We came to Gravetye Manor on a warm day in June. I had been there once before, in autumn when the gardens were gilded and the air cold and bright. Now, in early summer, as the taxi swept us up the long curving drive, we gaped at the roses, fat as cantaloupe, smelled the magnolia, and were charmed.
There is something distinctly manorial about Gravetye, maybe because it is so profoundly English -- the Elizabethan stone mansion with its mullioned windows, its dormers and chimneys, and the ravishing Victorian gardens. Or maybe because it is one man's castle and, in a way, has always been from its beginnings in 1598 when Roger Infield built it for his bride Katherine Compton (their initials are carved over the entrance). In 1957, its present master, Peter Herbert, a dapper man with a droll wit, took it over and turned it into the best of that singular breed: the English country house hotel.
It's an eccentric species, neither resort nor country pub but a combination of both, absolutely individual, expressing the idiosyncrasies and passions of its owners past and present. There is nothing here of the hotel as theme park; no Disneyland on the Downs this, no fake Tudor timbers. This is the real thing.
Staying at Gravetye is the closest thing to staying at a very grand private house -- only the heating is better. It is also a sexy place, but sexy in that sedate English way, its ankles crossed in public amid oak-paneled walls and mellow chintz, its stays and petticoats abandoned in the seductive bedrooms upstairs where the spicy scent of wood-burning fires is pervasive among the four-posters. And then there are the meals.
The food at Gravetye gives lie to the lingering myth that you still can't get much worth eating in England. The gargantuan meals of fat fresh asparagus dripping in chive butter, the saddles of rabbit and crayfish, the claret and champagne elicit intense longing for the lavish country house parties of another age.
Gravetye Manor, about 30 miles south of London in the lush West Sussex countryside, is a member of the Relais et Chateaux, an organization of individually owned hotels in Europe whose catalogue of palaces and castles where you can sleep and eat makes the most sophisticated traveling sybarite drool. But rich food and fine wine apart, what gives Gravetye its great distinction are its gardens.
In 1885, William Robinson, whose book "The English Flower Garden," published in 1870, is gospel still to anyone with an interest in the English country garden, saw an ad in the Times under "Properties for Sale": "A Singularly attractive and highly valuable residential property, distinguished (since XVI century) and known as Gravetye Manor Estate, comprising a grand old-fashioned and picturesque Elizabethan mansion, affording ample accommodations with suitable stabling, kitchen gardens and usual adjuncts."
Robinson rushed down to Sussex to see it.
It was awful.
The house was damp, the plantation a mess, the views obscured by wall and weed, the place in utter disarray. But the house had lovely proportions and Robinson had dreams of the garden he would grow. He was a man who knew how to make his dream work.
Robinson was a poor Irish boy who became possibly the most influential gardener of the 19th century, the author of numerous books, editor of prestigious journals. Just as Capability Brown in the 18th century laid out the parks and lakes of England's great baroque palaces -- Blenheim, Longleat, Castle Howard (the "Brideshead" of the television serial) -- according to the rational principles and grandeur of that age, so Robinson in the 19th promoted the wild garden and natural planting out of the best Romantic impulse of his own.
Robinson hated the garden as set piece. He hated flowers crowded on a lawn like "tarts on a pastry cook's tray," as his biographer Mea Allanputs it in her book on Robinson. He did away with fashionable carpet bedding and the geometrics dictating that if a single bloom raised its head a little above the others it was unceremoniously chopped. And it was at Gravetye, his first and only real home, that Robinson made his garden grow according to the revolutionary ideas he conceived.
Robinson planted Gravetye's tea roses and tufted pansies. He made the meadows of sweetbriar and heather, the groves of young yew. He acquired hundreds of acres of woodland, which he bequeathed to the nation, and was prodigal with the trees he planted: the gold and silver holly, the skylines of Scotch fir, the American hickories and oak that came as a gift from Frederick Law Olmstead. And he created the alpine meadow, one of the Manor's great spring glories, where lush acres of blue anemone, crocus, snowdrop and wild tulip bloom. And yet, as you wander from the banks of the lake where Robinson swam before breakfast to the magnolia walk, from the formal garden to a flower-strewn copse, it all seems -- if utterly lovely -- very, very familiar.
Until you recall that in his day Robinson's notions were so original that on his 95th birthday in 1933, The London Evening News headline read: "He changed the face of England." On his death, two years later, a New York Times editorial noted, "As our modern American gardening is based largely upon the school which William Robinson founded, our debt to him is no less than that of English gardeners."
When Robinson died, the house he had refurbished to the highest standards of plush Victorian comfort fell into disuse. Peter Herbert bought it in 1957 and set out to put the gardens and house to rights, using Robinson's own books as guide. When you see Gravetye Manor, you see it as Robinson made it. But this is no museum. It is a place to linger in bed while the smell of bacon and just-baked croissants awakens you, a place to pursue brown trout in the lake, amble through the garden, book in hand, or picnic in Ashdown Forest, which surrounds Gravetye and where Pooh and friends lived on pots of honey.
Peter Herbert has hotels in his blood; he knows precisely how to run them. His father was the director of the famous Mermaid Inn in Rye. In 1951, at the age of 24, Herbert conjured up the Elizabethan Room at London's Gore Hotel, complete with serving wenches and mead. It was a witty footnote to the Festival of Britain at a time when restorations and repro theme parks were nearly unheard of. Folks stopped off en route from Dallas to Venice to try it, as they do now for a weekend's cosseting at Gravetye Manor.
They come from all over to this exquisitely run house with its 14 bedrooms, which have antique furniture, fresh flowers and lavish bathrooms stocked with toiletries. Some come for the sheer peace of it, the quiet of winter days, the ripe glories of summer. Some come to Gravetye for its proximity to the Glyndebourne Opera Festival and one of the prettiest opera houses on Earth, where the music is world class and as you picnic outdoors and sip your champagne, cows graze just over the hedgerow. Others make day trips to the hidden villages of the melancholy Sussex Downs, to the exotic white gardens of Sissinghurst or Virginia Woolf's house at Charleston. But as often as not, they come for the food.
If at Gravetye some of the dishes sound mannered, it all tastes absolutely wonderful -- and very rich. At lunch there was the asparagus. There were scallops bathed in leek and saffron sauce and a parfait de foie de volaille, as sensuous as silk. There was braised salmon topped with mousse of pike and a saddle of rabbit filled with chicken and pistachio mousse on a bed of homemade noodles. The vegetables had come from the garden that morning, the Angus beef, the langoustine and salmon from Scotland the day before. The seafood brioche, an enormous puff of pastry, was stuffed and overflowing with fresh fish in a blissful sorrel sauce, and all of it was impeccably served by cheerful, discreet waiters.
If, however, you get fed up with such richesses, you can order a perfect steak, a grilled trout and, instead of one of Gravetye's great vintages, a glass of mineral water from the manor's own spring. But save room for the sweets.
There are strawberries scented with tarragon (it works). There are gin and tonic and greengage sorbets and walnut ice cream. There is a Marquise au Champagne, champagne sorbet wrapped in whipped fresh cream. And if, after all this, you are still able, try the Stilton. No, says Herbert, ask for the Colston and Bassett, thus revealing you know this is the last great Stilton made in the original way.
After lunch our first day, as we strolled out toward the garden, the scents of summer everywhere, there was a sudden shower, one of those showy English rains that come hard and fast, then stop, leaving the flowers covered in diamonds, the sky streaked with rainbows.
But we were dry.
We had stopped under a giant willow tree. Which made us realize that, just as William Robinson knew when he planted his garden here and made it grow, Gravetye Manor is, quite simply, a dream that works.
Regina Nadelson is a New York writer who specializes in travel.
Gravetye Manor, near East Grinstead, England, is about 1 1/2 hours by car from London or 50 minutes by train from Victoria Station to the station at Three Bridges in Sussex.
A double room for two, including a continental breakfast, can run from about $110 to $180 per night. Dinner for two, including bar drinks and wine with the meal, can range from about $80 to $150.
Restaurant reservations are requested, and if you are not staying at Gravetye they are especially important on summer weekends when the restaurant may be fully booked a week in advance.
Gravetye Manor guests can fish in two trout lakes on the grounfds, and play croquet or clock golf (like miniature golf). Horseback riding, tennis and golf facilities are also available nearby.
INFORMATION: Contact Gravetye Manor (East Grinstead, West Sussex RH19 4LJ, phone 03-42-810-567); or David Mitchell & Co. (200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016, 212-696-1323), which handles reservations for many Relaix at Chateaux properties.