There are some places that are so lovely you can’t stop thinking about them after you leave, and Gravetye Manor is most definitely one of those.
It probably helped that I visited during one of the most glorious weekends of the summer, so even though I arrived all hot and bothered after three hours crawling along the M25, a mere five minutes later I was feeling wonderfully soothed and relaxed thanks to being in Gravetye’s fabulous gardens (the gin and tonic probably helped too).
The gardens are stunning, a riot of different colour and sizes and far removed from the formality of grander establishments. There are some tables on the main lawn but we – my mother was my lucky plus one for the stay – were shown to a lovely table round the side of the manor, in a beautiful courtyard overlooking a wild flower meadow beyond which was a sparkling lake.
With the traffic delay I had worried I would be too late for lunch but no, at Gravetye Manor food is served in the gardens or lounge from 10am until 10pm which is extremely civilised, especially for a Sunday in the middle of the West Sussex countryside. The menu wasn’t just a ‘light bite’ option either but top-quality British food, from wild cress and nettle risotto to salad of seared pigeon breast. I had dressed south coast crab followed by the fish of the day, pollock, with summer garden vegetables and they were both as wonderful as the view.
We had been the only ones in our garden glade for a few hours but the other tables – all at a good discrete distance apart, tucked under the trees – were starting to fill up as people spilled outside for post-lunch coffees (there was a very formal party who were all wearing black tie and cocktail dresses) or arrived for afternoon tea.
It was time to check out our room at the top of the manor and it was vast, with a fabulous view over the gardens, large bathroom, desk, sofas and a perfect window seat on which to have a post-lunch snooze.
While Gravetye Manor is a beautiful building and fast building a reputation as one of best hotels in the country – recent accolades include best independent hotel of the year from Caterer magazine, AA hotel of the year, and Conde Nast’s best countryside hotel – the atmosphere is still very relaxed and informal.
It has a classic country house feel where you are left alone to wander at will, to curl up with a book in a snug corner, to play croquet on its immaculate croquet lawn, to amble around the kitchen gardens, down to the lake or have a drink at its cosy and well-stocked bar. Staff are there but invisible, so it genuinely feels like a grand old house and you can almost convince yourself that you actually live there.
Built in 1598 by local landowner Richard Infield for his bride, Katherine, Gravetye’s origins as a notable garden site were – literally – sown in 1884 when world-famous gardener William Robinson bought it and the 1,000 acres which surrounds Gravetye. Robinson was known for creating the classic English garden, where the idea was to enhance the natural beauty of woods and gardens rather than forcing or controlling them into more formal styles.
Peter Herbert, who bought Gravetye in 1958, established it as a top hotel, but after his retirement the hotel’s new owners struggled to keep it afloat, and it went into administration in 2010. Thankfully after its rescue and a £2.5 million refurbishment by its new owners, Elizabeth and Jeremy Hoskings, Gravetye is very much back to its best, a fact very much in evidence at its stunning evening meal.
With only one wrong note – the flaked Dorset cock crab which was hidden underneath a bed of crisps and a very strange green cucumber jelly disc – the food was superb, from the canapes to the amuse-bouche watercress soup, to the hand-dived Orkney scallops with miso glaze. The main courses of Cornish turbot with black rice and girolle mushrooms and herb-crusted saddle of lamb with roasted garlic and haggis were really special, and rarely has a cheese trolley been so expertly and enthusiastically explained as by our fabulous waiter James, who hasn’t been at Gravetye Manor for long but who’s destined to go far.
With 95 per cent of all the fruit and vegetables coming from Gravetye’s one-acre walled kitchen garden, the food could hardly be more local, and after a superb breakfast the next morning (poached eggs and award-winning black pudding, no less) we had a lovely walk around the grounds with Tom Coward, the head gardener who clearly knows his onions (and flowers and fruits and….).
He’s been responsible for the gardens for the last five years, working closely with the head chef to decide what goes into the kitchen gardens and greenhouses, and managing the tricky job of preserving William Robinson’s vision while also taking it forward for the years to come.
We bid a reluctant farewell to Gravetye, waved off by the very smart and debonair managing director Andrew Thomason, and headed off to the local delights of Wakehurst, Kew Garden’s country estate and local vineyard Ridgeview. However we will most certainly be back, but until then I will have to content myself with telling everyone I know about this gem in the English countryside.
Gravetye Manor, Vowels Lane, West Hoathly, Sussex RH19 4JL 01342 810 567
Single rooms from £210 a night, classic doubles from £325 and exclusive doubles from £495. Throughout the year Gravetye hosts events including garden tours with Tom Coward, wine-tastings and a Guy Fawkes evening with dinner and fireworks
Lunch in the garden
Dressed south coast crab with garlic mayonnaise and gem lettuce
Pollack fillet with mashed potato, summer garden vegetables and gem lettuce
Salad of seared wood pigeon breast, preserved brambleberries and sorrel
Strawberries with cream
Flaked Dorset cock crab with Jersey Royal potato salad, baeru caviar and cucumber
Hand-dived Orkney scallops, miso glaze, spring radish, sesame and seaweed cracker
Fillet of Cornish turbot, black rice, grelot onion, girolle mushroom and chicken jus
Herb-crusted saddle of new season lamb, roasted garlic, haggis, wilted spinach and mint jellies
Gooseberry crumble souffle, clotted cream ice-cream, gooseberry and mint compote
Selection of British artisan cheeses