As a guest at Gravetye Manor three years ago, I described this Relais & Chateaux Country House Hotel, as ‘the pinnacle of perfection.’ Set amidst one thousand acres of wooded parkland and originally created by William Robinson, regarded as The Father of The English Flower Garden, Gravetye offered a heady bouquet of delights. From the horticultural splendour of Robinson’s gardens embracing the historic Elizabethan manor to the sophisticated hospitality and sumptuous dining, it seemed the Gravetye experience could not be improved upon. How wrong could I be?
A recent return visit confirms Gravetye’s signature attractions remain gratifyingly unchanged. Turning off a leafy West Sussex country road and negotiating the long tree lined drive leading to Gravetye’s impressive entrance, it’s difficult to believe Gatwick Airport is a mere twelve miles away. The house exudes historic architectural pedigree. Built in l598 as a wedding gift for a lucky local bride, the happy couple’s initials ‘R’ and ‘K’ can be seen in stone over the main entrance door leading from the formal garden.
In 1884, Gravetye was bought by respected nineteenth century garden theorist. William Robinson. A prolific writer who ranked alongside Gertrude Jekyll in terms of horticultural influence, he set out in numerous books and publications, his revolutionary ideas for a more sensitive, naturalistic style of wild gardening and spent fifty years putting them into practice at Gravetye. Today, the term ‘Robinsonian gardens’, as exemplified throughout the gardens and woods surrounding the house, resonates as loudly as ‘Jekyll borders.’
Having established Gravetye as a centre for horticultural excellence, its reputation shifted from garden to kitchen when the house was bought by pioneering restaurateur and hotelier Peter Herbert in 1958. He created a vanguard Country House Hotel at Gravetye serving award winning, consistently Michelin starred gourmet cuisine to a discerning and glittering clientele. Following a dip in the hotel’s fortunes after Herbert’s retirement in 2004, it was bought in 2010, by Jeremy Hosking. A former Gravetye guest, his sensitive programme of restoration, throughout both house and garden, has rejuvenated this impeccable haven of timeless elegance.
William Robinson’s personality and passion continue to permeate the very fabric of Gravetye. The ornate Victorian moulded ceilings he chose are embellished with indigenous plants and trees. The gleaming oak wall panels, sourced from the estate during Robinson’s time, are now complemented by antique furnishings polished to a mirror like surface and opulent textiles patterned with floral themes echoing the gardens outside.
From the stone mullioned windows of my spacious, oak panelled room, (all 17 rooms are named after tree species found on Gravetye’s vast estate) views of Robinson’s sculptural formal flower gardens extend out to the arboreally embellished horizon. To one side an ornamental lake nestles in a deep wooded valley. On the other an azalea bank leads to a croquet lawn. Whatever the season, this Shangri-la setting, just thirty miles from central London, offers harmonious and soothing vistas.
Flowers are everywhere. Vases of artfully arranged blooms; framed floral illustrations; even the bed hangings festooning my room’s oak four poster (featuring, of course, carved leaves) are bordered with tiny embroidered stylised sycamore wings. Thrillingly, portraits of a beruffed Richard and Katherine Infield, Gravetye’s first Elizabethan owners, can be seen carved in oak over the fireplace.
The past may be ever present but the amenities are bang up to date with complimentary Wi-Fi, flat screen television and a Bose iPod docking station. A secret door concealed within the panelling reveals a small room containing a fridge loaded with complementary organic, locally sourced fruit juices plus a classy coffee making machine and posh teas contained in dinky voile pyramids featuring a tiny green leaf. The bathroom, vast with underfloor heating, is pure Hollywood; Art Deco in style with his and hers sinks and showers.
So far Gravetye conforms to expectations. Yet, it is in the restaurant where things have changed catapulting Gravetye’s reputation for culinary excellence into hitherto unexplored stratospheric heights. Securing George Blogg as Head Chef has not only brought Gravetye another well deserved Michelin Star (awarded within a year of Blogg taking the helm) but a refreshingly vibrant and contemporary culinary ethos. Having spent time at the esteemed Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, The Square in Mayfair and Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham – all champions of locally sourced and foraged produce – his pioneering menu firmly places the garden centre stage. Surely, William Robinson would have approved.
Aficionados of the BBC2 television series MasterChef: The Professionals may recall George Blogg introducing the finalists to Gravtye’s 1.5 acre circular walled kitchen garden and asking them to emulate his signature dish, a garden salad so seasonal the ingredients change daily. Cooking with produce from Gravetye’s gardens, orchards, glass houses and smokehouse and using local suppliers who share his passion and commitment to animal welfare and top quality produce lies at the core of Blogg’s culinary philosophy.
In the restaurant, the synthesis between garden and kitchen is truly realised. The Gravetye Winter Garden salad harvested from the walled kitchen garden that day and served with confit hen’s yolk is a kaleidoscopic masterpiece on a plate providing an explosive palette of textures and tastes. When asked if the Pine Smoked Haunch of Fallow Venison was shot locally, the jolly waiter replies, ‘Two fields away.’ And knowing the Forced Rhubarb comprising the exquisitely delicious Crumble Soufflé was cut that morning only enhances an inspiring, innovative, and above all, singularly outstanding dining experience.
Breakfast showcases an equally impressive field to fork menu. And, as with dinner, it is served by an impressive battalion of knowledgeable yet congenial staff. From Alexis Jamin, the brilliant young French Sommelier to Head Gardener, Tom Coward, formerly of Great Dixter, and his dedicated gardeners, the charm, talent and passion displayed by every member of the Gravetye team, ripples through the Manor like a warm breeze through a poppy field. This perfectly calibrated collaboration between Gravetye Manor’s garden, kitchen and house proves beyond doubt, perfection can, indeed, be improved upon.
Gravetye Manor: gravetyemanor.co.uk
Places to visit nearby.
Glyndebourne offers world class opera in the Sussex countryside. glyndebourne.com
Bluebell Railway. A heritage steam railway with a station on Gravetye’s doorstep, www.bluebell-railway.co.uk/
Nymans Gardens. A beautiful, theatriical design with a superlative plant collection. nationaltrust.org.uk
Wakehurst Place, Royal Botanical Kew’s estate in the country. kew.org/visit-wakehurst
Chartwell. Sir Winston Churchill’s family home. nationaltrust.org.uk/chartwell
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