‘We’re almost there,’ said Mr Smith, leaping back into the car after asking at a garage for directions to the Crab & Lobster. ‘It’s just a few minutes away’. We had only left the A27 and its comforting sodium-orange glow recently, but had quickly plunged into the inky black of a West Sussex night. Reaching the end of a wet, winding road, a stout, whitewashed building appeared.
Even at night, the hotel has an end of the worldish feel to it. Beyond the car park, in the infinite night, was Pagham Harbour, a nature reserve, and beyond that the Channel. All that stood between us and the very edge of England was a 350-year-old inn, its ‘restaurant with rooms’ sign swinging in the night breeze. Taking the last remaining parking space, we headed inside, eager to begin the business of unwinding after a long day.
Walking through the door we are instantly in the middle of the packed dining room and feel, for a moment, terribly inappropriate. Like latecomers to a theatre. Diners look up briefly from their Crab & Lobster fish pies with cheddar mash, then return to their plates. The specials board distracts us for a moment with words such as ‘baked trout’ and ‘lemon posset’, and we remember how hungry we are. It’s just as well we’ve reserved a table.
We are staying in room one, directly above the restaurant. The hum of diners drifts up through the ancient floor as we unpack. There is something very Austen about this room, I decide. The old windows are the sort you’d look out to see Mr Darcy, if I weren’t with Mr Smith. Then there’s the walls’ Farrow and Ball blues and sages, the fresh cut flowers and exposed beams. Yes, we could indeed be Regency travellers, if it weren’t for the flatscreen TV and sound system. Mr Smith gets very excited about the iPod docking station before realising he’s forgotten to bring the iPod.
Dinner gets off to a flying start with salmon parcels, stuffed with crab and crayfish, topped with caviar. The menu here is seafood-centric – as one would expect from an inn with both ‘crab’ and ‘lobster’ in its name – and there is a decent wine list. But, alas, just one flavour of sorbet (orange) is available tonight.
Full and drowsy we trudge up the stairs to bed, far too sleepy to choose a DVD to watch – tomorrow perhaps. Tonight is about the luxury of sleeping in an utterly dark, utterly silent place. Undisturbed by the wailing rubbish vans, police cars and juddering night buses of the city, we drift off dreaming dreams so vivid we both remember every single detail the next morning. On waking, we finally get to see West Sussex by day. Outside is a Miss Marpleish lane, a smart house opposite. Beyond, lies Pagham Harbour and an endless sky.
Breakfast is another fishy affair, with smoked salmon and scrambled egg on English muffins. Mr Smith can’t resist the full English and its locally sourced ingredients. A history of the inn and the harbour hangs on the thick stone wall behind us. Back in the 600s, when the harbour was still called by its Saxon name, Udring Hven, some unfortunate invading Danes were hacked to death in what’s now the car park for refusing to convert to Christianity, it informed us. Centuries later, soldiers heading for Agincourt stayed here on their last night before leaving for France. During the Civil War the royalist Lieutenant Governor and his two nephews met a sticky end just outside the inn’s front door when the area fell to the roundheads. For a barely there spot at the end of the world, this place has seen its share of the action, we think, as we head out on a hopefully-less-eventful walk to the shore.
This is a timeless place. The skyline virtually unchanged since Mr & Mrs Saxon first arrived here, dispatched the Romans and set up house more than a millennum beforehand. This is strangely comforting. We breathe in the fresh, ozone-flavoured air of the south coast and promptly forget about the Danish invaders.
The hides along the edge of Pagham Harbour hint at this place’s ornithological importance. The binoculars in our room, and a kindly lady twitcher, help us spot cormorants, grey plovers and other twig-legged species stepping delicately through the mudflats.
Any weekend here will have a Famous Five sort of wholesomeness about it, we decide, as we crunch along the shingle beach picking up shells. In addition to glorious walks, favourite things to do here are sail and birdwatch. Then head to any one of the Midsomerish towns and villages – The Witterings, Bosham, Midhurst or Chichester – for tea and scones. Goodwood is close by, too. We stop at its farm shop and stock up on interesting jams and exotic pickles.
With the sky turning a rich purple, we return to the Crab & Lobster for a leisurely soak with L’Occitane bath products. We then make our way back down to the restaurant. Yesterday, the gentleman at the table behind us had a rather lovely selection of English cheeses and we are determined to end this meal with a plate of our own. The mood tonight is boisterous, happy. There seems to be a real fondness for this inn at the end of the world, but tonight it feels as though it is at the centre of it.