Take a peek inside The White Horse in Dorking following its £4 million refurbishment

The library @nicksmithphotography.com

The library @nicksmithphotography.com - Credit: Archant

The White Horse in Dorking re-opened late last year following a £4 million refurbishment, restoring the historic hotel to its former Dickensian glory. Rebecca Younger visits

The White Horse Dorking @nicksmithphotography.com

The White Horse Dorking @nicksmithphotography.com - Credit: Archant

Granted to the Knights Templar in 1278 and an inn since 1750, The White Horse in Dorking has plenty a historical tale to tell. It flourished during the coaching era, when coaches from London stopped for refreshments en route to Horsham or the coast and it is said that Charles Dickens wrote parts of The Pickwick Papers while staying there in the mid-19th century.

So, when Bespoke Hotels announced a multi-million refurbishment last year, there was some trepidation that all character might be lost. However, The White Horse’s latest reinvention definitely won me over.

When we arrived at the hotel, friendly staff, dressed in tweed waistcoats and flat caps, were waiting in reception to welcome us. The uniform is far from unfamiliar in a county where a number of luxury country house hotels exist but, while The White Horse’s prominent town centre location and lack of acreage means it can’t pretend to be one of these, it should be given points for trying to emulate that level of service on the High Street.

As we are shown to our room – up higgledy-piggledy stairs and through a number of narrow corridors with beamed ceilings and quirky doors that once led somewhere but are now just for show – it’s clear the hotel is far from shy about the Dickens connection. Prints and references to the writer line the walls, the hotel’s function room, 1812, is named after the year Charles Dickens was born and even the in-room welcome pamphlet is aptly named Pickwick’s Paper.

The Dozen restaurant @nicksmithphotography.com

The Dozen restaurant @nicksmithphotography.com - Credit: Archant

Our bedroom, which despite being one of the suites overlooking the High Street (the A25 thoroughfare between Reigate and Guildford) was incredibly quiet, felt homely and was tastefully decorated with timeless furnishings and yet more nods to Dickens.

Downstairs in the bar, the Dickensian references continue on the cocktails list, with names such as ‘Little Dorrit’s’ martini and ‘Copperfield Cobbler’. However, there are also cocktails that celebrate the flavours of the Surrey Hills surrounding Dorking including a ‘Surrey, Not Surrey’ negroni and ‘Albury Equestrian’ – a take on the traditional Moscow mule, replacing the vodka with Silent Pool gin.

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The bar is a mix of old fashioned pub and retro wine bar. It’s cosy and warm but it’s also pretty trendy – in a very ‘Surrey’ way. For just after 7pm on a Thursday evening, it is busy with both hotel and outside guests. Could this be just what Dorking has been missing?

The White Horse, Dorking rooms @nicksmithphotography.com

The White Horse, Dorking rooms @nicksmithphotography.com - Credit: Archant

Local flavours

In the hotel’s restaurant, The Dozen, the ambience shifts from rather mellow to a brighter, more minimalist offering. New head chef, James O’Grady, has been brought in to develop a “new restaurant concept” which promises to “leave guests with a truly lasting impression, thanks to a versatile and locally-sourced menu that promotes Dorking’s finest products”.

Indeed it does deliver in terms of showcasing the best of the local area’s produce, with many Surrey flavours scattered across the menu. The soup is made with Abinger’s Kingfisher watercress and poached hen’s eggs from Home Farm, there are sausages produced exclusively with the help of Dorking Butchery and even the cheese board has input from Debbie’s chutneys, homemade in Newdigate, to complement the Surrey and Sussex cheese selection on offer.

The drinks list features no less than six English sparkling wines from Surrey vineyards, including Greyfriars, Albury and Denbies, there’s also a dessert wine from Denbies and tap ales and lagers from Dorking Brewery and The Crafty Brewery Company in Dunsfold.

We begin our meal with a glass of Greyfriars Cuvée Brut and starters of roast lamb sweetbreads with smoked bacon and white crab salad with avocado, followed by charcoal roasted vegetable wellington and grilled whole lemon sole. The food is hearty and comforting yet presented in a deliciously delicate fashion so you get that feel of a fine dining experience but without the pretence or price tag – you can get three courses for as little as £25.

Modernising a historical venue such as this was always going to be tricky. Overhaul the venue too much and there’s the danger of losing the character of a building that has been a focal point of the High Street for centuries; focus too much on the history and you’d be accused of being stuck in the past.

Bespoke seems to have got the balance right. Yes, there are plenty of what could be perceived as ‘gimmicky’ references to the hotel’s bygone years, but by recognising and embracing the flourishing local food scene of today, it has very firmly and respectfully brought The White Horse bang up to date.

Need to know:

The White Horse, High Street, Dorking RH4 1BE

Tel: 01306 881138

Web: bespokehotels.com/dorking-white-horse

Rooms from £109.