England’s south-eastern counties, closest to France, are full of medieval castles and it’s always been a dream of mine to spend a night or two in one.

The playwright, Noel Coward, famously advised against staying in such a place. "The state apartments keep their historical renown, but it's wiser not to sleep there in case they tumble down. Though the pipes that supply the bathroom burst, and the lavatory makes you fear the worst, it was used by Charles the First.” Coward did not put me off. The problem was finding a castle that would have me.

Many medieval castles, such as Bodiam and Wallinford are ruined. And, while some like Leeds Castle, with its wonderful moat, or Dover Castle, the gateway to England, are pretty much intact, most are now under the care of English Heritage or the National Trust, and can be visited by the public only in daytime hours. Those habitable castles still in private hands, such as Windsor or Arundel, require an invitation by their often Royal or aristocratic owners.

There is, happily, one rare and very special exception: A magical medieval castle where you can spend the night. Built in 1103, within stone curtain walls, flanked by a magnificent twin-tower gatehouse, Amberley Castle was first used as a hunting lodge and later transformed into a fortified manor house. In 1989, the castle was converted into a hotel which became member of Relais et Chateaux in 2004.

In the charming village of Amberley in West Sussex, noted for it’s thatched cottages, Amberley Castle is set in 12 acres of formal gardens, dotted with resident white peacocks, and as we drove up the long gravel drive, through the ancient 2.5 ton portcullis, it was hard not to imagine arriving here on horseback, a thousand years ago.

We were greeted by the hotel’s personable General Manager, Piers Vowles, who showed us into one of the castle's many cosy, fire-lit drawing rooms for a cup of tea and finger sandwiches (what else?) before inviting us to get settled in our room.

My fantasy of castle life derives more from TV series such as Wolf Hall (and dare I say, The Crown, than from Game Of Thrones, so I opted for The Amberley Suite - much brighter and more contemporary than Herstmonceaux and Pevensey, which uniquely embrace the castle’s history and character, with dark wood, four poster beds and access to the portcullis.

The Amberley suite, where we stayed, is not the grandest bedroom in the Castle. The late Queen Elisabeth II would likely have stayed in the Bishoprics Suite when she visited here as a young Princess. However, like all of the 19 bedrooms in the Castle today, most of them named after early Bishops or Sussex castles, ours was warm and comfortable, with a good bathroom to the side. Best of all, both our rooms had splendid views of the Castle’s inner quadrant, with the sun setting over the crenelated walls.

It is within these medieval walls that Andrew and Christina Brownsword, the current owners of Amberley (and 13 other hotels) have created a comfortable retreat where suits of armour stand to attention next to intricate coats of arms. I can report that no ghostly apparitions were spotted on our stay, but had I encountered The Queen of Scots taking a midnight stroll in a hand-embroidered shroud, I would not have been in the least bit surprised.

A little history

The land where Amberley Castle stands was gifted to Bishop Wilfrid in 683 AD by Caedwalla, King of Wessex and the castle’s current buildings owe their origins to a timber-framed hunting lodge built in 1103 by Bishop Luffa. The following 400 years saw this lodge transformed into a fortified manor house complete with crenelations, battlements and a portcullis under the supervision of a number of resident bishops.

In the wake of the English reformation, the castle was leased to a series of tenants and during the Civil War it became a royalist strong hold. Oliver Cromwell sent General Waller to destroy the defences in 1643 and 20 to 30 feet was lost from the Curtain Walls and the Great Hall was destroyed, creating a ruin. After the Civil War, Amberley Castle was seized from the Church by Parliament and sold by the Office of Sequestration of Estates to Mr John Butler, a cloth merchant from London who built the Manor House out of the ruins which had been the Great Hall.

With the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, King Charles II visited Amberley twice and in 1660 gave the castle back to the Bishopric. No mention of reimbursement to Mr Butler was made, however they eventually did negotiate a long lease and the Butler family continued to live at the castle for a further two generations.

In 1872, the castle was sold by the church commissioners to Lord Zouche, owner of Parham House. It was used as a hunting lodge and continued in this employment when it was sold on to the 15th Duke of Norfolk in 1893 who subsequently initiated the repair of the stonework over the portcullis.

In 1926, the castle was bought by the Emmett family. In 1982, Baroness Emmett sold the castle and with this sale, the Castle Farm and the castle grounds were divided.

The dining room

The 12th Century Queen’s Room, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling at the heart of the castle is a glorious setting for the main dining room. Here, a mural dominating the room portrays the coat of arms of King Charles II and Queen Catherine of Braganza, hunting in Arundel Park.

Head chef, Paul Peters grew up in Sydney, before moving to the UK in January 2000, where his role was as a Junior Sous Chef at the Lygon Arms Hotel, before undertaking stages at restaurants including with heroes Nico Ladenis at Chez Nico and John Burton Race, and roles working with Marco Pierre White and at Browns Hotel in Green Park.

The menu (or at least the online version of it that I checked out before arriving) sounds almost medieval: "braised pigs cheek, smoked ham hock,” "slow braised haunch of venison, red cabbage, beetroot, pickled black berries.” The experience on our two nights was much more classical with modern and Asian twists. Paul’s approach is to serve the freshest of ingredients at the height of their season, cooked in innovative and exciting ways.

Our first night, I started with an exquisitely light, Brill in a hazelnut crust, celeriac, pear, vanilla, celery cress, followed by the most delicious risotto I have ever tasted, prepared with roasted butternut squash, shiitake mushroom, pumpkin seeds, crispy kale, parmesan.

Our second night, I savoured Paul’s elegant white onion soup with roasted baby onion, cheese gougère, and french onion soup jelly, followed by a perfectly prepared cod fillet, withcauliflower, samphire, courgette, romanesco, caper and golden raisin sauce.

For desert, we loved Paul’s chocolate & pear mousse, chocolate crumb, honeycomb, with pear sorbet. We were also tempted by his exquisite orange and beetroot cheesecake with pickled beetroot, orange, fennel sorbet.

Out and about

Amberley Castle is set in 12 acres of landscaped gardens, enclosed by a high curtain wall, with the medieval stonework forming an evocative backdrop to the colourful grounds. Even during our autumnal visit, Astors and late roses were in bloom. A walk through the castle’s garden is a feast for the senses and through a discrete gate, you can enter the picture postcard village of Amberley, where many of the unique house are listed as monuments by English Heritage.

I’m not a golfer, so I confess I didn’t visit the Amberley course, but in 2003, to celebrate the castle’s 900th anniversary, Amberley Castle welcomed a professional standard 18-hole putting course to the property, designed by renowned golf architects Weller Design. Today golfers can enjoy a round on this putting course with its water cascade, two lakes, and sublime views of the South Downs. The castle also boasts a tennis court and croquet lawn.

Cycling on the South Downs

Archery, falconry, game shooting (in season),as well as trout fishing, horse riding, off-road driving, hot air ballooning, and medieval axe-throwing are all available close by. However, we chose to explore the South Downs by bicycle.

The Castle does not have bicycles available for guests, but excellent and well maintained all-terrain bikes and e-bikes can be hired for the day (or half day) from Chris at Riverside Southdowns cycle hire, a ten minute walk from the Castle’s main gate.

From here we spent a glorious day on rugged roads and cycle paths in the South Downs National Park, through green rolling pastures, ancient woodlands, and river valleys.

There are some places which have a season and an off season. Our visit to Amberley was in autumn, but I have a feeling the crackling fires would make it a wonderful place to visit in winter, and the natural beauty of it’s setting would undoubtedly be joyous to experience in spring and summer too. It is not surprising that Amberley, which has survived more than 900 years of continuous use, is indeed a castle for all seasons.