Looking for something characterful (and cheap)
With the potentially unlucky task of trying to find somewhere to accommodate 13 people for a visit to our factories in southern England, I did what anyone who doesn’t trust their company’s outsourced travel booking supplier would do. I got a map, narrowed down a rough location that was half way between the two factories (Horsham) and then headed off to one of the hotel booking sites (I think it was Hotels.com) to see what my options were. We’re in a recession (as everyone knows) and I didn’t want to pay too much but equally I didn’t want to subject my colleagues to an insect infested hovel. I came across what looked like a nice country hotel near Horsham called the Mannings Heath Hotel. It seemed rather too ‘chintzy’ for my personal liking but the price was good (£75 per night for the single occupancy rooms including breakfast) and I thought it would make a nice change from the soulless chain hotels. Foreigners always seem to quite like English ‘quaintness’ so I hoped I’d get away with it.
Three of us headed down a day before the rest of the group and arrived in the middle of a typically drizzly July afternoon. It’s in a tiny little out of the way place down narrow roads with not enough passing places. At times the route seemed more like a safari park as we spotted a fox, a ‘Bambi’ (yep, lots of foreign colleagues only know deer by the term ‘Bambi’) and a few hoppy bunnies on the way to the hotel. We parked up in a gravel car park where we were the only two cars and dodged the raindrops to head towards reception where they seemed to be expecting us. My colleagues were sent back outside to an outside door that gave access to their room and I was led through the bar, out across the patio and towards what looked like a large garden shed. I asked the receptionist “Are you sticking me in the shed” and he laughed and said it was much nicer inside. I might take issue with the use of the word ‘much’.
A Whiter Shed of Pale
The room was spacious, not so much because it was actually large (it was pretty average really) but because it had almost nothing in it. There was a double bed with two bedside tables, one with a clock radio that had to be unplugged as I hate the ‘glow’ of such beasts, and the other with a telephone. The bed had rather pretty embroidered pillow cases which wouldn’t have been out of place if you were visiting a favourite elderly aunt but seemed a bit incongruous in a hotel room. And there was a pink duvet cover – a very pink duvet cover. A small ledge in one corner played host to the ‘hospitality tray’ (as such places like to call a kettle and a few supplies) whilst a rather bleak pine door disguised a built in wardrobe. At the other end of the room, two similar doors opened onto a tiny bathroom with a rather cosy looking shower and an unobscured window designed to let the passing world view me sitting perched on the loo. Fortunately there was a small roller blind.Back in the main room a tiny wall mounted old style TV and a wall mounted heater were the only other delights. Framed paintings on the walls were for sale for very reasonable prices – by which I mean the pictures weren’t very good but probably cost almost as much to frame as to buy. The key thing missing (if you’re paying attention) was anything on which to sit or anywhere to put a computer. Considering that wifi kicked in without charge and without fuss, it was a shame that I could only use my computer by perching on the bed. Another thing I later realised was missing was any kind of toiletries in the bathroom. I’m not moaning about the lack of fancy shower gels and nice little lotions and potions in bottles but I really do expect soap, purely on the basis of basic hygiene. I rang reception to ask if this was a mistake since I learned never to take things for granted after staying in horrible French budget hotels where you get nothing more than a tiny bar of soap. When the phone was eventually answered (at the third time of calling) someone was dispatched to my room and turned up with shampoo, shower gel and soap bars, along with a pleasant apology. So I’m going to choose to assume they forgot rather than that this was standard behaviour since none of my colleagues had the same problem.
On a sunny day my view would probably have stopped me moaning about the room but it was raining solidly and the charm was somewhat compromised. I could look out across the neat patio with its sodden furniture, across the very tidy, soggy, sloping green lawns and down to the river which was looking rather muddy after so much rain. On the downside since I could have watched the diners or drinkers on the patio, they could also have watched me, which was a little disconcerting. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that it was raining.
On the first night I slept really well and woke to a morning chorus of the best possible kind – the quacking of ducks. I adore ducks and hearing them plodding about on the grass chatting to their friends raised my spirits for the day. It was still raining of course, but we do say that’s ‘nice weather for ducks’. On my second morning it was so wet that even the ducks had been washed away.
How’d you like your eggs done?
I headed over to breakfast which was a bit of an odd affair. Cereals in little boxes, a jug of orange juice and little sachets of jam and portions of butter were placed on a table at one side. There was a menu on the table and the ‘system’ seemed to be that most stuff would be brought to you. I ordered a coffee and poached eggs and mushrooms on toast which arrived within about 5 minutes of asking. Again on the second morning when our group was much better, the kitchen pulled out all the stops and rolled the food out nice and quickly. The problem was that it was a very ‘English’ breakfast and I had 10 foreigners with me who expected some really exciting and exotic breakfast components, rare things like bread and maybe a little bit of cheese.
Comfort in numbers
Since there were only three rooms out in the shed-annexe, it might be unfair to judge the hotel by my unusual accommodation so I checked with my colleagues what they thought of their places. The couple I arrived with had hated their room and used the broken television as an excuse to demand a change of room. For my second night we rolled up with another nine people who were quickly processed, no credit cards were taken and the keys were handed out. I felt sure that someone would be sent out to keep me company in the shed, but it was not to be. For some strange reason, only I was consigned to the odd annexe. Asking my colleagues at dinner that night, there was quite a mixed response to their rooms. One of my team had a massive suite with a four poster bed and wondered if she’d got the honeymoon suite. Another had a great room but was a bit concerned that it was directly above a grand piano – and sure enough, some bugger decided to play it somewhere round midnight. I was miles away, unable to hear anything over the sound of the rain. One girl said her room was so small she had to squeeze between the bed and the wall.
Everyone seemed quite amused by the place, especially the lounge room behind reception which looked like a giant front room belonging to the same unfashionable elderly aunt who probably was responsible for my embroidered pillow cases. Nobody could quite believe that I could only get to my room by walking through the bar, across the patio and then trying to find the key hole in the dark.
Check out our Check out
Most continental countries insist on having the company name and address on a hotel invoice. Thank goodness you don’t have to do that sort of thing to get your expenses approved in the UK. Realising that the hotel probably wouldn’t know about this, and that it would undoubtedly slow down our check out, the continental colleagues decided to try to check out in the evening before we were due to leave. As it turned out, the guy on reception was totally baffled by the requests but he took all the business cards to pass to his colleague and by the morning they’d redone all the invoices in the right way. The very nice lady on reception said she’d never known a morning like it but seemed to have quite enjoyed doing something a bit different.
I can understand why the hotel is attractive for weddings – the lawns and views are very pretty – but personally I’d never choose a place like this for such an event. As a general hotel for staying in, I think your experience will vary enormously depending on which room you get so I would suggest to ask for details and specify you want a really good room, even if you have to pay a little more. If you play golf, it’s worth knowing that the other side of the pond in the garden is a golf course and I think guests can play for free. The hotel is about 20 minutes from Gatwick (if you know where you’re going), is rather isolated and the roads are not for the faint hearted, but we had a good time and everyone appreciated getting a change from Novotels. All in all, I think the stay was quite a success.