travel country house hotel mini-breaks bailiffscourt in sussex

a break with tradition

Flying to a city for a short holiday doesn't mean you have to have a 'City Break'. Hire a car, find a country house hotel in the surrounding countryside and really relax, advises Jonathan Crouch.

Of all the things the British have invented . the most perfect, the most characteristic ... is the well appointed, well administered, well filled country house" - Henry James Be honest. When was the last time you got away for a break? A 'break' isn't a holiday. Nor is it an overnight stopover - more something in between the two. A long weekend in other words.

The marketers call these sorts of trips 'mini-breaks' and every city you can name seems to be promoting itself as a mini-break mecca. You fly in on a Friday, check into the city centre hotel, do shopping, do a show, walk in the park and fly home on Sunday afternoon. Sounds great doesn't it? Except that it isn't. Not after you've done one or two anyway. For one thing, since the itinerary, the shops and the shows are all so similar, one citybreak tends quickly to blur into another. Perhaps more importantly, with all that walking and dashing about, the whole thing can hardly be expected to be relaxing. And isn't that really why you decided to go in the first place?

So here's a suggestion. Do the 'break' but give the 'city' bit a miss. After all, who needs it when an hour or so from virtually every major city airport, you can be in a place of real relaxation, paying much the same money and enjoying the rolling countryside.

Ideally, you'd need a hotel with a spa attached. In other words, all the beauty treatment, massage, therapy, hot tub, sauna and swimming stuff you've normally no time for in everyday life. Without this, you tend to be forced out onto the sightseeing trail - and then you might as well have gone to the city. Finding hotels with these kinds of facilities in unspoilt countryside within an hour or so of a city airport is more difficult than you might think. Particularly if you insist on the kind of 'country house for the weekend' feel that Henry James was alluding to in the quote we began with.

The 'Historic Sussex Hotels' group sounded like a promising place to start in our quest to find such a place. I was surprised to find in fact that in this case, the 'group' amounts to only three hotels, all in West Sussex: the Spread Eagle Hotel in Midhurst, Ockenden Manor in Cuckfield and the one we tried, Bailiffscourt, in Climping near Worthing. All are within an hour or so's drive from London Gatwick.

I'd expected the whole thing to work out to be rather an expensive treat, so was quite surprised how affordable it was going to prove once I started adding up the costs. When we visited, weekend (Saturday and Sunday) prices started from £275 per room per night for two people with dinner, bed and breakfast and included a free use of the hotel's impressive spa. We opted for a package that included a 'Feature Room' with a four-poster bed, plus dinner and breakfast at a weekend cost of £435 per night for two people. It would have been cheaper during the week and doubtless more expensive during peak season but either way, it was less than I'd have expected to have had to pay.

Bailiffscourt's history seems to go back centuries but in fact, until 1927, it was nothing more than an old farmhouse and a Norman chapel near to a beach at Climping where Lord and Lady Moyne of the famous Guinness brewing family used to take their holidays. When it was revealed to Lord Moyne that the local council were planning to build a large housing estate on the site, he moved to protect his holiday retreat and bought the 750 acres of land that included the house and the chapel. The latter, built in the 12th century, then demolished and rebuilt in the 13th century, had been given to the Abbey of Seez in Normandy after the Norman Conquest and the Abbess had sent over a monk to act as bailiff and watch over its interests, hence the name Bailiffscourt.

Lord and Lady Moyne set to work with a will to transform the old buildings into a country seat, commissioning architectural student Amyas Phillips to help them with the redesign of the 'new' medieval building. He was tasked to use as much authentic material as possible - and did so, travelling far and wide to find just the right type of golden Somerset sandstone and the right doors and beams necessary to realise the requirement. When the building work was finished in 1933, Phillips turned his attention to the landscaping and arranged for two woods to be uprooted from the nearby Sussex Downs. Dozens of trees, some twenty five years old, with their roots encased, were transported and planted in the grounds.

When it was finished, Bailiffscourt eavesdropped on the society gossip of the day and must have revelled in the eclectic mix of the Moynes' guests, from Dukes and Duchesses to some of this country's finest writers. After the death of the couple, Bailiffscourt became a hotel in 1948 and continued its destiny as a place where guests could find their own little bit of peace and happiness.

So, history, luxury and relaxation. All right, so at the end of the day, a historic hotel break like this isn't cheap. All the more reason then, to make sure you really relax and you really enjoy it. At Bailiffscourt, it's pretty hard not to do both. After all. it's hard to beat a break with tradition.

Country House Hotel Mini-Breaks - Facts at a Glance

The Hotel We Tried: Bailiffscourt Hotel & Health Spa, Climping, West Sussex

(01903-723511) / WWW.HSHOTELS.CO.UK