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Our flights to the UK were arranged, including a rental car which we were picking up in Crawley (long story... but it was the best value). Our accommodation, we thought, was sorted, staying - as usual - with various relatives in different locations.
Then, a few days before flying, we had a phone call. The first relative we were hoping to see was not well. She asked if there was any way we could adjust our plans to arrive a couple of days later.
After momentary panic, it occurred to us that we had no particular plans for our first two days. We had no commitments, no reason to be anywhere in particular... and it had been a LONG time since we took a real break. My husband said that there were lots of lovely villages within an hour or so’s drive from Crawley; I don’t know the region at all, but he started doing some research, and finally suggested we stay in Arundel, somewhere he had always wanted to visit.
Our budget - as always - is fairly tight, so we went to moneysavingexpert.com and searched for accommodation in Arundel. There seemed to be a wide range of possibilities, from expensive hotels to very basic lodges. Our requirements were not all that stringent. We didn’t want anything posh - just a comfortable double room with an ensuite bathroom and coffee-making facilities; we also wanted breakfast to be included. We discovered several possibilities, all charging somewhere between £60 and £70 per night for the room. So we made a short-list, and checked them on Google Earth.
Eventually we decided that we liked the sound of the St Mary’s Gate Inn (listed in some places as St Mary’s Gate Hotel) on the London Road. It was apparently right in the shadow of the Roman Catholic cathedral, it looked like a country pub rather than a smart hotel, and claimed to be a short walk from the town centre. It offered meals at reasonable prices if we wanted lunch or dinner there and most of the reviews were favourable.
Most importantly, at such short notice, it had a room available. My husband spoke to someone at the hotel who sounded friendly, and mentioned that we weren’t quite sure what time we would arrive. No problem, they assured us. We paid a deposit using our credit card over the phone.
Arriving at the inn After picking up our rental car, we put the address into my husband’s iPhone satnav app, and found the inn with no difficulty at all. It looked just as we had expected from the photos, and there was a convenient parking area at the back. It took a while to find someone to check us in, but we were in no hurry. The main building was an old inn or pub, and the bedrooms were next to the car park; they looked as if they might once have been a stable block. We liked being able to come and go directly without having to go in and out of a reception area.
The room itself was more spacious than we had expected. Slightly shabby, perhaps, but very clean, and equipped with all we needed. There was a remarkably comfortable bed, a couple of chairs, and - most importantly - a kettle with a selection of coffees and teas. There was a television too, but we didn’t use it.
The bathroom was rather scruffy; a tile had fallen off the wall behind the sink, and the bath looked rather old and tired. However, it was all functional, and we were quite tired so we didn’t feel like complaining. There was a water heater in the bedroom which we had been told to leave on; it was evidently effective as there was plenty of hot water for showers and baths when we wanted them.
Dinner When we arrived, it was about 4.00pm, on a surprisingly sunny day in April. We wanted to stretch our legs after sitting down for most of the day, so we wandered into the town centre. Perhaps village centre would be a better phrase.. there were about two streets with shops, and a few cafés and restaurants, but not a lot else. None of the eateries inspired us, and we were quite tired, so we decided we would eat at our hotel. We had been told that there was no need to book - we could simply turn up, any time after about 6.00pm. So that’s what we did.
The dining room, in the main part of the inn, was old fashioned, in a country pub kind of way, with lots of wood furniture and a log fire (not lit, but they said that it was used in the winter). At one end was the bar, but that was empty when we arrived; one or two locals popped in for a drink while we were there, and later in the evening it was quite full. But with our room being in a separate block, we didn’t notice any noise at all.
There was quite a good selection of food on offer, mostly fairly traditional British food. It was all reasonably priced: main courses started at around £7 each, although there were also some cheaper baguettes or jacket potato meals available. Desserts and starters were about £3-£4. Several items tempted us, but neither of us was particularly hungry.
So my husband opted for a large burger in a bun with chips and salad (£7.50), and I chose a jacket potato filled with cheese and beans, also accompanied by a salad (£4.50). We decided to forego desserts; much as I would have enjoyed ‘sticky chocolate cake’ or ‘toffee pudding’, my husband is somewhat intolerant to dairy products, and there wasn’t anything in the dessert line that he could eat. Besides, our main courses were filling and delicious, and we had no need of anything else.
The following day we went out and bought some sandwiches for lunch, but when dinner time rolled around we decided that as we had so enjoyed the ambience and food at St Mary’s Gate Inn the night before, we would eat there again. We realised it was rather unadventurous, but our mini-break was to wind down after a busy few weeks, and we had no need of any great excitement or new experiences.
This time I opted for the vegetarian lasagne, with garlic bread rather than chips, and salad (£8) - and very tasty it was, too. My husband chose the chicken balti with rice and naan bread (£7), and said that it was also very good. Most of the food was evidently cooked on site; it was piping hot, nicely presented, and filling as well as delicious.
Note that the full menu can be seen here: http://stmarysgate.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/newMenu.pdf - there were a few ‘specials’ also available each day although they did not interest us.
Breakfast Breakfast at St Mary’s Gate Inn is served between about 8.00am and 11.00am. I would have preferred it rather earlier as I usually wake at around 6.30am, but my husband is a much later riser, so we decided to go to breakfast about 8.30. I made myself a cup of coffee in the bedroom and took a leisurely shower, and enjoyed the peace of the early morning. Despite being on a main road, it was very quiet in our room.
We were offered tea or coffee, cereal (in small packets), toast with various spreads, and the option of a full cooked breakfast. While neither of us ever eat cooked breakfasts at home, we both decided to have one, and were impressed with the quality and quantity! There were sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, baked beans and fried bread; we were offered black pudding too, but declined politely.
The food was hot and well prepared, the service friendly and efficient, the coffee reasonable. We asked for ordinary toast too, and were slightly disappointed that it arrived with the cooked breakfast, meaning that it was cold by the time we had eaten everything else - but, again, it hardly seemed worth the effort of complain. Neither of us likes to make a fuss, and it was easier to eat it cold than to ask for fresh toast!
The waiter was knowledgeable about the area, and answered some questions we had about the locality, telling us places of interest we might visit and, very importantly, explaining where we could find a branch of our UK bank.
Checking out We were supposed to check out before 11.00 on our second morning; that gave us a chance to pack in a leisurely way after another excellent breakast. We had been asked to settle our bill the night before, since there was no guarantee that any of the staff would be available in the morning; they did say that someone could come in specially, but we were happy to be flexible. The bills for our evening meals had been added to our invoice, as requested; in total we paid £130 for the two nights’ stay, inclusive of breakfast, and a little over £40 for our two evening meals, which seemed like excellent value.
Overall opinion For a couple like us, on a fairly tight budget, wanting a place to relax and hang out, St Mary’s Gate Inn was ideal. Sure, it wasn’t perfect; but the comfort, friendliness and food were exactly what we wanted. it seems a bit mean to deduct a whole star for the missing tile in the bathroom and the cold toast, so I’d award four and a half stars if I could - but can’t, in all fairness, give five.