Hard times hit home at a place too lovely to fail

The Great Recession, as it has been officially dubbed by the Associated Press, has just got personal.

Gravetye Manor hotel in West Sussex, United Kingdom. Photo courtesy Gravetye Manor

The Great Recession, as it has been officially dubbed by the Associated Press, has just got personal. It has certainly been a curious time over the past 18 months or so, with the plunging of stock markets and tumbling of house prices seemingly taking place in a vacuum. To judge from the newspapers and the hysterics on Sky News, you would imagine that everybody in London was now sleeping in cardboard boxes under London Bridge.

A year ago I phoned home, hoping to hear tales of bankruptcies and divorces, only to discover that 10 of my friends had just returned from a two-week trip to the Alps, complete with daily heli-skiing adventures, lashings of apres-ski and the usual camp followers including wives and children. Clearly, it wasn't quite the meltdown that was being portrayed in the press. There were a few high-profile casualties, but these characters were defenestrated with massive pensions and payouts to cushion their falls. The youth were finding it hard to get jobs and Masters of Business Administration graduates were having to work for free, which is probably as it should be. Otherwise, all was unchanged.

A visit last summer confirmed that you could not get a seat at the bar at Sweetings after 12.30pm and the gulls' eggs were being rationed. There was a waiting list at my tailor's in Savile Row and all the tickets to all the major sporting events had been snapped up. Crisis? What crisis? But then, just a few weeks ago, I received word that Gravetye Manor, a hotel near Gatwick Airport to the south of London, had gone into receivership. To call it a hotel is rather like calling Pavarotti a crooner, or Ferrari a metal-basher. Set in the most beautiful gardens, the Elizabethan manor house is the sort of place that you would normally only find in the novels of PG Wodehouse, a Castle Blandings that you can stay in, with an exquisite landscape, full of lawns and trimmed hedges but contrasted with banks of daffodils and wild flowers.

Starting in the 1930s, the place fell into disrepair but was revived by Peter Herbert in the late 1950s. He turned it into a country house hotel, restored the gardens and established the easy atmosphere that made it such a pleasant place to stay. In 2004, Andrew Russell and Mark Raffan, both having worked for Peter Herbert and his family for more than 17 years each, bought the place. Four years ago, The Times sent a reviewer there and he reported enthusiastically in its pages: "The leaded windows overlook magnificent gardens that were laid out by Gravetye's most famous owner, the gardening writer William Robinson. There is even a croquet lawn, and a lake where you can fish for trout in the summer. If I'd had more time, I would have liked to have wandered around and lazed on one of the benches reading Byron's poetry to someone else's wife, but it was time for dinner - Assuming that the bank manager agrees, and I don't miss the children, I think I might go and live at Gravetye Manor."

I quote extensively from this splendid review not just because I was its author, but also to show that even good publicity cannot keep a place afloat. Look at the hotel's sumptuous website now and among the flowery text and photos of the lawns and the rooms and details of the one-acre walled garden, there is a stern note at the bottom: "KL Dukes and EM Shires have been appointed as joint administrators of Gravetye Manor Hotel and Country Club Limited to manage its affairs, business and property as its agents, and act without personal liability. KL Dukes and EM Shires are licensed in the United Kingdom to act as insolvency practitioners by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales."

This was like hearing that Jeffrey Archer had been commissioned to rewrite Hamlet, or that McDonald's had bought El Bulli. Messrs Russell and Raffan were high-quality hoteliers who understood how to make a fellow welcome. Mark Raffan was for three years in the early 1990s the personal chef of King Hussein of Jordan. During my visit to Gravetye Manor four years ago, I recall a pumpkin soup the colour of corn fields in the autumn light, and roast lamb both tender and flavoursome. The cheese board was the size of a small lorry, stuffed with the finest offerings from France and England.

So what can have gone wrong at Gravetye? The chef has now departed, along with Mr Russell. One can only shudder when one imagines how the soup tastes today, or what has been done to those marvellous rooms with leaded windows. Will the grass be cut in the spring, or will the place revert once again to wild woodland? I put in a call. The news was good. One of the guests, a certain Jeremy Hosking, apparently bought the place last week. Who is he? "A chap with a fair amount of money," I was told. "He's bought it as a novelty."

He sounds like a splendid fellow. I look forward to making his acquaintance on my next visit. At least I can snuggle down in one of Gravetye's comfy beds and not join those in cardboard boxes under London Bridge. rwright@thenational.ae