In Depth

The Spread Eagle Hotel and Spa review: pomp and polo in the heart of Sussex

This historic hideaway offers far more than the regular country hotel

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I have spent a fair few sunny afternoons standing on the sidelines soaking up the sportsmanship vibes, glass of bubbly in hand, feeling the ground shake beneath my wedges, as ponies and riders thunder past at various polo events. Normally however, actually watching the game at these summer soirees is seemingly the last thing on one’s mind, as the accompanying social celebrations overshadow the match itself, as does the vast wealth involved, of which plenty is clearly evident.

The champagne-quaffing, divot-treading, royal and socialite stereotypes contribute to the air of intimidation and glamour that many people associate with this fast, skilful and aggressive game. An invitation entices me however to dig out my old riding attire, delve behind the scenes and give it a go in an everyday environment. It can’t be all razzle-dazzle and I’ve come to prove that polo isn’t just for the posh at Cowdray Park Polo Club Academy – the Home of British Polo. The club hosts more than 400 matches during the season which runs from April to September.

I am in Midhurst, a thriving market town in the beautiful West Sussex countryside sampling one of the packages offered by The Spread Eagle Hotel and Spa. The Polo Experience package is paired with The Cowdray Polo Academy, the centre of the 16,500 acre Cowdray Estate. The hotel is one of England’s oldest coaching inns dating back to 1430 and is situated off the main high street overlooking a picturesque square.

It may be a little twee for uber contemporary fans but the hotel offers oodles of original lattice windows, oak beams, creaking floors, antiques, and friendly, enthusiastic staff happy to tell tales of the building’s long history (Emma and Pauline on reception). I’ve booked a luxurious 90-minute South Downs Soother top to toe spa treatment: mud wrap, facial and a foot massage in the hotel’s adjoining modern Scandinavian style spa with pool, for relaxation after my drive down, followed by an inclusive three course dinner served in the hotel’s heavily beamed, candlelit dining room with huge inglenook fireplace.

Beautifully presented grapefruit gin-cured salmon, grilled sea bass and a summer on a plate dessert of fresh strawberries, homemade meringues and marshmallow is washed down with Wiston Estate Brut, West Sussex Rose recommended by Horace the restaurant manager, “It tastes like strawberry jam.” It is the quintessential country experience that I welcome as it supports local producers.

After a blissful night’s sleep in the vast Queen’s Suite, where Elizabeth I herself stayed, (think a Cloud 9 ‘Princess and the Pea’ four-poster bed, sitting room, freestanding bath and tiny powder room believed to be the oldest wig closet in the UK), I take a filling breakfast (local produce again), in the hotel’s sunny orangery, ready for the day’s main event, polo.

I arrive at Madam’s Farm bright and early. For those of you coming from London it’s only 45 minutes on the train to Haslemere, followed by a ten-minute taxi ride or a ten-minute drive from the hotel. My coach is Guy Verdon, an English polo pro who heads up the facility and is introducing me to the antiquitous sport, first played in Persia, estimated to be around the 6th century BC.

Madam’s Farm was originally a dairy farm, then transformed into a polo livery and training yard by former eight-goal England International polo player Alan Kent (who hosts the Academy at his polo facilities at Madam’s Farm). The unassuming string of polo fields and barns are enveloped by rolling hills as far as the eye can see. The vibe? Peaceful. Quiet. Relaxed. Unassuming. The opposite of what I was expecting.

“We welcome everyone. All ages and abilities – riders and non-riders,” says Guy as he introduces me to my mount. Her name is Yetta, a 17-year old Argentinian mare. Guy has mounted Erythriana, an English Thoroughbred. We proceed to a grass field. The size is startlingly large - up to 270m by 150m. Guy fills me in on the basics: a game is divided into periods called chukkas which are seven minute periods of play, and each polo team consists of four riders and their mounts. The team often change pony several times within a chukka due to the intense speed of play.

Guy and his wife Charlotte set up the Academy in 2015, with the hope of opening the game of polo up to more people and making it a more accessible sport. Before arriving in Cowdray, Guy ran the polo academy at Guards polo club in Windsor. He has played polo for over 30 years, 25 of them professionally, and coached all over the globe including Argentina, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the USA, Spain, Dubai and Brunei – so I know I am in good hands.

I had hoped that my background of playing hockey and horse riding throughout my teens would work in my favour, but the morning turns out to be a completely new experience. And actually, it’s probably better if you haven’t ridden, as you don’t have to ‘unlearn’ techniques.

We start out gently with trotting, turning and circles and practising stops as I get used to riding in a way that is different to what I know: riding one handed, the reins in my left and high up on Yetta’s neck, a mallet in my right. Guy explains where the horse needs to be positioned when approaching the ball, and how best to ensure clean contact with the ball, and not your horse, through a flailing mallet.

Yetta is not particularly spritely. I swear she heaves a sigh at one point. She’s an ideal ride for a first time polo lesson though, reliable and safe. Half seat, lean forward, rotate shoulder, drop arm and attempt to connect. Repeat. It’s not exactly the seamless execution I had in mind but I start to get the hang of it.

Polo ponies, I soon learn, are fashioned to change direction with the tiniest turn of the rider’s shoulders and slightest shift of weight in the saddle. Eighty per cent of their body energy is accelerated by the sharp stop-starts. “As you played hockey you’re likely to have good hand eye coordination,” Guy says.

I’m relieved that after a good few attempts (and quite a few misses); I succeed in hitting the ball, rejoicing in the pleasing smack of ball on mallet. Fully absorbed and enjoying myself, the time flies by and I am disappointed to find that our one hour lesson has come to a close.

Charlotte, their two children (Florence, 8, and Max, 4) and their nephew (Harry, 4.5) who is sat on a cheeky looking New Forest chestnut pony also called Harry, wearing adorable little riding boots, jodhpurs and hat (human Harry, not the horse), greet us as we head back to the stables. Harry is heading out for a lesson; the other two skip and chatter away alongside. It’s very cute to witness and adds to the laid back ambiance. 

Charlotte invites me for a well-earned cup of tea. “The estate is a big part of people’s lives that live and work in this part of West Sussex. Cowdray House is available for exclusive-use hire for country house parties, weddings and corporate retreats,” she tells me. “On the estate there are various activities to enjoy including: truffle hunting, golf, fly fishing, wildlife experiences, and clay pigeon shooting, even our own Farm Shop. The Polo Academy works with local schools in the area, with the aim to encourage awareness of the sport with young children.”

Visitors will appreciate how friendly and homely it is here. It really is the ideal environment to enable new players to dip a toe into the very heart of polo and be around leading professional coaches and players in a welcoming, family-led setting. Don’t let this understated charm fool you however; Cowdray Park is the host of the prestigious King Power Gold Cup. (Although, spectator entry starts from just a modest £5 a head for a glimpse at the glamour). “Just a month ago, the place was buzzing with top polo players from all over the world.” They have since moved continents with all the accompanying entourage to continue their pursuit.

“Everything we do here is bespoke. From individual lessons, a group of friends, corporate days, we can tailor experiences. The Academy aims to take new players to instructional chukka level after just 10 hours of private lessons,” says Charlotte. That’s why you should stay at the nearby Spread Eagle - indulge in a massage to sooth aching limbs and fall into a comfy bed.

So after you’ve got the basics underway and fancy a stab at playing a match or two once your skill and strength has improved, what is the best route if one doesn’t have a trust fund?

“It is now easier and cheaper to play polo than ever before. The number of polo clubs in the UK continues to grow and there are more and more clubs where you can just call up and come to an agreement to lease a pony and take part in upcoming matches or even an entire season - rather than actually buying one,” says Guy. 

I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of the sport and vow to book in for another lesson at my local polo club back home in Hertfordshire. I haven’t even touched upon the handicap system, formations and tactics, or how quickly the game is played and how fast-thinking and fit the players need to be.

It’s time to extend the overdraft – I’ve found myself a new hobby.

Polo Stays with The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa and Cowdray Estate start from £415 based on two sharing a double room on a DB&B basis, including one 1-hour polo lesson for one rider and an initialled polo stick to take home. Offer valid on Sunday to Thursday night stays. Corporate Polo Stays with The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa and Cowdray Estate start rom £554 per person, including a Monday to Thursday stay on a single occupancy DB&B basis, a half-day lesson and initialled polo stick to take home.

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