Christmas in Sussex

The cab driver eyes me up and down and I clearly fail to pass muster. ‘We usually take boy bands to Nyetimber, you know? Those in the top ten.

‘ It’s fairly obvious I am not a member of a boy band, whether in the top ten or elsewhere, and indeed I have no relationship whatsoever with the exciting music industry whose temple he is taking me to. Nevertheless, he volunteers a few names of past passengers as we leave Pulborough station to cut deep into the Sussex countryside, and duly expects me to wow and sigh. It is rather unfortunate that the most modern musician whose work I am vaguely acquainted with is Beethoven, so I compose my face to the faintly embarrassed smile people produce when they don’t know what you are talking about (but feel they ought to) and my driver is distinctly unimpressed.

He wonders pensivly for a while then bursts out with: ‘So, what are you going there for?’I am going to discover how a strange species of man – a famous songwriter with an equal passion for guitars, medieval architecture and fine wines – is going to spend his Christmas. Andy Hill, of Peace in Our Timefame, chose to live in the countryside long before Madonna made it fashionable with music celebrities. After the quiet country lane by his old house became thick with cars and the skies over his head crowded with more and more planes, he bought the secluded Nyetimber estate, where he moved in 2002.Enveloped in 120 acres of gardens and vineyards, the estate has been in existence since the Normans, who recorded it in the Domesday book as a small village.

The Lewes Priory then owned the land from the mid 12th-century until the dissolution of Monasteries and the main house was first built in the 14th century. Held by Thomas More for a brief period, it later became part of Anne of Cleves’ divorce settlement. Very little of the original building remains – a beam here, a bit of timber there – as much was lost to Victorian ‘improvements’ in the early 19th century, when Nyetimber was acquired by a wealthy American of the Morgan banking dynasty. JJ Morgan recreated a pseudo-medieval great hall where the service wing used to be and opened a grand entrance door where there should have been windows.’I’m a bit of a purist,’ says Mr Hill, wrinkling his nose at JJ Morgan’s refurbishments. ‘When you see a house that still has a medieval arrangement, each room should keep the same function as it had in the past.

‘Today, Nyetimber reflects Mr Hill’s treble personality of music icon, countryman and vigneron. Strewn across the floor of the ‘new’ great hall are odd-looking guitars and obscure musical implements, whose use I can’t fathom, amid Oriental carpets and English oak furniture. On the bookshelves, aLife of John Lennon is sandwiched between a volume on Lutyens and one on Elizabethan houses. And in the cellar, bottle after glorious bottle of England’s finest sparkling wine bide their time on lees, maturing bouquet and flavour until the time is right to reach the glass.It doesn’t happen very often for a country house to come to the market complete with celebratory drinks for the holidays, but Mr Hill was sceptical about the purchase when he first visited the estate in 2001.

‘When I bought here, I thought the vineyards and winery were a liability,’ he says. ‘I had the same preconceptions about English wine as many people have. I only became convinced when I tried the wine at Berry Brothers. To think that I have never really been a Champagne drinker before!’Served at Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, as well as Petrus, Nyetimber’s wine now helps pay for the estate’s upkeep.

However, a few choice bottles will inevitably make it straight from the cellar onto the Hills’ Christmas table. This is the first proper Christmas the family spends on the estate, as they were still dealing with the side effects of the move in 2002. ‘We have always had a big Christmas with our relatives,’ says Mr Hill, ‘but it will be just the five of us this year – my wife, my eldest son, the twins and me – plus two guys who have been organising our Christmas for at least the last twenty years.

They have sort of become part of the family now. Every year, they come on Christmas Eve and stay until Boxing Day. They take care of literally everything, from dinner on Christmas Eve to breakfast, lunch and a light afternoon tea on Christmas day.’The ‘two guys’ – a cook and a butler – were first drafted in after a particularly unsuccessful Christmas meal chez the Hills back in the early Eighties.

‘My brother in law brought ducks to roast on a spit and poured lighter fluid on them. We ended up with duck charred on the outside and raw on the inside.’ These days, the menu is safer and likely to encompass turkey ‘with all the trimmings and a lovely chestnut stuffing.’If the food verges on the very traditional, creativity runs riot on decorations, many of which come straight from Nyetimber’s gardens.

‘We really go overboard decorating the house. We used to have a tree in every room. Now we only have a really tall one in the hall that goes all the way to the ceiling. It is wonderful to cut your own, so we pick one that is growing on the property,’ says Mr Hill. ‘We have a slight difficulty in putting lights at the top of it, though. It usually involves me standing on tiptoes at the top of a ladder trying to fit the lights on the tree with the top of a broom.

‘Other trees and bushes also provide inspiration and material. ‘Only because there is so much of it in the garden, we use Leyland cypress, which I actually don’t like, but with sprigs of it you can create a wonderful effect over the hearth,’ which, at Nyetimber, is a large medieval-style affair spanning two-thirds of the length of the great hall. ‘The hardest struggle is to find some holly that the birds haven’t stripped all the berries from. I think I will have to go early, pick one and cover it somehow to protect it for Christmas.

‘Although the Hills start early with the decoration and aim to have everything in place by December 15, presents are often left to the last minute. ‘No matter how soon we start, we always end up at Toy R Us on Christmas Eve.’As Mr Hill expands on his plans for the winery and how he intends to reduce the time the wine spends on lees to increase bottle ageing, I probe whether there is a budding winemaking talent among his children, who may take over the reins in the future and perhaps enjoy receiving a book on viticulture this Christmas. However, it seems music is the only passion they have inherited from their father.

‘My eldest son is a very good guitarist,’ says Mr Hill with more than a hint of parental pride in his voice and a secret smile, which makes me think that his choice of gifts may lay in that direction. ‘As for the twins…they seem to spend most of their time at the computer. If all else fails, they will be excellent typists.’