Ashdown Park, near Forest Row in East Sussex, is an extraordinary, rambling 19th century mansion and 186 acre estate. Taking its name from the surrounding Ashdown Forest that once inspired AA Milne’s Winnie The Pooh stories, the property started out as a private family home but later operated as a convent and then a university campus, before finally being converted into a hotel and country club in the 1990s by Elite Hotels, whose collection includes Luton Hoo and The Grand in Eastbourne, (the only five star on the South Coast).
The setting is second to none, with a chapel that is in almost constant use come wedding season, grounds featuring carp-filled lakes, manicured lawns, walled and secret gardens, a parkland where deer roam free and an 18 hole golf course, all of which make for a memorable and extremely active stay. Children and dogs are positively encouraged, and they’re certainly not going to be bored. When you’re done taking a jogging trail through the Bluebell Wood or exploring the magical Ashdown Forest on foot or by bike (the hotel offer secure storage), other facilities include clay tennis courts, a croquet lawn and a leisure centre and spa for weary muscles.
A striking neo-Gothic entrance with a galleried landing makes for a grand welcome, and although the hotel’s traditional interior might not be to everyone’s taste, I was soon charmed by the nostalgia of the place. Harking back to a more genteel era, the hotel’s several comfortable lounges, overlooking the glorious gardens, were all packed with afternoon tea-goers on our arrival and I half expected Miss Marple to pop up and ask me prying questions, a sense only reinforced on finding an Agatha Christie novel in our well appointed ‘Elm’ suite. With miles of corridors, it would certainly make for an amazing murder mystery weekend venue.
Reassuringly, time seems to stand still at Ashdown Park and so it feels perfectly OK to dress up for dinner if you want to, with pre-dinner drinks served in the aptly named ‘Cocktail Bar’, where guests peruse the menus and place their order before being ushered into the formal, candlelit Anderida Restaurant where I was delighted to find linen bedecked tables, silver cloches and trolleys for table-side service.
While the pace was a little slow and we eventually found ourselves the only two diners in the restaurant, with the waiters extinguishing candles and setting up for breakfast, Head Chef Andrew Wilson’s food is classic and elegant; from a smoked salmon tartare with wasabi, to a Portland crab risotto with roasted almonds and a perfectly cooked sole meunière, filleted table side.
We discussed plans for the morrow over coffee and petit fours in the lounge and, rising early the following morning, enjoyed a hearty breakfast in our chamber before heading out to explore the idyllic local area. Ashdown Park guests are spoiled for choice with nearby attractions including the famous Bluebell Railway, a heritage line with an annual steam timetable, the National Trust owned Sheffield Park Gardens and the Bluebell Vineyard, who produce a delightful sparkling wine and host regular tours and tastings.
In light of the spectacular spring weather we were enjoying we opted for somewhere we’d never visited before, the National Trust owned and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew managed Wakehurst Place; a 16th century mansion and 500 acre botanical garden that is now home to the Millennium Seed Bank, the world’s largest seed conservation project. Rightly hailed as one of the most notable gardens in all England, the spring flowers and tree blossom offered a blaze of colour and interest, while the woodland, lakes and landscaped parkland were mesmerising to both tourists and the wildlife fortunate enough to call Wakehurst home.
When you’re tired of sightseeing a massage or a swim in Ashdown’s heated pool is just the tonic before cocktail hour and dinner, a routine I could quite easily get used to. If you’re a fan of the great outdoors, picturesque gardens and a spot of golfing this might just be the venue for you. A classic hotel that hasn’t succumbed to the trends and foibles of slick, modern hospitality, and values its regular clientèle as much as new faces, Ashdown Park is a hidden gem in the heart of East Sussex that is both at one with nature and their guests.
Ashdown Park Hotel & Country Club Wych Cross, Forest Row, East Grinstead RH18 5JR. For more information and reservations please visit the website.