We headed off for East Sussex today, to the little settlement of Streat. In celebration of our wedding anniversary, we’ve taken lodgings in an old dairy, right behind a tiny church, in the middle of the South Downs National Park.
Obviously, we weren’t going to go via the M25, like Maxine wanted us to. Given we could almost draw a straight line from our house to Streat, we followed it across country. This meant some lovely scenery, interspersed with gluts of traffic at towns and villages as schools let out and people headed home, early on a Friday.
There was a moment of high anxiety when we missed the dairy and had to negotiate a couple of Stonehenge like boulders placed in such a way as to deter the most ambitious of drivers. But, following my wobbly position at the head of the car, red flag metaphorically held high, Mirinda and Ms Crank Pants, managed to guide Max through a gap narrower than himself.
With views over the Downs and a jeweller to show us around, we settled in for a brief rest before heading out for dinner.
We booked the extraordinary Gravetye (I pronounce it ‘gravity’ though it is actually ‘grave-tie’) for our proper anniversary dinner and we were not disappointed.
Graveye was once the home of William Robinson (1838-1935) sometimes called the Greatest Gardener of All Time, who lived there from around 1885 until his death. He bought the decaying manor and the 1,000 acres it sat in and transformed it into the amazing place we saw this evening.
I first made the acquaintance of Mr Robinson during our visit to Iford Manor Gardens a few weeks ago. Mirinda, of course, already knew of him, given that Gertrude Jekyll was a great admirer and Mirinda is a big Gerty fan.
Arriving at the big, wrought iron gates, we were a bit concerned that we’d come to the wrong entrance and should, in fact, have headed for the servant’s door. However, like magic, the gates opened and allowed us access and we headed for the car park where we were met by a uniformed chap who greeted us warmly, taking us through to the garden for a pre-dinner drink.
It is incredibly expensive to stay at Gravetye, something which is apparent in the cars out the front of the hotel. These are the staying guest’s vehicles. Little Max would have looked a bit out of place parked alongside the Bentley but it would have been quite satisfying.
Actually, given the tiny, narrow lanes we’d driven down to reach the place, a small car makes perfect sense. Plus, I feel sure people who spend ridiculous amount of money on transport would be more worried about scratching them than us.
One of the small roads we drove down was called Slugwash Lane, a name derived from ‘slough wash’, something that would happen during the winter before sealed roads were a thing. The fields would move onto the country lane, making passing through very difficult. I can well imagine these big, expensive cars trying to plough through the slough to reach their comfy beds back in the day. I also wonder how they would have gone trying to manoeuvre between the boulders mentioned earlier.
Given my general antipathy for automobiles I don’t normally talk about them, but I feel I should mention the Aston Martin for Nicktor’s sake, and I can’t hide my delight in also mentioning that there were more Audis than anything else parked up at the front door.
Seated outside with a big bed of tulips between us and the lawn, we chilled with olives and pistachios, sipping cocktails and thoroughly enjoying the brilliant sunshine and late afternoon warmth.
While very famous for its gardens, Gravetye is much older than William Robinson. In fact, the chap who showed us to our garden chairs, was quick to point out that the porch we walked through was built in 1598. The original manor was built by a fellow called Richard Infield, a successful landowner and blast furnace adopter.
Richard built the manor in order to overlook his iron works, which is odd in hindsight but, I’m sure, very satisfying for Richard. Actually, the unimaginative Richard named his son Richard who named his son Richard as well. A daughter, however, inherited the place in 1624 and she was called Agnes.
Agnes married a barrister and they lived happily ever after in various places around East Sussex, which was just called Sussex in those days. The place then went to Agnes’ son, Benjamin, possibly because he WASN’T called Richard who lived there until at least 1702.
There was then a succession of tenants until Robinson moved in. After he died, there were various inhabitants, including a bunch of Canadian soldiers during WWII, until it was turned into a hotel in 1958. It is now owned and run by Jeremy and Elizabeth Hosking. And boy are they doing it right.
The service is fantastic. The staff are attentive though not intrusive, friendly rather than aloof, almost like they love working there. And the food…well, my scallops, lobster, duck and fennel dishes were all superb.
The dessert pictured above is possibly the best dessert I have ever had. Not too sweet but a perfect palate freshener. It consists of fennel, sesame, honey and lime and, I think, looks beautiful. Mirinda had a bergamot souffle with mint ice cream which, she said, was delicious though she didn’t give me a taste. Funnily enough, I gave her some of my fennel to try.
Eventually, we collected Max and returned to the dairy, a highly successful anniversary dinner under our belts.