A step back in the right direction at Gravetye Manor
For many people (certainly for Remainers, Bowie fans and Democrats, anyway), 2016 was a bit of a dreary year, so the tendency was to search high and low for more – more fuss, more fun, more bells and whistles; anything to dilute the drudgery. I for one will admit falling foul to this, and by mid-December, I was tired and a bit overwhelmed. My saviour? Gravetye Manor. A simple, stripped back combination of romance, beautiful grounds and exquisite dining, I visited the Grand Dame of country house hotels and learnt the very valuable lesson that less is most definitely more.
Sat like some sort of tucked away Wonderland amid West Sussex’s High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, I could feel the weight of 2016’s burden drifting away with every metre that I approached Gravetye Manor along its mile-long private drive. Nothing but 1000 acres of wooded parkland and gardens – sublime in summer, but equally enchanting when characterised by clusters of birch trees glistening in the silver shimmer of winter’s frost – surround this manor house, whose Elizabethan edifice stands as a proud testament to its history.
Stepping into the 17-bedroom property, which was completed over four hundred years ago in 1598, is truly like stepping into the 16th-century and my word it’s refreshing to be transported from a world of smartphones, air con and minimalist décor into one of newspapers, crackling log fires and ornate interiors carved from solid oak. Gravetye Manor is traditional, but not stuffy – of course Wi-Fi is available throughout, although I doubt you’ll use it, and of course there’s a flat-screen TV in your room, although I’d happily bet you won’t watch it. The first reason you’ll resist technology’s time-filling pull? The phenomenal grounds that define Gravetye Manor’s garden as one of the most historically influential in the country.
Originally planted in 1884 by writer and ‘Father of the English Flower Garden’, William Robinson, the gardens, of which there are 35 acres to explore, are the result of Robinson’s groundbreaking ideas on a more naturalistic style of wild gardening that he fine-tuned over 50 years at Gravetye. The visual legacy left behind is the very antithesis of suppressed and is instead a natural kingdom that tumbles from busy rhododendron amid the bright pink pop of magnolia, to banks of wild Azaleas and tough perennials that collide to paint a vibrant picture that changes with each season, and wild flower meadows that meander throughout the grounds contrasting beautifully with the ivy-clad formality of their overlooking architecture.
The pièce de résistance for me? The Kitchen Garden; 1.5 acres of the most fruitful soil imaginable, all protected by a 12-foot elliptical sandstone wall and abundant with fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs including Red Ball sprouts, blood red chard and sorrel. Browsing the dinner menu over an expertly made grapefruit Collins that evening, it was clear to see that the relationship between Michelin-starred head chef, George Blogg, and head gardener, Tom Coward is entirely symbiotic. What is grown in the garden is eaten in the restaurant to the incredible tune of 95 per cent and is the fundamental driving force behind Blogg’s inspiring, seasonal menus.
I could write about the food we ate at Gravetye Manor for weeks, let alone pages – about the way my terrine of young heritage beetroots with slow-cooked octopus presented itself like the fusion of brilliant colour only seen in a Leonid Afremov-painted sky; about how my fillet of Newhaven-landed turbot with saffron pasta and spiced cockle foam smelled like fresh sea air; and about the most delicious sprouting broccoli I’ve ever tasted, that somehow, in the hands of Coward and Blogg’s joint mastery, managed to stand up and sing for itself when paired with a luscious confit belly of Old Spot pork. Every dish tasted even better than it looked, smelled or sang however, so please take heed – you must go.
And so to bed. As expected from any Relais & Chateaux property, a stay at Gravetye Manor is about exceptional cuisine, flawless service and originality of style, but, wonderfully, its large rooms are on par. Full, relaxed and happy, we admired our quaint, cushioned window seat beneath mullioned windows, flicked through the array of gardening books propped up on our antique chest of drawers, and brushed our teeth comforted by the warmth of underfloor heating before flopping, unashamedly, between the plump mattress and feather-soft duvet adorning our four-poster bed. Less may be more at Gravetye Manor, but it needs nothing else.
Vowels Lane, West Hoathly, Sussex, RH19 4LJ
01342 810 567