Our spring sojourn in Sussex began with a visit to Borde Hill Garden where 17 acres of formal landscaping delights professional and amateur horticulturists alike, while the wider estate offers incredible views over the Sussex Weald and Ouse Valley. After a pick-me-up at the al fresco Little Ritz Tea Café which serves a tempting selection of home-made cakes, we explored the compartmentalised gardens with the delight of children who get lost in a maze; the exotic Garden of Allah, the beautiful Azelea Ring, the traditional Rose Garden and the peaceful Italian Garden all granting a unique, yet tranquil atmosphere that is constantly evolving thanks to an array of intriguing sculptures designed to provoke interest and discussion.
A scenic eight-mile car journey took us to our weekend destination, and experiencing Sussex during bluebell season is like catching the tulips of Holland or the lavender of Provence, nor can there be a better place to revel in the sight of woodlands swathed in glorious lilac than Gravetye Manor and its sweeping thousand-acre estate. If you’re lucky you might even glimpse a steam train from the nearby Bluebell Railway as you arrive via the pretty village of West Hoathly; the cheery toot-toots of the passing locomotive a wonderful reminder of an England almost (but not absolutely) forgotten.
Despite the expansive land attached to the impressive Elizabethan stone manor the experience at Gravetye remains very much sacrosanct due to the hotel having just 17 bedrooms and suites; our individually styled Pear chamber bursting with character due to antique furniture and plush floral fabrics inspired by their very own country garden which can be seen from the panoramic mullioned windows. Originally designed by the renowned horticulturist William Robinson who lived here in the 19th century and championed a more naturalist planting style, the 35 acres of formal gardens are now faithfully maintained by Head Gardener Tom Coward, and from the lake and wild flower meadow to the croquet lawn and flower garden, it’s wonderful to see how guests cherish Gravetye’s remarkable setting.
It seems fitting that the bedrooms are named after tree species found on the estate, with each key fob having been hand carved from the wood in question, a thoughtfulness that sums up the attention to detail you can expect here. Fresh fruit and flowers, Tea Forté’s gourmet leaf tea, a Nespresso machine and a fridge filled with complimentary soft drinks made our top floor room overlooking the garden an extremely inviting place to flop after a long journey, while the luxury bathroom stocked with Noble Isle toiletries were the perfect tools for a reviving soak. A generous stack of magazines included the latest Harper’s Baazar raving about none other than Gravetye in the ‘Escape’ section, and made for one very smug guest.
When I ventured out of my plush chamber I discovered that Gravetye is all about intimacy, with everything from the garden and its well dispersed seating dotted around the lawns and various nooks and crannies, to the wood-pannelled bar, lounges and restaurant allowing (nay, positively encouraging) a tête-à-tête that won’t be overheard. Whatever the season, this is an incredibly romantic destination and you’re bound to find a favourite spot.
The snug bar offers an interesting range of cocktails highlighting botanicals from the estate, while the locally produced Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2014 seemed like a natural aperitif on a mild spring evening; its clean, crisp notes of granny smith apple coming alive with the selection of warm canapés as we deliberated over the menu. Having been awarded one Michelin star in 2015 Head Chef George Blogg’s ever-changing à la carte draws on Gravetye’s bountiful kitchen garden, along with exceptional meat from local producers and fish direct from the South Coast.
The sommelier’s suggestion of a robust Meerlust Rubicon proved the ideal partner for my opening course of Trenchmore Farm Sussex Wagyu beef tartare, featuring sublimely tender meat that still managed to hold its own with powerful ingredients such as black truffle and horseradish. Extremely well balanced, the richness of the truffle was contrasted with the horseradish cream which added a gentle warmth, while the sweet pickled onions offered a welcome texture and flavour variation.
For main the poached loin of local rabbit with leg meat sausage shouted out to me and arrived spectacularly presented with flourishes of wild garlic leaves, morel mushrooms, baby carrots and a silky carrot purée. Rich yet light, this intensely flavoured dish captured British springtime in just a handful of ingredients, while the deft cookery of the loin celebrated the leanness and delicacy of the much underestimated rabbit.
It’s true that I have something of a penchant for soufflés, and due to the fact that I have never seen so many perfectly risen examples leaving the kitchen, I couldn’t bring myself to order anything other than the imaginative rhubarb crumble variation with clotted cream ice cream. The crumble topping was nothing short of inspired, for the texture contrast was as appealing a match for the hot soufflé as the cold ice cream, however, whilst it was technically prize-winning, I would have preferred the rhubarb flavour to have been incorporated into the mix rather than featuring solely in the sauce which the waiter poured into the centre, for when I ran out of the sharp fruit I was left with a sugary fluff with not much to say for itself. This prompted me to move onto my husband’s wonderful assortment of English cheeses for a savoury hit, much to his consternation.
Aside from the exemplary food at Gravetye, the other most important aspect of a hotel has to be the sleep quality, and I certainly slept well and long here, perhaps due to the crisp sheets and blankets (no duvet in sight I’m pleased to report), dreamy down pillows and a healthy dose of fresh air the day before. When I eventually surfaced it was uplifting to see that breakfast, served at our usual table by the window in the dining room, featured just as many regional ingredients as dinner the night before; from apple juice straight from the Gravetye orchard and local bacon and sausages, to their own smoked Loch Duart salmon, served with free range scrambled eggs so yellow I needed sunglasses.
Though sorry to leave this magical hotel, where the staff look so content that they would pay to come to work, we had a train to catch, for travelling on the Bluebell Railway during bluebell season was too irresistible an opportunity to miss, especially as the line takes its name from the bluebells that sprung up because of Gravetye’s former owner, William Robinson, who used to throw seeds from the window of the train as he commuted into London.
The man at the ticket office told us it wouldn’t be worth upgrading to 1st Class and he was quite right, for when the friendly porter ushered us to a capacious 3rd class compartment, we were surprised to find original seating, vintage lights and sycamore wood panelling, not to mention a panoramic window through which the lilac tinged woodlands were revealed to us at a respectable pace, clouds of smoke billowing in our wake. It was a marvellous way to end our weekend and we waved goodbye to Gravetye and Sussex with a heavy heart.
Gravetye Manor, Vowels Lane, West Hoathly, Sussex, RH19 4LJ. For more information please visit the website.