Ashdown Forest is an ancient area of heathland about 30 miles (48 km) south of London in East Sussex. It was once a medieval hunting forest created soon after the Norman conquest of 1066. The Forest continued to be used by royalty and the nobility for hunting into Tudor times. King Henry VIII, the monarch who had a run of bad luck with wives, had a hunting lodge at Bolebroke Castle, and courted the unfortunate Anne Boleyn at nearby Hever Castle.
Ashdown Forest is famous as the setting for the children’s (and adults’) Winnie-the-Pooh stories, written by A. A. Milne. The first book featuring Winnie was published in 1926 and the second book, The House at Pooh Corner, was published a year later.
The first grand house was erected on the present site in 1815 either by Thomas Bradford or by Rear Admiral The Honourable Jacob Henniker. In 1867 the estate was bought by MP Thomas Charles Thompson and he demolished the original building and built the Gothic Victorian manor house which remains as part of this striking hotel. Later owners of the house included G K T Fisher who inherited the estate but was killed during the First World War. The house later became a convent and remained in church hands for the next 50 years. Nuns had their small cells in the East Wing and lived in typical nun-like simplicity.
The building was acquired by the Elite Group in 1993 and beautifully presented as a 4-star hotel, retaining original features but with the benefit of modern technology. The grounds are impressive with landscaped lawns, mature trees and deer strolling (or is that trotting) around even close to the hotel building. The drive to the front door entices the visitor with the expectation of something special: Ashdown Park Hotel is not only special but delightfully unique.
This large imposing building exudes classic charm but there is nothing stuffy or stiff here. It has all the polish and more of a 4-star hotel but the friendliness of the staff makes one feel that this could be a family-run B&B – admittedly the largest and best appointed you would ever find, but it’s that personal touch that is so welcoming.
We arrived at Ashdown Park Hotel on a cold and blustery afternoon. The reception introduces the guest to the style of the hotel: a wide, sweeping staircase, rich soft furnishings, paintings, a piano and an open fire. We were escorted to our room via a veritable labyrinth of corridors. These were evidently cloisters in the building’s previous incarnation and were lined with leaded windows of obscured glass, perhaps so the novice nuns would not be distracted by the excitement of a tree or a squirrel with bare ankles.
Our room was huge, with another piano in one corner. The remaining space still left sufficient room for a game of carpet bowls. Double doors in oak and panels in the same wood were evocative of another age. The four-poster bed was made up with huge fluffy pillows and a duvet that was both light and warm, and crisp white sheets that would later be turned down by attentive staff. The bathroom was in marble with a selection of Molton and Brown toiletries. These are some of the best soaps and gels around and their inclusion in the hotel package shows a no-corner-cutting approach to guest comfort.
Room facilities included satellite television with radio, direct dial telephone with voicemail, digital clock radio, broadband internet access, tea and coffee making facilities, personal safe, trouser press, hairdryer, mineral water, fluffy towelling bathrobes, slippers and a pile of books. These were Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens and just right for this location, as their novels always described a grand house with a four-poster – although these days we can enjoy the benefit of central heating.
It could be tempting to snuggle in the warm but there is plenty to do without even leaving the grounds. A golf course is here, which will suit the beginner as well as the enthusiastic frequent player. It’s an 18-hole, Par 3 course which I am sure will mean something to the sporty set. Anyway it’s a healthy walk around a stunning park.
For the rest of us who are content to gently unwind Ashdown Park offers exclusive spa treatments by Kerstin Florian, who specialises in using natural elements including mineral water, mud, algae, herbal extracts and essential oils. You can be pampered into a contented doze. Guests at the hotel can make full use of the club’s facilities, which include an indoor heated swimming pool, whirlpool, sauna and steam room.
Revitalise Spa Salon opening times:
Sun – Wed 09.00 – 18.00
Thurs – Sat 09.00 – 20.30
There is a wealth of character here to remind the guest of the building’s history. The chapel still exists but it’s now an event space that hosts society wedding parties. There is a mezzanine floor which doubles the space and can accommodate large functions in a self-contained area with its own bar.
The walls of those cloister hallways are hung with sepia pictures of nuns going about their duties in this very building. Granted, it was spartan in those days but I don’t doubt that those nuns would have looked after the fabric of the building better than any other group. There is crispness about the architecture here alongside the sympathetic modernisation. Stained glass glints and wood glows, and it’s as if time stood still round about 1930.
The word Anderida is Roman in origin, meaning ‘hunting ground’, but it’s also the name of the destination restaurant at Ashdown Park. It has 2 AA rosettes: just one glance at the restaurant and you will be assured that they are well deserved.
The Anderida is classically beautiful with high windows giving views across the lawns to the lake with its fountains. White linen is snowy in contrast to the gold of the upholstery and walls. The tables are laid with fine china, glasses and tall elegant white candles. Yes, that’s the word, elegant, and that quality is reflected is both furnishings and food. This room has doubtless changed considerably since those days when the sisters glided around the rooms, although you might still see the occasional little black dress. The right colour but just lacking those extra yards of fabric.
Executive chef Andrew Wilson (see interview here) describes his food as Contemporary British. He sources his fresh produce locally whenever possible but his presentation is modern and his combination of ingredients is inspired. The arrangement might be 21st century but service here harks back to a gentler age when dining room etiquette was de rigeur. Main dishes arrive domed, with these covers being simultaneously raised for every diner at the table. I have always loved the theatre of that flourish.
Those domes might be covering Gressingham Duck Spring Roll, Seared Squid, Oriental Fillet Dumplings and Ginger. That’s one of Andrew’s signature dishes although he is not keen on that term. He prefers to say that it’s the one of the dishes that is always on the menu.
My starter was a Pithivier (‘pithivier’ is a round, enclosed pie) filled with duck on a bed of greens. The duck was moist and flavourful and the pastry flaky. A delicious parcel with potential to be a main course if one used a saucer instead of a tumbler-sized cutter.
Andrew had recommended the Beef Wellington as he is particularly proud of the beef, which is hung for 30 days or so. This was real Beef Wellington rather than the increasingly popular deconstructed version of separately cooked pastry and beef. Andrew is a Wellington purist: a fillet of beef with a layer of paté and then wrapped in pancakes before being encased in puff pastry. The centre of the beef was rosy and just rare enough not to ooze red juices. Don’t miss this if it’s on the menu.
Another nod to timeless tradition is the trolleys. A cheese trolley is a rarity these days but it’s a sight to savour. The Anderida offers a selection of British cheeses and a guest local cheese accompanied by homemade bread, relishes, celery, grapes and apples; and it’s been a long time since I have seen a silver box containing crackers. Taking cheese here is an event.
For those with a sweet tooth there is the dessert trolley. You will likely have been admiring this during the course of your dinner. You might even have made up your mind which of these confections has your name on it, even before it is steered in your direction.
The top shelf held a glossy chocolate gateau. It’s the type of centrepiece that takes courage to order. Nobody wants to be the first to take a slice and ruin its divine symmetry. The rest of the trolley groaned under the weight of strudel, fruit pie, mousse and also fruit salad for those who have rather over-indulged in the previous courses.
Ashdown Park Hotel offers accessible refinement from the moment you drive through the gates, to your last sip of breakfast tea. The guest is made to feel welcome and important. The service is second to none with those old-fashioned touches that make a difference. An Elite hotel indeed.
Monday to Friday: 7am – 9.30am
Saturday: 7am – 10am
Sunday: 8am – 10am
Monday to Saturday: 12pm – 2pm
Sunday Lunch: 12.30pm – 3pm
Sunday to Thursday: 7pm – 9:30pm
Friday and Saturday: 7pm – 10pm
Ashdown Park Hotel & Country Club
Nr Forest Row,
Phone: 01342 824988
Fax: 01342 826206
Visit Ashdown Park here
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018