making from Midhurst. Petworth, a brief drive east, is antiques heaven, with more than 30 dealers in decorative antiques to choose from (visit www.paada.com for a list). Antiquated sells oversized chairs and chests with original distressed paintwork. Pop in and see the latest quirky finds of John Bird and Annette Puttnam, who display vintage pieces from carved mahogany columns to garden statuary. Lantiques is a favourite with decorators for its French farmhouse tables and painted antiques.
There are plenty of stately homes a stone’s throw from Midhurst. Parham House, near Pulborough, south of Wisbrough Green, is a beautifully restored Elizabethan manor (open from Easter; call 01903 744888; or see www.parhaminsussex.co.uk). Petworth House, with its wonderful paintings collection and grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, is on the doorstep of The Spread Eagle (open four to five days a week from 15 March; call 01798 342207; or see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth), and Goodwood House, famous for its fine Regency interiors, is about eight miles south of Midhurst (open most Sundays and Mondays from 23 March; call 01243 755048; or see www.goodwood.co.uk).
The Spread Eagle Hotel & Health Spa, South Street, Midhurst GU29 9NH (01730 816911; www.hshotels.co.uk).
The Angel, North Street, Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 9DN (01730 812421; www.theangelmidhurst.co.uk).
Cabbage White, Knockhundred Row, Midhurst, GU29 9DQ (01730 814555; www.cabbage-white.com).
Wine Etcetera, 7 West Street, Midhurst, GU29 9NQ (01730 813300; www.wine-etcetera.co.uk).
Antiquated, 10 New Street, Petworth, GU28 0AS (01798 344011; www.antiquated.co.uk).
John Bird Antiques, The Clubroom, High Street, Petworth, GU28 0AU (01798 343250; www.johnbirdantiques.com).
Lantiques, Middle Street, Petworth, GU28 0AG (01798 344020, www.lantiques.com).