Driving up the winding path to South Lodge on a sunny July afternoon, the first thing we pass is a sprawling rhododendron. The gigantic shrub – thought to be the widest in Britain – was planted over a century ago by the neo-Jacobean manor’s then-owner, Frederick DuCane Godman, and has remained growing on the lawn outside the hotel ever since.
It’s a fitting start to the weekend. If you’re trying to find a quintessential English countryside retreat, look no further. Set among the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs, less than a two-hour drive from London, it’s hard to think of a better bolthole to escape the bustle of the city.
The hotel itself comprises an ivy-covered brick 19th-century manor house, together with a modern 40,000-sq-ft spa that was added relatively recently in 2019. Enclosed by 93 acres of immaculately tended grounds, teeming with magnolias, orchids and colorful azaleas, South Lodge gives off a casual back-to-nature vibe without forgetting that its guests are here to be pampered.
Perhaps most important of all, though, is the property’s unwavering commitment to protecting these beautiful surroundings. From the on-site electric vehicle charging points to the wild swimming pool complete with a natural filtration system, South Lodge has weaved sustainability into everything it does.
The hotel features 88 uniquely decorated rooms that nod to the building’s rich history, divided into categories ranging from cozy right up to the stand-alone newly refurbished Bothy Cottage which sleeps eight and comes with a private chef.
We stayed in the Lady Bessborough – a spacious suite in the middle of the hotel complete with a private balcony revealing sweeping vistas of the South Downs. While some of the furnishings could arguably do with a refresh, the suite did have some lovely touches like the sloping beamed ceilings, exposed brick walls and enormous wooden-clad four-poster bed.
The star of the show, however, was the bathroom. Boasting both a marble-clad monsoon rainfall shower and generous spa tub, it was the ideal setting from which to soak up those breathtaking views with a glass of bubbly. If you’re looking for something extra special, you might want to consider booking a Hot Tub Suite to enjoy your own private balcony and jacuzzi.
When it comes to dining at South Lodge, you’re spoilt for choice. The hotel has three different restaurants with the option to dine al fresco out on the spacious terrace. We headed to the 2 AA Rosette winning Camellia – the property’s wood-paneled fine dining establishment helmed by talented head chef Josh Mann.
The ever-changing menu showcases a bounty of seasonal ingredients from the hotel’s kitchen garden and trusted network of local producers. Highlights include the delicate miso-glazed octopus dotted with chorizo jam, parmentier potatoes and pickled seaweed, and the succulent butter-poached cod drizzled with a bouillabaisse beurre blanc and finished with salty Bayonne ham, smoked roe and white asparagus.
Make sure you leave room for dessert – a mille-feuille is notoriously difficult to get right but head pastry chef, Holly Burge, did a stellar job with the crunchy, crumbly strawberry, white chocolate and orange creation, wonderfully balanced with a refreshing sorbet.
There’s also an extensive wine list, with over 300 bottles to choose from. If that sounds overwhelming don’t worry – the charming, knowledgeable waiting staff are on-hand to provide perfect pairings and guide you through the menu.
Elsewhere, The Pass is set to reopen in August. The immersive 28-seat eatery puts you right at the heart of the action, giving you the chance to watch your meal being prepared first-hand in the kitchen. Ben Wilkinson is taking over as head chef, bringing with him a wealth of experience, most recently at Michelin-starred The Cottage in the Lake District.
Like The Camellia, the menu allows local British ingredients to sing from the plate. Standout dishes from the deceptively simple seven-course sample tasting menu include Sussex Downs venison with fennel, caper, smoke and rye; sea trout with cucumbers, oysters and roe; and strawberry with Ewe’s curd, vanilla and elderflower.
If you’re after something a bit more casual, it’s worth dropping by Botanica – a light-filled, airy restaurant with a beautiful balcony, located in the spa. Here, head chef Jonathan Spires has created a Mediterranean-inspired menu that features plenty of veg-heavy dishes including the surprisingly tasty ‘Wasted Burger’ made entirely from the pulp leftover from the freshly prepared morning juices.
Be warned: from May, South Lodge began eliminating cow dairy products at Botanica to further lower the carbon footprint of its menu. While this is an admirable endeavor, we did come across a few wistful regulars who missed having a dash of milk in their tea.
Later in the evening, stop off for a nightcap at The Billiard Bar – a cozy wood-clad room dotted with plush tartan armchairs and glittering Murano glass chandeliers. If you get peckish, there’s also a range of bar snacks and light bites to choose from.
The real highlight at South Lodge is undoubtedly the spa. With its meadow roof and green oak cladding, the building has been designed to effortlessly blend in with the surrounding landscape. From the moment you step foot inside, it’s impossible not to feel relaxed.
As for the facilities, you’ll find everything you need including an infinity pool looking out over the South Downs, an outdoor vitality hydrotherapy pool and a range of thermal experiences, from a marble-lined salt steam room to an infused sauna.
Our favorite spot, however, was the somewhat novel wild swimming pool. Taking a dip in the reed-fringed, naturally heated outdoor pool was surprisingly refreshing despite the temperamental English weather. When you can tear yourself away from your lounger, you can grab a drink or ice cream at the poolside Watershed.
South Lodge features 14 nature-themed treatment rooms, with a wide range of massages, facials, scrubs and wraps to choose from. We recommend the spa bamboo massage, during which an expert therapist uses bamboo sticks to alleviate any lingering tension, and the Omorovicza Gold Hydralifting facial, which includes a double cleanse, exfoliation and peel to prepare your skin for an ultra-hydrating rose gold quartz mask.
Fitness fanatics will be pleased to hear there is also a gym complete with a dedicated spin studio, two astroturf tennis courts and a jam-packed schedule of classes throughout the week including vinyasa yoga, pilates and Tai Chi.
South Lodge has made significant efforts to reduce its impact on the environment. Exclusive Collection (the hotel’s owner) became certified as a B Corp in 2021 and has steadily put in place a range of initiatives to ensure operations are as sustainable as possible.
The hotel only works with responsible suppliers, and recently introduced electric vehicle charging points as well as electric tuk-tuks to transport guests around the grounds. Two renewable biomass boilers powered by wood pellets produce most of the heat at South Lodge, while a reed bed filtration system treats any wastewater from the spa.
Italian B-Corp, Comfort Zone, provides sustainable, plastic-neutral products for the spa, and flip-flops are recycled and transformed into building materials by a company called Reskinned.
It’s tempting not to step outside the retreat during your stay, but if you want to explore the surrounding area there is plenty to do. The South Downs runs about 100 miles all the way from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in Sussex and is filled with hiking trails leading to scenic beauty spots like Beachy Head (the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain) and Devil’s Dyke (the deepest chalk valley in the country).
The area is also scattered with historic houses and gardens. Around 10 miles away in Haywards Heath, you’ll find Borde Hill – 200 acres of idyllic parks, woodland and ‘garden rooms’ bursting with rare flowers.
Further afield – around a half-hour drive – the coastal city of Brighton makes for a fun day trip. Wander through The Lanes (a labyrinth of independent shops), explore the Grade II listed pier and have fish and chips on the beach (careful of the seagulls), before stopping in at King George IV’s former seaside retreat, The Royal Pavilion.