Ockenden Manor review
Gourmet food, a modern spa & occasional yoga in Sussex
The Quick Read: Great for a cosseting pamper break, Ockenden Manor is a country house hotel with a Michelin starred restaurant and a stunning modern spa set in the little village of Cuckfield with views over the tranquil Sussex countryside. The hotel also does occasional yoga and nordic walking weekends. Part of the Historic Sussex Hotels group, the rather fabulous spa has an indoor/outdoor pool with sauna, steam room and rainforest walk through shower shower next to a suite of eight calm treatment rooms. There’s an extensive menu of treatments, and food is generally sublime.
More on the Spa: The spa is entirely separate from the main hotel, with its own car park for non-residents, and is reached by an easy 200m walk (well-lit after dark) alongside the old walled garden. The stark teak coloured panels are refreshing after the half-timbered main house, and the architecture here is exciting rather than intimidating. An easily accessible slope lined with pretty shrubs leads to the light cream reception area, where there are seats and sofas, and the eye is led to the pool below, the mezzanine beyond and above, and open views of the downs outside.
Beyond the reception area is an airy space for relaxing before treatments, or meeting friends, with a range of good teas and Nespresso coffee on offer constantly. Pitchers of water filled with lime and lemons often seemed to lack water, but there are plenty of staff around to ask. On arrival, a receptionist hands you the key to a locker already prepared with a robe, towel and flipflops for your stay. There are private changing spaces, and the rainhead showers have generous bottles of REN products. Bottles of body lotion (two kinds) are on offer too.
The steam room is rather magical, with tiny bronze tiles and glowing tiny lights in the domed ceiling. There’s a horseshoe shaped spring water shower – lined with those forest scenes – a poolside Jacuzzi and an outdoor hot tub with lovely views. The mezzanine level has loungers for relaxing – with a view of the pool, and outside more loungers and a roof top sitting area give open views onto the downs which must be lovely in summer. There’s also an Isopod flotation tank, sauna, and a nail bar – read a word from the queen on her stay.
Treatment rooms are surprisingly spacious, leaving room for your thoughts to flow. Pale green walls, dark wood floors and heavy wooden doors give a sense of the earth, and each room has a wall of faced stone, whose gentle undulations are brought to life by downlighters. The Relaxation room is an inspired space: dark and womb-like at night, with soft reading lamps over each vast velvet lounger, and tranquil by day: just one corner of floor to ceiling window allowing in the view, to preserve a sense of privacy and give you a place to absorb your treatment.
More on the treatments: Therapists vary. We rated Rachel very highly – she’s exceptionally talented. Staff on the reception desk are warm and welcoming, and well informed about the treatments on offer. The treatments fall into easily digestible categories: grooming, for men and women; Ockenden massage treatments, REN treatments and ila experiences. While REN treatments are more widely available, the ila treatments feel more special, and the Ananda face therapy stands out as unmissable.
More on the yoga: Yoga teacher Sal Jefferies studied and practiced a fusion of eastern and western principles for over 10 years and teaches yoga full time in Sussex – he runs classes and occasional weekend retreats here, teaching various styles of yoga including Vinyasa flow, a dynamic and fluid style, integrated with breathing, mindfulness and movement. Each class concludes with calming posture-work and guided meditation that aim to leave you feeling calm and balanced throughout. Sal’s soothing 2 night Yoga Retreats feature twice daily classes, healthy meals, smoothies, juices, a Nordic Walk in the surrounding countryside, use of the spa and eight treatments including an isopod flotation, ila Kundalini back treatment, reflexology, ila bio rhythm ritual and an ila Ananda therapy.
More on the wellbeing activities: Ockenden Manor Spa has a well-equipped gym and a fitness studio for regular yoga and Pilates classes, as well as a decent sized, heated indoor pool, with a small swim-through portal to the outdoor pool, to offer aerobic activities alongside the relaxing treatments.
More on the property: The hotel dates from the 15th century and spans centuries: the comfortably aged oak-panelled bar felt 18th century, the light pretty sitting room might have been Georgian with 1930s touches, and the restaurant felt more modern: pale walls, gold and rust cushions, oversized bronze silk lamps. A high ceiling and lots of light made breakfast feel airy and hopeful. At night, the spaciousness and subtle lighting were a sophisticated foil for the seriously good dinner. Gardens are informal with tall old trees though no obviously appealing spaces to sit or explore (but then we visited in chilly November). The village of Cuckold is rather good for boutique shopping too.
More on the bedrooms: The main house is pleasantly unreconstructed and old fashioned – some rooms were in need of a touch up here and there. There are 22 rooms, spanning standard to deluxe, pleasantly furnished with the odd impressive touch: our curtains were gorgeous, and there was lots of thoughtful lighting, but the overall effect lacked wow factor. Our bathroom had a free-standing claw foot bath, toiletries from Temple Spa (though body lotion was notably lacking) and it was fine, though more space would have been welcome. On a budget, a standard room would be perfectly acceptable; if splashing out, traditionalists should choose deluxe Victoria, and modernists would be more than happy with a spa suite, one of six in the separate spa block.
Food and drink: This is a foodie destination, so you wouldn’t come here to detox or expect especially healthy fare, though vegetarians get their own gourmet menu and the chef can prepare something special if you ask in advance.
Head chef Stephen Crane has a Michelin star, and his dishes on a short but pleasing menu combine local ingredients with artistry. Guests have a choice of fixed price menus or the gastronomic seven course Tasting Menu. The cod in clam chowder, and partridge with its own samosa stand out as original and perfectly balanced. The delicate puddings and impressively stocked cheese trolley alone are worth the drive.
On our visit, a large party in the private dining room delayed main courses on one evening by forty minutes, but on the second, the food was flawless, and the service charming. The limited bar menu hardly seems worth experimenting with, unless you come with children, and want them to eat separately, in which case you might baulk at fish and chips for £17.50.
The wine list favours France, with a few well chosen new world wines: a wider offer by the glass would be welcome. This is not a place to detox, though you could find dishes to make you feel purer rather than decadent.
Fellow guests: There’s quite a mix. A lot of couples, both older and younger (professional and discerning rather than the merely moneyed) and a few families. When we visited there was a large group of women on a 40th birthday bash. The hotel is small enough for the spa not to feel swamped.
What’s queenly: This is a great place for a weekend break with a friend or lover – decent treatments, country views from an excellent spa (swimming outdoors in winter is particularly bliss) and good boutique shopping in the village of Cuckold too.
What’s lowly: The rooms inside the manor house lack wow! factor. While service in the restaurant and spa felt attentive and professional, the front desk lacked a warm welcome or sense of personal attention.
Costs: From £180 per night single occupancy for a mini spa break which includes breakfast, full use of the spa facilities and one treatment from a selection. A standard room (based on two sharing) is £275 per night, dinner, bed and breakfast, including full use of the spa, and a deluxe room (we stayed in Victoria) is £375 per night. There’s a two night minimum stay at weekends. ila Ananda face therapy and Kundalini back treatment each cost £82.50.
There are seven different packages for day retreats, from £145 for the Revive day package, including a massage and facial, or £165 for the Indulgence day package, including the ila Kundalini and ila Ananda treatments (prices increase a little at weekends). Tempting for locals is the South Downs Sunset package: £113, including full use of the spa, a glass of wine, one treatment, and a 2 course dinner.
The Yoga Retreats cost from £599 per person, based on two people sharing a for two nights including breakfast, 2 Michelin star dinners, smoothies and juices, all yoga classes, Nordic walking in the surrounding countryside, use of the spa and pools, and Isopod flotation session and a back, neck and shoulder massage.
Getting there: The hotel is in the small village of Cuckfield, just a few miles east of the A23, and a short drive from Gatwick airport.
Reviewed by Christabelle Dilks
© Queen of Retreats
Tranquil Buddhist retreat in Devon