When the stars and vines align, magic is created.
With luxury vineyard accommodation, a Michelin-starred restaurant,
all surrounded by lakes and gardens, Leonardslee House in West Sussex
is a truly magical escape all year round.
Words by Bronwen Batey
I love dragonflies. Dragonflies are nature’s barometer of a pure, untainted environment, they only live and breed near fresh, clean water. It was at Leonardslee Gardens that I spotted my first dragonfly in the UK last summer.
More than a hotel
The 240-acre gardens of Leonardslee and its Grade II listed hotel are an easy 30 minutes’ drive from Gatwick. Yet as nature draws you in you’ll feel as far from urban life as you can imagine.
Checking into the Italianate mansion hotel, you soon find you’re a small piece of a huge jigsaw that is Leonardslee Gardens. Seven interlaced lakes make up its spine, dotted with sculptures of warriors and fairies guiding you through Alice in Wonderland pathways, beckoning you on to explore the redwoods, huge oaks and maples. Here the air is filled with the sight and song of tree creepers, nuthatches, woodpeckers and kites; there are secret paths billowing with ferns, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, white and pink flowers scenting your way; dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies ushering you further to the deer park and wallaby enclosure.
Established in the late 1800s by the Victorian plant collector, Sir Edmund Loder, you can feel his passion for his plants in the untamed choreography of trees, shrubs and flowers. Even at its wildest, this is still an established garden, yet its past is a seesaw of neglect and revitalisation. Reopened under new ownership in 2019, after the largest garden restoration project in the UK in 30 years brought Leonardslee back to its former glory. Imagine the Lost Gardens of Heligan but slightly bigger.
Along with the gardens, the 1855 Leonardslee House was also restored in 2021, both under new ownership of Penny Streeter OBE, a South African-English entrepreneur who’s unique vision to revitalise the gardens and hotel into what feels like an indoor and outdoor art gallery, is inspiring.
Staying at Lenoardslee House is like staying at your own estate, it’s so private you’re buzzed in through a gate, and welcomed is by the team as a long-lost friend.
The house has 10 bedrooms, a drawing room overlooking a sun-drenched terrace, an art deco bar and a Michelin-starred restaurant – the star incredibly achieved only ten months after opening. There is an air of quiet, dignified professionalism here, it’s not big or brash yet no expense has been spared, each bedroom deigned by a different British designer, from Nina Campbell to Penny Morrison and Christopher Farr, Decked with stunning antiques, cascading books, sumptuous fabrics and mesmerising wallpapers that beckon to be touched, choose a room with a huge free-standing bath and you may lose all sense of time.
There may be a few people in the hotel, relaxing at the next-door café and wine garden, or walking the gardens, but come five o’clock, the quiet call of nature returns and the house is (pretty much) all yours.
Wake up early and you’ll have the park to yourself for a few hours, and withstanding startling a few deer on the way, seeing the mist rising from the lakes, ducks sleeping on its banks and the natural world slowly warming up for the day, is sheer bliss.
Home amongst the vines
We love the idea of Leonardslee House offering luxury vineyard accommodation. With two vineyards – three acres near the House and a 37-acre plot at nearby Mannings Heath Golf Course & Wine Estate – this West Sussex estate can now add ‘English wine producer’ to its growing repertoire.
2024 will see the release of Leonardslee’s first English wines. The first vintage of their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier plus a small plot of Pinotage grapes will be exciting to taste, considering this is a team that already has a solid reputation for quality wines in South Africa. Guests will be able to sample bottles at the vineyard’s cellar door or hop on a golf buggy, picnic basket in hand and find a spot under an old oak tree where they can enjoy the rolling vines, glass in hand.
Wining & Dining
The hotel’s Michelin starred restaurant, Interlude has a South Africa meets English produce vibe, served with a French flair. Head Chef, Jean Delport hails from Cape Town and along with his wife, Anya run the restaurant to detailed perfection.
With French doors opening onto a huge eucalyptus tree, guests are taken on a gastronomic journey, exploring the artistic talent of its chef with a supporting cast of produce gathered from the estate and nearby producers. In the word of Jean “the estate is our pantry.” And what a pantry it is! Service and presentation are suitably theatrical, there’s smoke, sauces are poured, canapés balance on tree trunks and interestingly there’s no cutlery until you’re midway through the tasting menu.
The tasting menu – all 18 courses of it – is based on a hunter gather concept, showcasing an extraordinary vision that “highlights old, traditional produce wherever possible”. Just make sure you’re hungry. Each dish arrives with a card explaining the unique ingredients it’s made from and where they were found on the estate. It’s dramatic and theatrical, there’s smoke and sauces, canapés balance on tree trunks and interestingly there’s no cutlery until you’re midway through the meal. At the time of our visit, we believe Interlude is the only South African-inspired Michelin starred restaurant in the UK.
There were too many showstoppers to mention – the poached oyster with nettle leaves and kaffir lime; a large donut (or vetkoek in South Africa) stuffed with lobster and scented with pine; a scallop with sea buckthorn berries and XO sauce; birch sap infused salted caramel chocolate dessert, and raw honey from the seven beehives on the estate were favourites, along with the lamb cooked over open coal and flavoured with wild garlic. Another highlight was the South African pot bread dotted with dock and nettle seeds, cooked over warm coals in a cast iron pot, served with Koji butter and preserves. So simple yet so moreish.
As Leonardslee’s English wine is only set to be released in 2024, the wine list nods to South Africa and Penny’s other property, Benguela Cove in Walker Bay. I like to leave the wine choice for dinner with the Sommelier, and Interlude’s expert sommelier, Simba, was spot on with his selection. Our wine tasting flight featured Benguela Cove’s 2022 Chardonnay, its oak ageing subtle yet textured against fresh notes of apple and citrus: the Benguela Cove Sauvignon Blanc 2022 – elegant and lean, and utterly delicious. The Pinot Noir 2020 was smooth and velvety, highlighting gentle ageing in old oak; whilst the Vinography Range Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 was full bodied and all new world mint and bell pepper, with punchy cassis fruit.
Leonardslee House feels more like a restaurant that happens to have incredible rooms, rather than the other way round. This is a weekend retreat that flits between zen and a sensory overload.
Pips ’n pieces
Leonardslee Gardens are open year-round (excluding Christmas Day).
Leonardslee House hotel is open seven days a week. We suggest you arrive before lunch, drop your bags off at the hotel, have lunch at the Gardens (there are several options) and explore the park before checking in around 3-4pm.
Interlude Restaurant is open Thursday to Sunday for dinner only.
Take your time to explore the gardens. One afternoon or even a day is not enough and then there’s the nearby golf course and of course, the vineyard. NB: there’s no spa here, it’s nature that gives you the headspace to relax and recharge.
The bottom line
Leonardslee House rooms start from £350
Interlude’s Estate Experience Menu from £180 per person
Horsham, RH13 6PP