Review by Fiona Duncan, published 9th March 2008.
I'm in a time warp and I love it. I wish I could stay longer in this genteel haven 30 miles from central London, before I drag myself back to modern life and all those brash, style-conscious hotels.
I wake in the morning on a good mattress, under crisp sheets and satin-edged blankets. My room, Ash, can only be described as an Elizabethan gem. Its oak-panelled walls are original (the manor was built in 1598) and the four-poster is draped in the same flowery fabric as the curtains. There's a radio by the bed, and another in the bathroom, but the television is discreetly hidden behind a fire screen. The one nod to the modern age, (free) wireless internet, is mercifully invisible.
The view from my window is of Gravetye's historic garden, exquisite in the winter sunshine and still laid out today as William Robinson, the pioneer of natural gardening, created it when he lived at Gravetye in the late 19th century.
Everywhere I look, the past has been preserved. If my bedroom is from another age, my bathroom is so dated that it's positively vintage, with celadon green bath and basins and Deco-style mirrors and fittings that must have seemed the height of fashion when they were installed in the 1950s.
Later, looking round the hotel with general manager Andrew Russell, I find an eclectic parade of period pieces: an Elizabethan chimney breast; Robinson's initials in the hand-carved ceilings; a pink Seventies bathroom; a primrose-yellow Sixties basin; the "ladies" – once Robinson's bathroom – covered in original Delft tiles; oil paintings by Robinson's friend Henry Moon; the smell of linseed oil and of wood smoke from the great open hearths.
Last night I joined a convivial black-tie dinner for 45 members of the Gravetye Dining Club, who fell upon the Michelin-starred dishes of head chef Mark Raffan, accompanied by superb Barolo wines, each amusingly introduced by Pio Boffa, their maker. In true Gravetye style, Dining Club members pay the same annual fee as they did when they joined, so that while those joining today will always pay £75, there are some guests still paying a guinea, the fee when the club was founded by Peter Herbert 40 years ago.
There are plenty of country house hotels from which to choose, but quintessential ones like Gravetye, defined by ticking clocks and maids in neat black dresses and white aprons, but also innate courtesy and general British phlegm, have all but disappeared. Many have been blurred by characterless modernisation and unnecessary luxury additions such as spas and "in-room entertainment", others by becoming part of the all-consuming Von Essen group, which gobbles up ageing country house hotels like a sparrow hawk picking off garden birds. Gravetye, miraculously, has been saved.
How has this happened? It's now co-owned by Mark Raffan and Andrew Russell, both of whom worked for Herbert for nearly 20 years, who care passionately about the hotel and are intent on nudging it gently into the future.
Tim Hart, owner of Hambleton Hall, the only other grande-dame country hotel still unchanged, told me that his answer to a spa was to open a French bakery. What's Andrew Russell's, I wondered? "Oh, we suggest that guests sit in the garden and have a cup of tea".