Abridged 1,000 word article which concludes with driving directions and reservations information


Another time I'll know to keep my mouth shut and maybe, just maybe, I will have a visit from Mother Superior's ghost. The scene is Ashdown Park Hotel, a wonderful 95-room country hotel now, a training convent for the Order of Notre Dame in one of its earlier lives. A number of additions were made by the Order, including east and west wings and a chapel. My room is in what used to be the convent's infirmary. All of nine or ten yards long, with mullioned windows opening to a parapet, and the wooded estate beyond shrouded in mist, it was warm and cosy that damp evening. Heavy velvet drapes shut out the weather, plump velvet settee and armchairs were cosily placed around a table set with glossy magazines and fruit bowl. Fresh flowers splashed colour on an antique dresser beside my bed. I tell you all this to show that there is nothing spooky, nothing remotely sinister about this place. Following an 18-month and 12 million conversion programme, it is a luxurious and hospitable hotel. If I wanted to find fault, the best I could do is complain that my room in the east wing is a veritable route march from the main lounges and dining rooms.

I was changing for dinner when I first became aware of the scent. It reminded me of lavender in my mother's English garden. Knowing there's a cologne of this fragrance I wondered if a bottle had been broken recently in the room's sitting area. Except that the perfume didn't come from the floor, or the closet, or even the adjacent bathroom. It was all around me, in the air from floor to ceiling. I decided to ask the manager about it when we met for a drink before dinner. In such a deluxe hotel, possibly a perfumed air freshener was distributed by the heating system which had just kicked in on that chilly autumn afternoon.

It took me 15 minutes or so to meet up with my friends already around a fire in the massive stone hearth. I had dallied in front of hallway photographs showing the convent's quarters in the early 1900s. And popped into the chapel to see its glorious stained glass windows featuring 35 different shades of blue. The good news there is that an upper floor has been installed to double the chapel's capacity as a meeting facility, and this affords a rare opportunity to get close to its windows at eye level. The bad news is that the chapel is no longer consecrated, which is probably why the convent's Mother Superior is a mite restless.

As I joined my friends, hotel manager Graeme Bateman was talking about a gala opening of the 175-acre property as a hotel last summer. When someone asked about ghosts he hesitated ever so slightly. "Well, er, now and again," he said, "once in a while staff members report seeing the Mother Superior wandering in the east wing. She is buried at the rear of the hotel you see...." Dead silence. "I suppose I should mention the smell," he continued, "An overwhelming scent of lavender precedes her visit...." I choked on my Piglet Cocktail, named after Winnie the Pooh and friends for whom nearby Ashdown Forest was a favourite haunt. Graeme couldn't recall the exact room number she frequented. I told him it appeared to be mine, and downed another Piglet to settle my nerves.

At the evening's close we all trooped off to my room to experience the lavender scent, of which there was absolutely no hint. This I was told is because I blabbed about it too soon. Now there was no hope of finding Mother Superior sitting on my bed during the night. I can't say I was heartbroken.

Next afternoon I explored the hotel's grounds gift-wrapped in autumnal colours. I visited the leisure centre with its indoor squash courts and enormous swimming pool nearing completion for a summer '95 opening, and saw where the nine hole golf course is being built. In one of the ponds fish were so tame they leaped out of the water to feed from my hand. Then just as I was wishing I could stay longer, the fog rolled in and I found myself staring at the graveyard. Most of the bodies buried here are women from the Order of Notre Dame. At my feet was the grave of Mother Superior; not flat like the others, but lumpy as if she has indeed shifted the earth to go on her ghostly rounds. Dusk was closing in and the air grew chilly. Tea in the brightly lit lounge became urgent.

Note: Two days later in London I joined a backstage tour of Drury Lane Theatre and learned of an all-consuming scent of lavender which sometimes permeates a spot where bodies of nuns and abbots were buried during the Great Fire of 1666. There are several ghosts backstage in this historic theatre. All are said to be friendly. I didn't stay around to make their acquaintance.

IF YOU GO: Ashdown Park Hotel is approximately an hour's drive from central London. Opera fans can have a two-night special at the hotel, with a food hamper to take to the Glyndebourne Festival.