As weekends away go, East Grinstead isn’t really up there with the likes of, say, Bath or Paris. A quick survey of the office confirmed my worst fears: ‘You could go on a coastal walk’ said one colleague. ‘It’s near Gatwick,’ I said. Another enthusiastically remarked that the area has the biggest concentration of independent churches in the world.
Strange, then, that when I mentioned where we’d be staying everyone was familiar with it – ‘nice place’, ‘been there, very good’ – but, then again, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. Because the Felbridge Hotel, not only close to Gatwick but right on the busy A22 (although once inside you’d never know), has just retained its ‘highest-rated four-star hotel in the South-East of England’ status in the recently published AA Hotel Guide 2010.
With the British Wildlife Centre down the road closed for winter and, without the kids, the Bluebell Railway out of the question, we opted for a day at nearby Lingfield Park races as part of the weekend. An early check-in meant our room wasn’t ready but we could leave the bags and it gave me the chance to notice an army of guests wandering round in hotel dressing gowns and slippers. This, my wife told me, was proof the hotel spa was popular and the reason she’d struggled (successfully) to book a treatment that evening. I just found it all a bit unnerving.
We returned no lighter in pocket in the early evening, from what must be one of the quaintest racecourses in England, to a member of staff in the reception area asking if I would be clubbing that evening. After checking over my shoulder to see if I was in the way of someone else’s conversation, I politely declined his offer of a rundown of the merits of locals in Crawley and East Grinstead. Nevertheless his (probably much-practised) compliment was enough to give me a swagger as we were led to our room. While my wife nipped off to find out exactly what they can do with twigs, I bypassed the sauna for a couple of pints and Sky Sports in the modern Qube bar – a place, I was told, that was popular with locals on a Friday night and, because they had a few hen parties in, were expecting to be open until at least 5am that evening. Clubbing, eh? Had the mountain come to Mohammed? A study of the ring on my left hand and a quick glance in the mirror suggested probably not.
The attentiveness and efficiency of the staff, I would have guessed, peaked that evening in the award-winning Anise restaurant – but I hadn’t banked on breakfast the next morning, where after a bowl of cereal we paid a two-minute visit to the breakfast buffet only to return to find our newly poured coffees and orange juices whisked away and two people being shown to our seats. In any other hotel this may have ended in fisticuffs but seeing as the usurper in question was on the phone and clearly didn’t want to move, I pointed out to him, and his embarrassed wife, that they needed cutlery, and moved elsewhere.
Maybe the staff learn their lessons a bit too quickly, though: three more times I went up to the breakfast bar that morning, but on each return my wife was still there.
Where to stay
The Felbridge Hotel and Spa
If you want to make a real weekend of it, The Felbridge should be your only choice. We stayed in a luxury junior suite where the bath was so deep and long you needed someone at the other end to rest your feet on and stop you slipping under – and the bed was big enough to keep any intruders at arm’s length.
The staff will point you in the local direction of any cuisine you require, should you wish, but why would you when Anise is on-site? Chef Matthew Budden creates seasonal menus – we had an excellent bloody Mary jelly with goat’s cheese crouton for starters – and sensibly the dessert menu offers a taster for two of most of the delights available. Just as well, because you really couldn’t choose just one.
A more ‘robust’ menu is available in the adjoining Bay Tree restaurant. Address and telephone as above for The Felbridge Hotel and Spa. £25 per person for three courses.
Places to visit
The British Wildlife Centre
Dave ‘Furlong’ Faulkner only managed to see gee-gees, but if you’re planning on a half-term break or heading out to Surrey and West Sussex from March on, you won’t want to miss ogling native species such as adders, black rats, polecats and stoats, as well as cuties like fallow and roe deer, snowy owls and wild cats at The British Wildlife Centre.
There are keeper talks every half-hour. Open daily during spring half term (February 13-21), every weekend from March to October and daily during school holidays.