I was desperate to arrive at Gravetye Manor
in the light of day to see the Elizabethan House in all its glory but escaping London, which is a mere 38 miles away, all that the M25 throws at drivers around rush hour, and sideways rain, there was absolutely no chance. I had a date with the hotel’s Chief Executive, Andrew Thomason and whilst I know he spends most of his life running this country house hotel, by the time we arrive, it’s almost eight. He’s still there, and makes the excuse he has work to finish off. And whilst that’s plausible, I don’t believe him. He wanted to be there to greet us and introduce us to the staff who would make our stay and relationship with Gravetye one that we’d not forget.
The Manor was built with love in mind, there are reminders of former owners on display around Gravetye in ceilings, fireplaces and panels, but it’s surely the 19th century owner that has left his indelible mark on the property.
William Robinson was one of the most influential gardeners of his time, a controversial figure who changed the way we garden for good. I’ve written a separate piece for the Huffington Post
on the gardens, which are a great excuse for return visits throughout the changing seasons.
I love staying in sleek modern hotels, all crisp lines and life-size horse lamps but I have to say there’s nothing like staying in a traditional hotel with all the home comforts that brings, surrounded by fields, trees and staff who can’t do enough for you. There’s no spa or gym here on site and an intermittent phone reception (although free wi-fi throughout) but among the services they can offer are great afternoon tea with the best lemon drizzle cake, feather sofas you can curl up and read the paper on, unrivalled views of the Sussex Weald, and walks by the dozen.
Back to the night we arrive, after we’re ushered in with a massive umbrella, we’re given the key to ‘Walnut’. All the rooms here take the name of the trees that surround them and there are 17 in total and two suites. As we familiarise ourselves with the layout there’s a knock at the door and Laura brings in a tray of much-needed snacks, a glass of beer and a gin and tonic.
The bathroom is large, a great shower, bath, Adam and Eve sinks and plentiful toiletries by Charlotte Rhys.
I loved some of the personal touches to be found around the room, including their twist on the white-boxed sewing kit,
the cosy towelling bathrobe and slippers. There was a bottle of the Manor’s Spring water, and a complimentary bar of soft drinks. Tea and coffee was in the reception and fresh milk was in the fridge. The bed was a generous four-poster with great linen and feather pillows.
The books on offer remind the guest of its gardening heritage, with two classical works in our selection by the former owner and gardener.
There was a flat-screen TV and offer of a DVD player should we need it. But, there was no time for ogling the gogglebox, or putting the iPhone in the docking station, dinner in the restaurant is at 8.30pm and we head to the Lounge Bar bar for an aperitif. Wherever you wander there’s a lounge, space to occupy or fire just waiting to be sat in front of and when the sun’s shining there are acres and acres of gardens to explore.
There are plenty of things that catch the eye, whether it’s a work of art or views from certain windows. This particular piece is by a very special Prime Minister.
We’re introduced to Shaun Arthur, the Sommelier who guides us through the wines he’s paired with the Tasting Menu mostly from the New World with a hint of England, Spain and the Lebanon.
The Tasting Menu with matching wines is value for money at £85.00 for seven courses along with coffee and petit fours; the vegetarian option £65.00. The a la carte has plenty of choice and again the prices are reasonable.
The Hotel are searching for a new Head Chef following Rupert Gleadow’s departure who after more than seven years at the Manor’s kitchen is focusing on new challenges. It seems though, that his legacy lives on in the most excellent plates leaving the kitchen under the leadership of the Senior Sous Chef, Andy Robertson. Maybe they should call off the search?
We begin with a New Season Potato Mousse with pickled shallots and toasted oats it’s a rich, foam-gunned potato soup which is light and offset by the crunch of the shallots and snap of the oats.
The English Sparkling Hindleap Syval Blanc from the Bluebell Vineyard Estates 2010 kicked off proceedings and the label reminded me of the worst experience of my junior life. It involved Hindleap Warren, the words ‘second year camp’ and a weekend spent freezing cold and mostly soggy and damp. Thankfully, after one sip the awful memory was a distant one again. A beautiful pale golden colour with a nose a lot like an English Rose garden.
The Confit Organic Salmon with an oyster emulsion and sea herbs was a beautiful square of exquisite salmon served on a bed of crispy samphire, the shrimp-fried poppadom was an extra treat and the sea purslane so very pretty and a taste I experience rarely.
A 2011 Australian Sauvignon/Semillon from the Hamelin Bay vineyard, a typical blend of two grapes. This was full of floral pear and melons and cut through the strong fish tastes.
All the portions were thankfully large enough to appreciate, but small enough not to feel full.
The pancetta-wrapped Quail with smoked potato puree, pickled shimeji mushrooms in a light quail sauce was our next dish. A crisp ironed piece of bacon topped the perfectly cooked Quail, pink in the centre, the smoked potatoes were delicious and the flavourful mushrooms were straight out of the Borrower’s Garden.
The big red to enjoy with the meat was an obvious choice but a brilliant one – Edicion Limitada, Rioja from the Bodega of Ramon in Bilbao was full of berries, plums and cherries and worked well with the quail.
Then came the OMG moment Poached Monkfish Loin and Native Lobster served with crisp vegetables and a light coconut broth. I love a culinary performance like the next diner and you don’t have to go to nearby Glyndebourne to experience one. Just make sure you get this dish. Under a porcelain cloche the dish sans-broth, then a waitress arrives with a see-through teapot, a delicious Thai-inspired sauce is drizzled moat-like around the dish.
The meaty monkfish was dense, the lobster beautifully pink and soft, the delicately spiced broth was just delicious and reminded me of the best bisque I’d ever tasted in Paris.
The different textures in this dish were fabulous in the mouth and I hanker after a plate as I write.
A Reserve Viognier, crisp, white and chilled to perfection was the next glass from Finca Sophenia in Argentina.
Concentrated fruits and flowers made this dish and pairing my favourite of the evening.
The Grange Farm Rabbit Loin served with Jerusalem artichoke, chanterelles, nasturtium pesto and pomegranate was another winner. The skill set needed to pull this dish off are way out there. Pasta, the perfect cylinder of rabbit loin, a sublime gravy, along with a perfect leaf pesto.
A middle eastern blend of three grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault from the Bekaa Valley was another great marriage. A ‘youthful’ wine with a smell of cherry yogurt. Again deep jammy plums, blackcurrants and cherries.
One of the many roaring fires continued to spew heat and crackle and the dishes kept coming, each one a delightful surprise.
The palate cleansing Apple, Sorrel and Cucumber Granita was a stunning plate, cleanser-cum-dessert this was a great mix along with a white chocolate cream and garden flowers. The crunchy cucumber granita made way for the last dish of Malted Barley Ice Cream.
The dessert wine, of which I’m not usually a fan, less so is Mr was beautiful and a Decanter Bronze Winner 2013. The Campbells Rutherglen Muscat from Australia was rich and sweet with all sorts of flavours going on from nuts to caramel and gave me the perfect end to the perfect meal.
But it wasn’t just ice cream. The kitchen here at Gravetye Manor doesn’t do ‘just ice cream’. A ganache-stuffed cannelloni was the star of the plate and the puffed barley or posh Sugar Puffs and beer reduction helped the delicate cream-stuffed crisp chocolate pastry along.
We took our coffee and petit fours back in the bar and Mr enjoyed a glass of Peat Monster – a smokey malt from Islay he hadn’t tried.
If you need some formal recognition of the hotel’s standards as I mentioned it’s part of the exacting Relais & Chateaux group, and is also a member of the Pride of Britain Hotels Group. It has 3 AA rosettes, was voted AA Hotel of the Year for 2013/14, and
was voted Best Countryside Hotel 2014 in the UK and Ireland by Johansen
When we get back to our room, there’s a Radio Times open on the day’s listings along with the TV remote control, there’s also the offer of breakfast in bed, along with a menu of what is on offer.
After an excellent night’s sleep, we scrape into the dining room for breakfast with just two minutes to spare. I’m not even sure there would be a cut off point if you smiled sweetly. So relaxed was the experience, I forgot to take pictures of my haddock and Mr’s granola. I did manage to wake up and get a snapshot of the homemade marmalade which was tawny and sticky and perfect for spreading over hot buttered toast.
Only 12 miles from Gatwick (not on the flight path) so if you’re looking for a break away from the hustle and bustle of city life then this is the place – near enough to the city but far enough away. East Grinstead Railway Station is just an hour away from Victoria and a ten minute taxi ride to Gravetye. There are a plethora of country houses, country pubs and country walks so if you’re looking for somewhere special then this is a fabulous base. There’s also the offer of a chauffeur driven land rover, complete with expert guide, to help guests learn more about the Sussex and Kent countryside.
When you visit Gravetye, test my theory and take one of those books in your room written by the previous owner, order a glass of something special, whether it’s fizz or a rather fine pot of tea and, weather permitting, ask to take it by the Croquet Lawn. I bet there will be blankets, hot water bottles and a toddy there before you can say William Robinson and I bet they don’t even blink. Nothing, and I repeat nothing is too much trouble here. The guest is Lord and Lady of the Manor.
After a long walk, a little bird track identification and some plant recognition,
we head back to the lounge with the biggest fire and it’s hard to pick, so we sit in the sunniest with a pot of coffee and tea, and the law at Gravetye Manor is that it’s served with a cube of cake.
There’s no hurry to move us out, in fact we have to force ourselves to leave. If things get messy, then I guess you’ll end up in these antique stocks at the back of the house but, what a view!
I feel a staff roll-call coming on, special mentions to the charming Kyle McLaughlin who was just four days into his role (unbelievable); the charming Sean Arthur who indulged us with our wine loves; Mike Wheeler the Assistant Restaurant Manager who chatted with Mr and shared their whisky loves over breakfast and to the gentleman that is Andrew Thomason for making Graveyte Manor a very, very special place. Emma the unflappable head receptionist who knows when a gal needs a gin and tonic and to all the other lovely people whose names I didn’t get, but whose attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed.
A gushing review? Absolutely. Were we treated any differently to those who were guests staying too? Absolutely not.
I was invited to Gravetye Manor to spend the night, and would return in a heartbeat.
That one night felt like three away from the capital and that’s not a bad thing for a hotel manager to hear as guests drive away, is it?
Gravetye Manor, Vowels Lane, West Hoathly, West Sussex RH19 4LJ
Relais & Chateaux booking line is free 0800 2000 00 02.