East Grinstead might not sound like the most lyrical of destinations, but there's a very good reason to visit this commuter-belt town, for it is the launching point for Gravetye Manor, a pretty perfect example of a country-house hotel. It's got all the right components – roaring log fires, wood panelling galore and four-poster beds – but with none of the chilly corporate feeling of some chains or the over-chintzification of others.
The manor was built by Richard Infield in 1598 for his bride Katherine. You can still see their initials on the stone fireplaces, and their images carved onto part of the original panels. But it is the 19th-century owner William Robinson who has left Gravetye its most treasured legacy – the garden.
Horticulture fans will already know the name. Robinson (1838-1935) was a pioneer of natural planting and although the land suffered when the hotel lost its way in the last few years, the eclectic trees and unique circular walled kitchen garden – among many other stunning ideas – make for a fascinating wander over a couple of hours.
Robinson created a historically important garden that makes the hotel a destination in itself; it's a joy to see new head gardener Tom's hard work to restore everything from the watercress garden to the Victorian era glasshouses.
Love and dedication seem to be in the grey stone and gravel at this hotel – I think that's another reason why Gravetye feels so special. As one of the first country-house hotels in Britain, it blazed a trail. The owner, Peter Herbert, nurtured the property from the Fifties until 2005, but other hotels encroached and it lost some of its lustre.
It is the passion of a fourth owner (a discreet city financier) that has made it a highly recommended place for a short stay. After visiting Gravetye as a child, he came back to marry here, and then bought the place in 2010. A relaxed, well-loved atmosphere pervades.
The Elizabethan building has been added to with commendable subtlety; we loved quirks like slightly sloping floors, the occasional patched panelling and a new bathroom which echoes the Art Deco splendour that it replaced. A spring that has supplied the manor with water since the 16th century filled the glass carafe in our room – a welcome change from air-freighted, bottled stuff.
And last, but by no means least – the restaurant. Lucky, lucky East Grinsteaders who travel up the mile-long drive and through the iron gates into Gravetye to join hotel guests in the dining room. The chef, Rupert Gleadow, uses fine British ingredients (such as venison from deer culled in the surrounding forest, duck and sea bass) to construct various choices; diners can choose from an elegant tasting menu, an à la carte blowout or simpler table d'hôte.
We – of course – ate our way through a full, delicious, well-judged three courses and thought there were just enough frills and furbelows to reveal the kitchen's talent without being so tricksy that it would put off repeat visits.
My only criticism – and I told the very helpful front desk the same – is that Gravetye delivers so much more than its website shows, so keep that in mind. It really does have a special feeling, a million miles away from the nearby more recent arrivals to the country-house scene.
Gravetye Manor is a 10-minute taxi ride from East Grinstead station, during which you pass from manicured commuter town to rambling woodland. Perfect for London folk who want an escape to the country in an hour, or travellers wanting a luxe start or finish to a UK holiday; it's just 12 miles from Gatwick.
The hotel, although expanded, keeps the proportions of a private home with just 17 rooms. This personal scale makes visitors feel right at home (although I could only wish for a home like this). The owner's wife had a hand in the décor, which means pretty, informal flowers from the garden adorn the place, and chairs are mismatched and cosy.
Our room, Holly (the rooms are named after trees in the garden), was expansive and elegant. I threw myself onto the four-poster bed and sank into a snowdrift of duvet and just-firm-enough mattress. Sadly, having done so, I realised that it was impossible to see the television from the bed – a shame for anyone who wants to curl up with a good film.
A window seat at the large mullioned window gave a lovely view of those gardens, and the bathroom was blissful – the lack of window more than made up for by a fireplace, vast bath and forceful shower. And I love a bit of underfloor heating... Products by Aussie beauty brand Charlotte Rhys in full-size bottles adds to the feeling of generosity, as does a fridge stocked with juices and proper coffee.
Gravetye Manor Hotel and Restaurant, Vowels Lane, West Hoathly, Sussex RH19 4LJ (01342 810 567; gravetyemanor.co.uk)
Doubles from £200, including breakfast