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Clifford Mould ponders what makes
a really good Country House Hotel...
and puts Ashdown Park in Sussex to the test

What does one look for in the ideal Country House Hotel? Are there so many criteria that could be applied, that no single estalishment could ever hope to fulfil all of them? I suspect so - but that is what makes the quest such fun. It's the discovery of places where different combinations of one's hopes and wishes are satisfied, but perhaps not always in some probably rather trifling particular, that makes each visit stand out from the others, and inspires the continued search.

Location is paramount, probably set in rolling acres of parkland, the terrace affording a commanding view over a carelessly manicured landscape preferably with a river or lake. The proximity of places of interest within an hour's drive, can provide a welcome diversion. It used to be taken for granted that there should be good hunting, fishing and shooting, if not ideally on the premises, within easy reach. The latter two sporting activities still add immeasurably to the scope of the menu, in season. More vulgar recreations such as golf should be catered for with discretion - there's nothing worse than being bang in the middle of a golf course, or having the 18th hole in full view of the dining room. Great fireplaces are as necessary in winter as are pleasant places to sit out of doors in summer. A walled garden with shady bowers where one can read peacefully is an asset.

Ashdown ParkThere's also a delicate balance to be struck between the requirement on the part of the hotel to generate much needed revenues from weddings and conferences, and the atmosphere of calm and solace that private guests expect to find in a luxurious country retreat. A well run hotel manages to pursue these conflicting aims, satisfying clients whose aspirations are often poles apart.

The success or failure of the entire enterprise is in no small part due to the efforts and skills of the chef and the kitchen brigade. One might arrive tired after a difficult week, having fought to leave the city traffic behind. But once settled into the dining room, if a succession of well crafted dishes is beautifully but unfussily presented (and served) with a palpable attention to detail and a justified pride in things that are done well, then all the cares of the world slip away, and one takes on a generous and forgiving state of mind.

So where does Ashdown Park fit into this scheme of things? Pretty well, I can tell you, since I was thinking of it when I was compiling the list of most desirable attributes. It was built at the height of the Victorian Gothic revival and enjoyed a relatively brief heyday as a grand country house. For most of its existence it was a convent - fortunately the nuns were ladies of taste and their additions to the property were of a high quality, making good use of local sandstone in two substantial wings, and of course a fine chapel. The Order commissioned Harry Clarke, who was quite an avant-garde artist in the Dublin of the 1920s, to design and execute the stained glass in the chancel. These uniquely beautiful windows, which use 35 different shades of the colour blue alone, can still be appreciated today, even though the chapel has been converted most interestingly into the main banqueting and reception area.

Ashdown Park The house is situated in very beautiful grounds, well landscaped with all the right features, and I'm glad to say that the golf course provides a sporting amenity which in no way detracts from the timeless beauty of the forest location. Well within an hour's drive is Gatwick airport, some wonderful stately homes including Penshurst Place and Hever Castle, the famous resorts of Eastbourne, Brighton and Tunbridge Wells, and world famous Glyndebourne Festival Opera, a mere 20 minutes away. There is superb riding in Ashdown Forest, and the Crockstead Equestrian Centre is fifteen minutes away.

The layout and skilful conversion of Ashdown Park to an hotel ensures that private guests are unlikely to be disturbed by wedding and conference parties The well equipped Country Club with its pleasant pool and fitness centre is located discreetly away from the main building. The hotel itself is grand in a very gothic manner, which probably posed many difficulties in hitting exactly the right decorative style. High Victorian furnishings would be hopelessly heavy and joyless, but I rather wish that they had not invested in quite so many dralon button backed easy chairs - they appear all over the place, in the public rooms and in the bedrooms. Equally, the rather heavy cut crystal glasses look impressive in the grand setting of the Anderida Dining Room, but they do no favours to the excellent wines on a very imaginative and competently chosen list.

Ashdown Park The chef is John McManus, with a 20 strong brigade including 4 pastry cooks who also bake all the bread. There is a table d'hote menu at lunch (£18.00) and dinner (£33.00) making the lunch rather a bargain. When we visited, I happened to think the lunch items were even more imaginative. Main courses at lunch included a light cassoulet of guinea-fowl with smoked bacon dumplings, cod steak in a potato crust with Puy lentils and pesto, and rump of lamb with duck liver parfait, duxelle, fondant potato, fresh beans and mint. More of that particular dish in a moment.

From the a la carte menu, we tried an excellent modern style fusion of roasted scallops on a bed of bok choy and spring onions (£9.75) that had been given a good wokking with fresh ginger. The dish was colourful and well presented without going over the top, and the reduction was very tasty with just sufficient ginger to make its point. My guest had the tian of cured salmon (£8.50) - little cubes of fleshy salmon with a Macedoine of new potatoes and olive held together in a top hat shape with creme fraiche. It was a good lunchtime starter, flavoursome but not too heavy.

Ashdown Park My guest also had the rump of lamb from the table d'hote menu. This was a generous portion, the meat pink and tender, and the reduction, which was infused with rosemary, was very intense and glossy. The fondant potato was copy book stuff, perfect in both shape and texture, and the two quenelles made from duck livers and mushrooms were an unexpected treat. I had breast of duck on a shallot tatin, (£18.30) which looked more like a galette under the weight of the thick slices of duck. The shallots were caramelised to perfection, and there were some crispy spicy julienne strips of duck leg to top the whole thing off. Another deep rich reduction with a strong citrus element added both flavour and presentational finish to the dish. This was seriously good cooking indeed, exhibiting lots of careful thought, preparation and skill.

With four pastry cooks you'd expect the puddings (£5.25) to be pretty good. A classic raspberry creme brulée was well made and nicely decorated, but I prefer the topping to be grilled, or burnt off with a blow torch - it gives a subtler finish than by caramelising the sugar in a pan and pouring it over, which makes it turn out like a thick layer of ice on a pond. The chocolate fondant was the pudding to go for, the balance between the light sponge texture of the casing and the warm rich molten filling had been perfectly judged. As if this were not enough, there was a delicious praline ice cream sporting a clever tuille wafer and those Novelli sugar springs. Very impressive!

As I said earlier, there's an excellent wine list with some good entries from California and the Pacific Northwest as well as wines like Cape Mentelle from Western Australia at sensible prices. The service is in the hands of mainly French staff who did not exhibit any hints of that grisly London arrogance that seems all too easily to replace Gallic charm.

Ashdown Park offers a wonderful country retreat for those who appreciate a real gastronomic experience. Sporting types like golfers and horseriders can indulge themselves and burn off the calories. The hotel has a good website that you can visit on www.slh.com/pages/a/arkenga.html

Dress code: No denim. Jackets and ties in the Anderida Restaurant after 7.00pm.

Clifford Mould May 1999

Ashdown Park Hotel, Wych Cross, Forest Row, East Sussex, RH18 5JR
Tel: 01342 824988 Fax: 01342 826206
Dine Online highly recommended

 

 

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