For anyone who has been wondering where the posts are for the rest of our river cruise, I promise to get to them now that we have reliable internet access and a much less demanding schedule. Cruises as port-intensive as ours was, from the Black Sea to Amsterdam, leave very little time for keeping a journal. Add to that the fact that we were without a keyboard until we got to Vienna, and virtually without the internet from then on, and you can see why I got so far behind.
But once we boarded the plane in Amsterdam for the one-hour flight to Gatwick, we really began to unwind. As we flew over the southeastern part of England, dropping in altitude by the minute, I could see the familiar green countryside spread out beneath us in a one-tone patchwork quilt of fields, hedges, and pastures. I never tire of that view of England, especially on a beautiful sunny day.
Our luggage arrived on the baggage carousel without incident, and we collected our rental car, fished our big AA Road Atlas out of the carry-on, and set out for the village of West Hoathly. Gerry navigates and I drive in England, except for his solo trips to the nearest shop for a newspaper, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for both of us to slip back into our routine. Of course, unfamiliarity with the car (an Audi wagon with way too many bells and whistles) resulted in some hard braking, and the engine died at the rental car exit gate, but we thought it was just that I hadn’t relearned the finer points of right-hand drive and left side of the road traffic.
We are renting a house in the country not far from Billingshurst and Horsham, in West Sussex, and the term of our stay runs from June 20 to July 25. Because of our internet problems, we hadn’t been able to make an online reservation for June 19, our first night in England. The owner of our house had suggested Gravetye (pronounced just the way it’s spelled: Grave-tie) Manor, a country house hotel not very far from where we’re spending the next five weeks. We didn’t have any information about it except that it looks beautiful, has an excellent chef, and is a member of the Relais & Chateaux group of hotels, no small recommendation. And we didn’t have a reservation, so the chances of our getting a room at the inn were slight.
I followed Gerry’s instructions as he directed me along extremely narrow roads, all of which seemed to be undergoing some sort of construction project requiring the traffic to make a detour (without any road signs to indicate where we actually were); but quite suddenly we found ourselves in West Hoathly, the village outside of which Gravetye Manor is located. A little further along the road we saw a nicely lettered sign telling us to turn right to get to the hotel.
A long, winding, narrow road led us eventually to a spectacularly beautiful 16th-century country house, set behind flowering borders, with a walled garden on each side. I couldn’t magine that there was a vacant room, but Gerry went in to speak to the receptionist while I waited in the car and reveled in the quiet of the countryside.
In a very short time, though, a friendly and enthusiastic Irish porter extracted me from the car, collected our overnight bags, and ushered me inside, accompanied by a lilting stream of praise for the gardens behind the house. We had been given, he said, the most beautiful room in the hotel, which would be ready for us shortly. Meanwhile, would we please step outside, take a seat at one of the tables tucked away in various corners of the garden, and someone would bring us a drink while we waited. Dazed and a little overwhelmed, we sat down on blue canvas chairs and let the pure perfection of everything we could see wash over us.
The house, of warm grey stone with tall brick chimneys, was built in 1598 by Richard Infield for his bride, Katherine; and the initials “R” and “K” can still be seen carved over the entrance from the formal garden. Set in a thousand acres of parkland, the estate managed to escape much of the political turmoil of the centuries and even today seems to embody a deep sense of peace. Its most notable owner, however, should be given credit for giving this beautiful place its unique and enduring character.
William Robinson was one of the greatest gardeners of all time. He was a pioneer of the creation of the English natural garden, a concept that has been admired and copied all over the world for over a century. His books on gardening are still in print and selling well. He bought the manor house and its surrounding thousand acres in 1884, and he created at Gravetye the kind of garden he had always sought to design, one that enhanced the natural beauty of its setting.
We were reminded of the gardens at Upton Grey Manor in Hampshire, where we stayed five years ago, which were designed by the equally great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll. She was an Arts and Crafts-era gardener, but we’re sure she must have known of Robinson’s work and even, perhaps, have known him as well.
Robinson lived in the house until his death, well into his nineties, in 1935; and during his time there, he made tasteful improvements to the interior (not following the trends of the time, fortunately). He panelled the interior walls with wood from the estate and added “modern” conveniences like fireplace furnishings in the rooms.
Our room, interestingly enough, had been Robinson’s study, so the ceilings were higher than in the other rooms. In the bathroom, there was a non-functioning fireplace, used as a design element, which had been discovered only when the current owner was doing a major-league interior renovation of the house in 2010. The fireplace was inside a wall, so instead of removing it, they chose to feature it. Between 1958 and 2004, the manor was used as a country house hotel, but nothing like the calibre of the present facility. The owner from 1958 onward retired and eventually sold the property, and in 2011 a full-scale restoration began. Brickwork, chimney, and roof repairs ensured that the manor will remain as it is for generations to come. Redecoration has been carefully done so that everything retains the flavor of the origianl house. All the bedrooms are named for trees that grow on the estate, so our room was “Holly.”
A four-poster tester bed, a window seat, glorious views through mullioned glass windows, plus more comforts than most homes offer — we could have happily stayed for a week. Every good hotel provides a book in each room outlining the available guest services, but one entry in the book at Gravetye Manor speaks volumes about the unique nature of the place: “Individual deerstalking can be arranged on the estate. Please speak to the receptionist.”
But the principal work undertaken by the new owners is the restoration of the gardens as envisioned and developed by William Robinson. A staff of seven gardeners now looks after the property, one of whom always brings his beautiful dog, Vera, to work with him. When I was walking around for a last look at the gardens, he cut me a bouquet of bright red poppies to take with me. Such a beautiful, welcoming place, and something we would never have found on our own.
Dinner, as expected, was a treat. The dining room is small and elegant, with lovely paintings on the walls, fresh bouquets of flowers from the gardens on the tables, and a superb prix fixe menu of wonderful dishes. Breakfast the next morning was equally delicious (Eggs Benedict for Gerry, “full English breakfast” for me), and then we made our leisurely way to The Haven and Keepers Cottage.
To see more of the house and gardens, click on this link.