Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Here's to You, Mr Robinson

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Here's to You, Mr Robinson

Article excerpt

Byline: MARCUS SCRIVEN

Travel

Forget spas and gyms. Thanks to an earlier owner of Gravetye Manor, the most rigorous exercise on offer is a stroll around the flower gardens, says Marcus Scriven

WHAT'S our registration number?"

"W something. Can't remember."

The peer and his wife were attempting to register at Gravetye Manor, having negotiated a mile-long drive booby-trapped with speed bumps and a whiplash bend.

A man in white shirt, tie and blue apron grabbed the noble luggage and disappeared.

Moments later I followed, the staircase creaking agreeably. My room, Lime (all 18 rooms bear the name of a tree), was big enough to swing a horse in; excessive warmth promised swift sedation.

Opening a leaded window let cool air in, plus a murmur of traffic, filtered through 1,000 Forestry Commission acres

which insulate Gravetye from racetracks masquerading as Sussex lanes.

Exquisitely aware that, for the same money - [pound]280 a night, before indulgences like breakfast - I could have had a weekend's skiing, I studied my room in detail. A couple of oils by Henry G Moon (1857-1905), a handsome drop-leaf table (18th century mahogany), on which stood an ice bucket with a half-bottle of Veuve Clicquot, a couple of armchairs, a dressing table, writing table, bookshelf (Mary Tudor; Flashman at the Charge; Mountbatten's Personal Diaries), and another drop-leaf table (the Antique Collectors Guide, The Field, Harpers and Queen). A tapestry fire-screen masked the television.

The bathroom offered a decent drawing of Gravetye in 1968, "fine milled vegetable soap", a built-in bath, but no telephone - instead, an overhead speaker connected to the Roberts wireless by my bed, with a volume switch above twin basins.

Egg sandwiches, a couple of scones with raspberry jam worth killing for and dollops of cream on flowery china were served on a damask tablecloth. So far, so Relais and Chateaux, the unrepentantly expensive group of which Gravetye is a member, but, unlike many of its ilk, Gravetye disdains the spa-and-fitness business. The severest exercise on offer is a stroll around its gardens, created by William Robinson, who died, aged 97, at Gravetye in 1935, after 49 years there. Detesting the "empty formality" of Versailles, Robinson insisted on "flower gardens" of valerian, azalea and foxtail lilies, linked by York stone paths. Their blooms coincide with Glynde-bourne, when Gravetye devotees - three-quarters of the hotel's guests are "repeat business", not the sort to be deterred by a weekend bill of [pound]1,000 - stay for days at a time. In winter the garden is more muted, with a fringe of housing exposed on the skyline across the valley. But on a morning when the lake, if not its swans, froze solid, with the pasture beyond frost-crusted, it was beguiling enough.

Gumboots were stowed in a cloakroom outside the front door, lest you had forgotten your own - the sort of practical detail which counters the stubborn sensation that you have strayed into a film. …

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