‘Where to, love?’ asked my friendly taxi driver as I launched myself into his cab at Haywards Heath station. On hearing I wanted Ockenden Manor, he commented ‘You’ll love it’.
I have a friend who lives in E Sussex and I knew it was his favourite place to celebrate a birthday, or any other occasion that warranted a treat, come to that, so I was not too surprised by the taxi driver’s enthusiasm.
A lovely Elizabethan building
In next to no time we were driving through the pretty little E Sussex village of Cuckfield and into the grounds of Ockenden Manor – a rather lovely Elizabethan building, set in nine acres of ground. I began to sense that this was indeed a rather special place.
The original house was burnt down in 1608 but in 1658 a certain John Burrell, who had made his fortune thanks to the Sussex iron industry, bought and extended it. In the early 19th century, after many years in the Burrell family, it became a boys’ school, and at the start of the Second World War housed Canadian troops.
After the war came a new chapter in its life when it became a restaurant and guest house; eventually becoming Ockenden Manor Hotel – one of the Historic Sussex Hotels group. The old building oozes comfort and style, lovely wooden panelling, flagstone floor entry hall, a log fire and huge vases of fresh flowers.
But I was staying in one of the spa suites a couple of minutes’ walk from the old house. I loved my modern open plan bedroom/lounge with its en-suite bathroom with internal window which opened onto my room and then beyond to the roof garden terrace and views out over the lovely Sussex countryside.
I had arrived early and treated myself to a delicious open salmon sandwich and a glass of excellent crisp white wine lunch served in the spa lounge area before heading off for a wander round the grounds and then into Cuckfield village. I am not really into spa treatments but whilst I had my lunch I could hear the happy conversations of the other guests extolling their treatments.
A Michelin star meal
It was just warm enough that evening to sit out in the garden sipping a glass of local Ridgeview sparkling wine. Ockenden Manor believes in supporting local suppliers as far as possible.
Dinner that night was truly memorable – more delicious Ridgeview wines carefully chosen and paired to go with local Selsey Crab lasagne, followed by Home Smoked Mackerel, Trenchmore Beef (another local supplier), Citrus Fruits and an Assiette of Chocolate, finishing with Coffee and Petit Fours.
With every mouthful I realised why my friend loves dining at Ockenden Manor and why it holds a Michelin star, Head Chef Stephen Crane is a genius, and a charming one at that.
Meeting the Suppliers
After an early breakfast – in its own way as memorable as the meal the previous evening – we set out to meet some of the suppliers that Stephen Crane relies on so much when creating his fabulous dishes.
Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales
Ockenden is an easy drive away from Brighton and close by Hove Lagoon and where, with Stephen, we watched fish being brought in to Shoreham Harbour by day-boats to Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales.
Whilst we watched a catch of cuttlefish was brought in and within minutes prepared and packed up for distribution to other local and not quite so local hotels and restaurants: from boat to kitchen in just a few hours; no wonder, apart from Stephen’s skill in the kitchen, the fish the night before had been so delicious. It was truly fresh! I couldn’t help but notice that one of the boxes was destined for a Marcus Waring restaurant in London.
Whilst we were learning about the different types of fish, and what to look for when out shopping, Stephen had vanished out to the beach where he had set up his little two burner hob and set too with some Jersey Royals, some fresh filleted plaice, crème fraiche and wild garlic to create the freshest fishy starter imaginable.
Apart from selling wholesale, the company also has an onsite retail outlet. Definitely worth a visit.
From fish to beef and Trenchmore farm for our barbequed beef and burger main course, cooked by our Michelin-starred chef. As the night before the flavour of the 28-day dry aged beef was out of this world and so tender we really didn’t need a knife.
Andrew and Joanne, the owners of Trenchmore, raise grass-fed Sussex Wagyu and Sussex Angus cross cattle in the slow-grown traditional way ensuring full-flavoured, fantastic beef.
Although both of them had spent time on farms in childhood holidays neither had been brought up as farmers, but both loved the idea of farming as a career. Later in life dreams were realised and after much hard work they now have over 100 handsome cows.
The cows spend their summers grazing on fresh grass, but in the winter are brought into the award-winning Roundhouse barn to tuck into hay and silage spiced up with some much appreciated brewers’ grains from a local brewery.
As if looking after the cattle were not enough the couple are now also producing Silly Moo Cowfold Cider. The unpasteurised cider is made from a blend of 15 cider apples juiced with yeast – no added sugars or sweeteners, just filtered to keep it fresh and to stop it fermenting further.
Technically speaking it is classed as a medium-dry 5.4% ABV slightly sparkling cider – it went exceedingly well with the barbequed beef!
From fish and beef to sparkling wine: Ridgeview Wine Estate sparkling wine to be more precise. The vineyard situated just north of Ditchling in E Sussex was started in 1994 by Christine and Mike Roberts who sold a computer software company in favour of grapes and wine making.
The climate and soil of the South Downs is close to that of the Champagne region of France and thanks to skill, and the flourishing plantings of the Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes that are used for champagne, the vineyard is producing international award-winning wines.
The wines are so highly regarded they were served at The Queen’s official Diamond Jubilee celebrations and to President Obama at the state banquet held in his honour at Buckingham Palace.
There are six delicious white and rosé Ridgeview varieties –made from traditional blends Cavendish and Bloomsbury, Blanc de Blanc Grosvenor, Blanc de Noir Knightsbridge and two rosés Fitzrovia and Victoria. Ridgeview also produce the Marksman sparkling wines for Marks and Spencer and South Ridge for Laithwaites.
Visitors are welcome at the winery and tours and tastings can be arranged.
Back at the hotel I said my goodbyes and thank yous. I confessed it had been my birthday the day before. ‘Why didn’t you tell us’ said Stephen, ‘we would have done something special’? But how could it have been any more special! The taxi driver was right – I loved Ockenden Manor.
Ockenden Manor: £239 per room per night, based on two sharing a Standard Room, on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis. Tel: 01444 416111. www.hshotels.co.uk
Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales: www.brighton-fish-sales.co.uk
Trenchmore Farm: www.trenchmore.co.uk
Ridgeview Wine Estate: www.ridgeview.co.uk