When I visit a new part of the world, I like to explore rather than luxuriate in the hotel. I’m not a frequent visitor to spa hotels. It takes a certain commitment to make the most of a good spa, and it feels like a waste not to, if one is available. I’m more drawn to spa facilities in the desert, or in island locations, where there’s little else to do.
So, when my friends invited me to stay with them at Ockenden Manor Spa Hotel in Cuckfield, West Sussex, visions of slimming food, steamy windows and inexpert therapists dampened my initial enthusiasm. And then I checked out their website. The hotel is a fine Elizabethan manor house; the spa, a modernist glass and wood-clad building set in eight acres of beautiful grounds overlooking Cuckfield Park. Even the menu looked pleasantly calorific.
It helped that our weekend at Ockenden was an inclement one, and with no temptation to roam the cold, wet countryside, we surrendered ourselves to the many treatment options of the spa, which was as sparkling clean and spacious as any spa in Utah or Nevada.
The 2000m2 multi-layered spa building consists of a spa and six luxury suites, much of which is set into a slope planned around a series of terraces, designed by the architect John Cooper, of John Cooper Associates, and completed in 2011.
The new development is located within a long derelict walled garden; which, in the Victorian period, contained accommodation and workshops for the gardeners, tending what were in those times extensive ornamental gardens, greenhouses and kitchen gardens.
The multi-layered building, much of which is set into the slope, is of a very contemporary design and is planned around a series of terraces also stepped into the slope.
The architecture is simple in form and restrained in its use of a limited palette of high quality materials. Transparency is a theme repeated throughout the building, allowing in natural daylight and providing visibility from all of the swimming pool areas, providing separation but not isolation.
In addition to the aesthetic, there is an environmental principle, one that addresses sustainability and renewable sources of energy, making full use of what is naturally available.
We walked through a rainforest shower fed by Ockenden's own natural underground spring, before trying out the isopod floatation tanks where saltwater suspends the body effortlessly for total muscle relaxation.
Our massages, with expert masseur, Carl, were in one of the eight beautiful treatment rooms, including a couples' treatment room, which we did not use. In the gym and fitness studio, state-of-the-art equipment is overseen by personal trainers who also run a range of classes including yoga and pilates.
There are relaxation spaces a-plenty to enhance your experience in between treatments with moments of calm. In the large indoor swimming pool you can swim through to the heated outdoor pool, which, on this cold weekend, alas, we were not tempted to do.
The building itself is listed by English Heritage as Grade II and is a complex structure of three buildings, from the late 16th century, early 17th century and 1858. In the Raymond Room you can see early 17th century panelling, a stone fireplace and a pilastered wooden mantelpiece. The Master Room, now used as the restaurant, has very elaborate early 17th century panelling, three doors with cock's head hinges and a four-centred stone fireplace with elaborate stops.
Dinner was in the Elizabethan house where award-winning Head Chef Stephen Crane prepared some of the best food I have enjoyed in Britain outside of London. Neither rich and heavy, nor pretentious in any way, one of the key components of Chef Stephen Crane’s success is that he uses only the finest, locally sourced ingredients.
Dishes we sampled included home smoked beetroot tartare; avocado mousse with natural yogurt, apples, hazelnuts, quinoa crackers and, salad; Honey roast duck breast, with sauté foie gras, bubble and squeak, and peppercorn jus; Home smoked salmon mousse with beetroot salad, soft-boiled egg, homemade sourdough croute.
For our main courses we tried his superb roast Sussex venison with saddle, croquette, sweet and sour red cabbage, cauliflower purée, and wild mushrooms; and roast fillet of cod, with creamy sussex savoy cabbage and smoked bacon, parsnip purée, crispy broccoli tempura, red wine sauce.
Our friends chose to stay in the old house, in a large comfortable room with a spacious bathroom, and shower. We opted to stay in the more modern Spa pavilion, partly because it’s just so nice to be able to shuffle in slippers and robe from the bedroom to the swimming pool.
It’s rare to find the old fashioned comfort of a warm, relaxing Elizabethan hotel, combined with the professional excellence of a state of the art modern spa. I’ll definitely try to find an excuse to return to Ockenden Manor just as soon as the weather turns cold.