Your first visit to Gravetye Manor in Sussex, a Grade I listed stone Elizabethan mansion with over 1,000 acres of parkland, feels as wondrous as turning the pages of The Secret Garden as a child, whereas the second time is arguably even more special, tinged by fond memories and expectations that are always surpassed by a staff who not only remember, but cherish their regulars.
Glorious in any season, the familiar sweeping woodland drive I remember being carpeted with bluebells during my brief sojourn in spring last year was wonderfully altered; the trees just beginning to lose their vivid summer green in favour of more muted amber hues, complete with atmospheric mist and a crackling log fire ready to welcome guests on stepping into the oak-pannelled lounge adjoining the entrance hall, where warm scones, homemade cakes and a pot of ‘First Romance’ Lapsang Souchang with rose petals was beckoning me.
Faithful to the garden created by master horticulturist William Robinson who moved to Gravetye Manor in 1884, early September is a bounteous time to visit due to the extensive Victorian walled kitchen garden – from which so much of the Michelin star restaurant menu designed by Executive Chef George Blogg, takes direct inspiration – being crammed with goodies ready for the eight full-time gardeners to harvest each day.
As it happened, I chanced to see Chef Blogg being driven around the grounds on a tractor in his chef’s whites, clearly off to select some produce for his passionately seasonal dishes. Discovering countless varieties of English apples, cabbages and beetroot all ripe for the taking during my afternoon walk, this in turn made my excitement grow at the prospect of dining in the new garden-facing restaurant opened earlier this year to further enhance the field-to-fork concept that is so dear to Gravetye. As they so proudly announce, ‘If it’s not in season, it’s not on the menu.’
Ingeniously celebrating the hotel’s most remarkable asset with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow panoramic views of the abundant flower borders and the wider estate beyond, the new apple green dining space designed by architect Sir Charles Knowles in collaboration with interior designer Claire Nelson, draws the outside in with comfortable seating, pretty flower murals and a vaulted glass ceiling that floods the room with daylight, offering diners an al fresco feeling all year round. An elegant private room has meanwhile been created in the former wood pannelled dining room and is already proving popular with guests wanting to mark a special occasion at magical Gravetye, awarded Pride of Britain Hotels prestigious ‘Hotel of the Year 2018’, an accolade that takes into account each element of a stay here, not least the genuinely warm service.
Sample one of Gravetye’s specially designed botanical cocktails in the bar before dinner, or classics such as a Margarita featuring a smoked salt rim direct from the smokehouse, whilst perusing the three fine dining menus available each evening; an excellent value menu du jour (£50 for three courses), a more extensive a la carte or a gastronomic seven course tasting menu with wine pairings by Head Sommelier Alexis Jamin.
The symmetrical presentation of my starter suggested the precision and skill one bite confirmed; honey-cured South Coast mackerel topped with sesame, accompanied by a cylinder of freshly picked white crab meat encased in a zingy citrus gel. To finish, pickled kohlrabi, borage flowers and puffed rice added to the texture and Asian influence, while the Chamonix 2016 Franschhoek South African Chardonnay, aged for fourteen months in French oak, complimented the oiliness of the fish with its buttery, vanilla and musk characteristics.
The main event of autumn-inspired local loin of Roe venison with cep, pine smoke, chestnut and chartreuse sauce was a tribute to the comfort food we seek when the nights grow colder. The gaminess of the tender, medium-rare meat perfectly balanced alongside a fine Rioja and ingredients mirroring the deer’s natural environment out on the estate, yet all artistically presented so as to bring a new energy and boldness to well-loved flavour combinations that become a revelation when prepared by Blogg.
Desserts such as acorn soufflé showcase Gravetye’s classic techniques yet forward-thinking approach to ingredients, as did my dessert of smoked apple parfait with thyme, a hazelnut sponge and an appealingly fresh looking sunrise apple sorbet; the notes of thyme an extremely successful marriage with the smooth, creamy parfait, the sweet, tart sorbet and the light, nutty sponge base. The Coteaux du Layon Passerille (100% pure Chenin Blanc), produced by one of the best regional producers of sweet wine, Philippe Delesvaux, was an expert pairing due to its honeyed, apricot body yet clean, crisp finish. Meanwhile, the English cheese trolley fairly buckles under the weight of its generous offering, delighting and overawing my mama in equal measure, though her requests for the merest ‘slivers’ hardly did justice to such an impressive selection, nor the abundant accoutrements of fruit, quince, chutney, nuts and crackers. The aged Tawny port was received readily, however.
Retiring to our luxurious, cosy Mulberry chamber (one of only 17 rooms at Gravetye) overlooking the striking rear garden and immaculate croquet lawn, with a large comfortable bed made up with sheets and blankets (hoorah!), I insisted that, for once, we haul ourselves downstairs breakfast the following morning; allowing us to admire the meticulous work of the gardening team led by Head Gardener, Tom Coward, who were pruning back the expired summer flowers in the dewy sun-bathed borders as we breakfasted lazily on apple juice, Gravetye Breakfast Tea and a Full English featuring Middle White pork sausage, smoked Dingley Dell back bacon and their own free range eggs. The Benedict, with marmalade-baked, local ham, is also a signature breakfast dish here and one I intend to return for, among other things.
This exclusive English paradise isn’t about catching planes (albeit Gatwick is just 12 miles away), attending conferences, booking massages, or working out in a gym, its about playing croquet, relaxing in the intoxicatingly fragrant wild flower meadow, celebrating good old-fashioned hospitality and appreciating the fruits of the British land thanks to one very talented chef who will have you putting your name down for your own allotment the minute you return home. It would be a dangerous thing for the waistline to stay too long at Gravetye Manor, be sensible and come little and often. I recommend at least one night every season.
A one-night stay at Gravetye Manor, Vowels Ln, East Grinstead RH19 4LJ, costs from £275 per room/£138 pp (two sharing) including full English breakfast. Visit www.prideofbritainhotels.com to book.