Situated in the picturesque East Sussex village of Ticehurst, the historic Bell pub with rooms is an enigmatic treasure trove of delightful oddities. Janie Manzoori-Stamford went to visit
Need to know
A brisk drive down the A21, between Royal Tunbridge Wells and Hastings, sits the village of Ticehurst. It's a quaint little spot that's a seemingly rare, real life example of the quintessential English village that many might imagine only exists in the mind and films of Richard Curtis.
It's a thriving little community with bustling amenities and, at its heart, the Bell in Ticehurst. Put simply, it's a historic pub with rooms, and from the relatively innocent façade, that would be a reasonable assessment for passersby. But a closer look at its freestanding sign, which reads ‘The Bell "Apparently"', reveals an enigmatic hint of the treasure trove of oddities and design delights inside.
The pub, which dates back to the 14th century, was bought by its current owners Richard and Roz Upton in 2008. Richard Upton, chief executive of the Cathedral Group and known in his field of property development as the ‘placemaker', first became the proud owner of a shop in Ticehurst after a trip to a property auction in which he didn't originally intend to bid. It was around that time that the village bakery closed, the butcher left town and the Bell shut its doors following the death of the previous owner of 50 years. Upton's interest in reviving local fortunes was piqued, and he bought the pub and also the bakery.
In 2011, following an extensive £2m renovation project, the Bell reopened. Today the village bakery is back in business and the multi-faceted Bell is made up of a bar and restaurant, snug meeting rooms, seven cosy and unique bedrooms, a flourishing wedding trade and, most recently, four external subterranean lodges.
Designer Richard Brett, director of Brighton-based We Like Today, has worked with Upton on numerous projects over the past 13 years. He's been involved in the reinvigoration of the Bell since day one and was also the creative force behind the property's latest additions.
Numerous Graham Sutherland prints (Upton is an avid art collector), vintage knick-knacks, book-wrapped pillars and silver birch trees are among a collection of ideas and design elements that might seem haphazard, but are about more than visual aestheticism. Brett wanted to create a feel rather than a look, and to design for the end user, rather than the operator or the developer.
This ideal runs the risk of compromising commercial substance, but Brett shares his client's belief that creating a great place and generating revenue need not be mutually exclusive: "The client wants to make money and so the design has to add value to the proposition," he says.
The addition of four lodges to the grounds of the pub was undoubtedly motivated by the revenue opportunities they present, particularly with regard to the Bell's established wedding business. However, the broader ambition was far loftier because, as Brett points out, anyone can stick a lodge in the back of a pub.
"If you want to build a relationship with anybody, you tell them a story; you don't just give them a list of facts," he explains. Alluding to the pub's sign, he says: "Conversations in pubs always start with ‘apparently…'. The whole folklore of ‘apparently' is the fine line between the truth and bullshit and I think all the design led from that. The truth could be a shed; a room with a bed in it. Fine. Lots of places do that. But in a competitive world, if you want to attract more people, you need to do more than that. We want to create an experience."
The lodges Between the Lines is the only lodge to feature a mezzanine, and it neatly demonstrates that the biggest ideas don't need the biggest budgets. Its bed is butted up against a headboard made of books, each opened to a page chosen for the specific lines of love within. Emblazoned across the pages, in big bold print, are the words 'I think I'm falling in bed with you'.
The smart monochrome en suite bathroom houses a bath by the picture window, overlooking the lodge's enclosed outdoor space with its own fire pit, so there's a real connection between inside and outside. Upstairs in the mezzanine are a pair of chaises longues that could easily be used as single beds for children or a comfy place to hang out with the box of LPs and the vintage record player.
The Pretty Vacant lodge takes its cue from the locks found on public lavatories and once again the headboard wall is the focal point. A huge sign above the bed will be set to 'vacant' on arrival, but guests can choose to switch it to 'occupied' before they climb into bed. The pitched ceiling is adorned with the word 'pretty' for a bonus Sex Pistols reference. And just like the other lodges, there's a double sofa bed at the foot of the bed.
The most striking component of Pour l'Amour is the canopy of red, white and pink roses hanging from the double-height ceiling and forming the lodge's abbreviated name above the bed, while plans are afoot to complete the French title on the headboard, which translated means 'for the love of this blooming madness'. Adding to the sense of colourful romance and serenity is a reclaimed stained-glass window, one of two to feature in the lodges.
Then there's the Love Nest, its name epitomising an escapist proposition that can in effect sell itself, according to Brett. "The words start it off. Rather than saying, 'we've got four lodges', ask somebody if they want to stay in the Love Nest. Their imagination does the rest."
The curved wooden walls are decorated with painted white clouds and cuckoo clocks - cloud cuckoo land for those that make the connection - and a window separates the vast throne-like bed from the two-person shower, once again creating a sense of connectivity for guests, while a copper freestanding bathtub and a wood burner add a feeling of comfortable opulence. A side door leads to a staircase up to the roof terrace, enclosed by a woven nest of willow and featuring egg seats for star gazing or sunbathing.
Keeping it local
In keeping with his client's desire to create a hub for the community, keeping it local was the name of the game for Brett. A local smithy, Ben the Blacksmith, was commissioned to produce all the curtain rails and tie-backs, while Bill Talbot, an artist based in adjacent village Wadhurst and a regular in the pub, was responsible for the art installations, such as the 'vacant/occupied sign', and he continues to produce work for the Bell.
"If you develop a local conscience wherever you're building, it makes everybody feel like you're building with them rather than for them," Brett explains.
And wherever possible, furniture and materials were sourced locally too, thanks in large part to a vast collection of bits and pieces left behind in the building when Upton first bought the property, such as old cutlery that has been used to make every coat hook.
"It's just chopping things up and not being afraid to put them back together in a different way," says Brett. "Add up all the small things and they become one big thing."
Indeed, these interesting and evocative details included throughout the property are as much about creating a story that the Bell's guests will want to share as they are about delivering a complete sensory experience. Each bedroom comes complete with fresh clotted cream, scones and jam on arrival, luxury Love and More toiletries (an in-house brand created by Ticehurst resident Victoria Hughes), and a stack of artful and understated ready-stamped postcards.
"All you need to do is fill it in, stick it in a post box and the pub sends it," says Brett. "It's all marketing. Everything is brand and everything is important, so you think of as many ways as you can to tell everybody everything."
What the critics say
Tom Chesshyre, The Times
There's a playful feel to the Bell, with striking modern art mixing with old oil paintings, a mounted buffalo's head, and piles of books wrapped around pillars to look as though they are supporting the low-beamed ceiling. Logs crackle in inglenook fireplaces. Guests relax on old leather sofas in the snug.
All the lodges are great fun, but 'Love Nest' is the pick. It's in a circular standalone building with a huge bed next to a wood-burning fire and a copper tub. At the end of the bed is a big swivel sofa for two. The wooden walls are painted with clouds, plus there's a skylight.
- Designer Richard Brett, We Like Today, weliketoday.co.uk
- Structural engineer and project manager Stephen Evans, Stephen Evans Associates, evans-structures.co.uk
- Neil Langridge, Noahs Property Services, 01580 879349
- Bill Talbot, Artist, billtalbot.com
- Maia Eden, Artist and willow sculptor, maiaeden.co.uk
- Jo Thompson, Garden designer, jothompson-garden-design.co.uk
- Damian MacKay, City Escapes, cityescapes.co.uk
The Bell in Ticehurst
- High Street, East Sussex TN5 7AS
- 01580 200234
- Owner Richard and Roz Upton
- General manager Jhonnie de Oliveira
- Head chef Daniel Greenwood
- Interior designer Richard Brett, We Like Today
- Bedrooms Seven bedrooms and four lodges
- Staff 20
- Price Bedrooms from £95, lodges from £195