I’m in a village in Kent that once had a reputation for ‘smuggling, cockfighting, outrage and robbery… committed by rogues who infested every corner of the street’, according to an information board there.
Fortunately, that was in the 19th century. Back then it was called Milkhouse Street (also Mylkehouse) – and such was its rotten notoriety that it was rebranded to Sissinghurst. A name that stuck.
Today, it’s a far cry from a rogue-infested epicentre of smuggling and outrage. It’s an idyllic chocolate-box village with a noteworthy rollcall of former residents, including poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West and Ian Hislop, and a charming rustic pub, The Milk House – my lodgings for the night.
Ted stays at The Milk House pub, pictured, in Sissinghurst, reaching it by way of a 55-mile bike ride from South London
The Milk House, which dates back to the 16th century, has four comfortable bedrooms
The bar at The Milk House, where Ted and his chum enjoy ales by an open fire
My stay at this characterful bolthole with a chum has been well earned, for we have cycled 55 miles (88km) to it from my South London abode across the ‘Kent Alps’, along leafy leaf-strewn lanes, through utopian hamlets and past wonderful examples of the county’s distinctive oast houses, conical structures used for drying hops as part of the beer brewing process, with most now converted to houses.
We set off in the morning and schedule a tearoom lunch stop in the village of Otford, just north of Sevenoaks.
Standing in the way of the cake and sandwiches, though, is the infamous Downe Road climb, a savage little number with an incline on two bends at the top that reaches 24 per cent.
Fortunately, this mildly terrifying section – so steep you must lean over the handlebars while pedalling – is mercifully short.
We experience the thrill of descending Star Hill, with a maximum gradient of 12 per cent, before our Otford pitstop, Sally’s Cake Emporium.
At this delightful, cartoonishly decorated paradise for the sweet-toothed we refuel with BLTs and cinnamon cake.
Our stomachs full, we roll on to Hadlow and its extraordinary 175ft-tall folly, the Grade I-listed Hadlow Tower, a Gothic Victorian structure that was used as a Home Guard lookout post during WWII.
Ted’s route to The Milk House pub includes a quick stop to admire the extraordinary 175ft-tall Grade I-listed Hadlow Tower
Ted’s Kent odyssey is undertaken with his chum Colin. The picture on the left shows their bikes outside the delightful Sally’s Cake Emporium in Otford (right)
Next is a dalliance with the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a dusk cruise through the time-capsule village of Cranbrook. Sissinghurst lies just beyond on the AONB’s border.
The warmly lit 16th-century Milk House pub is a sight for sore eyes and relief for sore thighs.
It’s run by Sarah and (professional chef) Dane Allchorne, who bought the place in 2013 when it was called The Bull.
Sarah tells me: ‘When Dane and I took it over in 2013, we thought it needed a total refresh. It had been closed for three years. Its reputation leading up to closing was poor and we wanted a new start.
‘It’s a listed building – the front of the pub where the fireplace is, is where we think the original 16th-century structure started. It was built onto from then by many previous incumbents. All we did was redecorate and move a few internal walls around. It was an old coaching inn on Mylkehouse Street. That’s how we came up with its new name.
‘It was a long slog negotiating The Milk House, but we got there eventually.’
The hard work has paid off.
The Union Mill in Cranbrook, which Ted cycles through on his way to Sissinghurst and a night at The Milk House pub
Sarah and Dane have installed affable staff, had fun with puns on the menus – and let the heritage breathe, with guests relaxing amid soothing pastel decor, ancient wooden beams and the odd wonky floor.
(Although I’m not entirely sure about the bookcase wallpaper.)
We love our twin room – The Buttery, which is one of four. Fresh milk for tea and coffee is stored in mini milk churns and the towel rail is hot on arrival.
The handle for the handheld shower unit is mysteriously missing, but the rain shower in the bath restores me to pre-55-mile-ride perkiness.
Ted and Colin stay in a twin room called The Buttery at The Milk House. This image shows one of double-bed options
Much of the downstairs floorspace is given over to a dining room, pictured, where guests can eat ‘good value grin-inducing gourmet pub grub’
After freshening up, it’s time to discover the pub part of this enticing ‘pub with rooms’.
A brace of Harveys Sussex Best ales by the roaring fire in the bar gets matters here off to a blissful start.
Much of the downstairs floorspace is given over to a dining room next door, and rightly so, given Dane’s prowess at the stove.
The Milk House is run by Sarah and (professional chef) Dane Allchorne, who bought the place in 2013 and gave it a refresh
The Penny Farthing installed to commemorate the Tour De France passing through Sissinghurst in 2007
He’s worked as a chef in Australia and with Michelin chefs in London.
We discover that here he offers good value grin-inducing gourmet pub grub.
I really enjoy my fresh and sprightly grilled mackerel fillet with sourdough ciabatta, dill and chive cream, citrus pickled cucumber and radish slaw (£11) – and a first-rate main of fish and chips (£14) keeps the taste buds dancing.
But I’m slightly miffed by my dessert – a pink grapefruit curd with meringues, cream and freeze-dried blackberries (£7).
The curd is too sour for my liking.
However, the wine offering is appealing, with descriptions of the bottles refreshingly meaningful to non-connoisseurs on the list (which invites guests to ‘have a wine-derful time’).
We quaff Mountfield Classic Cuvee, a highly competent fizz from Sussex (£10), and post-bubbles I go for another Sussex number, a £7.50 glass of Stopham Estate Pinot Gris (‘local gem, stone fruit, lively’), while my companion Colin opts for a £6.50 glass of Primitivo Grifone from Puglia (‘rich, bbq, rustic, bramble fruits’) to go with his tasty bangers and mash (£12).
Highlights on the return leg include beholding the epic majesty of the St Clere Estate. This picture of it is courtesy of Creative Commons licensing
Ted was hosted by The Milk House pub, where rooms start from around £90 a night. Visit themilkhouse.co.uk.
For more information on visiting Kent go to www.visitkent.co.uk.
The service, meanwhile, is excellent.
Breakfast is similarly impressive, with Dane back in the kitchen this time rustling up deliciously creamy scrambled eggs and a pleasingly presented veggie breakfast, with the mushrooms and tomatoes stacked to make little oast houses.
There are also jars of exquisite honeyed Greek yoghurt with berry compote.
After exploring the village, which includes investigating the huge metal Penny Farthing built to commemorate the Tour De France passing through it in 2007, and admiring the quaint duck pond at the back of the pub, we set off for London, our moods chipper.
Highlights on the return leg (a different route for the first 30 miles or so) include the lost-in-time village of Ightham, a flat white at a pop-up coffee shop by the River Medway in Wateringbury, beholding the epic majesty of the St Clere Estate and a hot chocolate with marshmallows at Sally’s Cake Emporium Part II.
Going back up Star Hill isn’t so joyful and louts in a Golf GTI yell ‘w*****s’ at us as we brave the Downe Hill road descent (perhaps their lineage can be traced to the rogues of Milkhouse Street), but we still feel buoyant once back in the city – proud to have conquered the Kent Alps and keen to spread the word about Sarah and Dane’s heavenly haven.
Which, by the way, is also easy to reach by car and train…
TOP ATTRACTIONS NEAR THE MILK HOUSE PUB IN SISSINGHURST
Bedgebury National Pinetum and Forest
The 320-acre National Pinetum ‘is home to a world-leading collection of conifers and provides a beautiful setting for peaceful walks and picnics’.
Kent & Sussex Railway
The Kent & Sussex Railway runs between Tenterden and Bodiam on a line that was built in 1900
A 10-and-a-half-mile-long steam railway dating back to 1900 that follows the beautiful Rother Valley between Tenterden and Bodiam. You can make the journey in style, too – there’s a Pullman service that runs between April and November using opulent carriages from the 1920s and 30s. Note, some services are diesel-hauled. These are marked on the timetable.
Sissinghurst Castle and gardens
Sissinghurst Castle is home to a garden created by Vita Sackville-West and considered one of the most beautiful and diverse in England
Historic, poetic, iconic – that’s how the National Trust describes Sissinghurst Castle and its garden, which was created by Vita Sackville-West and considered one of the most beautiful and diverse in England.
Chapel Down winery and restaurant
The manicured grounds here are very easy on the eye and feature a delightful herb garden used by the chefs at the on-site restaurant, The Swan, to flavour their dishes.
Encircled by the rolling Garden of England countryside, it’s a place of such tranquillity it almost feels medicinal.
The wine is great, too. Justifiably award-winning.