A Grade II listed property with a past as colourful as its interiors, Birch is the brainchild of the former MD of Ace Hotel, Chris Penn. Along with his team, he’s been busy transforming the stately Hertfordshire mansion into an accessible design-led members’ club, hotel, events and meeting space with stripes of east London cool.
It’s been welcoming guests for a few weeks now, gently stretching its legs with low room occupancy to start with as it navigates the UK’s new Covid-safe rules. The upshot means that it doesn’t feel busy, even when all the rooms are taken.
In a previous life, it was the former party pad of 19th century socialite Lady Valerie Meux. Much to the disdain of polite society at the time, the eccentric American had a reputation for throwing wild, weekend-long soirees, painting her horses to look like zebras and installing a swimming pool and an indoor roller skating rink in her mansion. In short, the kind of gal you might friend request today.
While there’s less debauched chandelier-swinging these days, the spirit of revelry lives on with a superb bar, two restaurants and DJs pumping ambient house over the lawns after dark.
Where is it?
A handy half hour from Liverpool Street, Birch is in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. Catch the Overground to nearby Theobald’s Grove, or a faster Greater Anglia train from Liverpool Street – get off at Waltham Cross. From any of these stations, it’s a short Uber to the gates of Birch, set in 55 acres of maintained grounds and leafy woodland. If you’re driving, you can find Birch precisely with what3words: handle.silk.comet.
The hotel is a mix of meeting rooms and workspaces mingling with bars, restaurants and lounges, all surrounded by lawns speckled with picnic tables, chic rattan garden furniture and fire pits to keep you toasty in the evenings.
There’s not much to do locally, which is just as well because the events calendar has more than enough to keep you busy – if that’s what you’re after. There are just as many opportunities to curl up with a book, snooze or sit quietly by the fire with a cocktail for company too.
It feels like a cross between a National Trust property and an old school English hotel, revamped for a millennial audience with Insta-ready touches; think Oliver Bonas and H&M homewares mixed artfully amongst the stone-tiled floors, vaulted ceilings and stunning mosaics.
The mansion’s lounges are a dream: a lounge painted entirely black – ceiling roses and all – lifted with mustard drapes and mahogany coffee tables, and a cobalt blue grand stairway with a moon-inspired orb suspended in its centre. We spotted a few hipsters stylishly arranging themselves on sofas, and slow-mo descending staircases, all in the pursuit of the ultimate upload.
Upstairs, in the mansion’s sleeping quarters, the hotel continues to cling to slivers of its former glory – twee floral wallpaper here, retro taps there – only zhooshed with washes of lavender and candyfloss pink paint on top.
With such a decor-led focus, the bedrooms were a bit of a surprise. Bar the bed and two blocks for nightstands, they’re devoid of furniture. There’s only a few glazed clay hooks to hang coats, and an abstract clothes horse designed by Jan Hendzel Studio on which to place a single item of clothing and perhaps some accessories. Arty, yes, but bewildering too.
Still, Birch prides itself on giving guests room to breathe, so this does stick to the script – although I found it a little too spartan for my tastes. No complaints about the bed; a refuge of crisp, white linens and blankets topping a Simba mattress (the same across all Birch’s 140 rooms), it offered a great night’s kip.
It seems only right that this grand mansion with its boarding school vibes offers an exciting events curriculum to match. You can sign up for yoga and bootcamp classes (free), uncover sourdough secrets in a taster bakery session (also free), try your hand at pottery (a paid class) or immerse yourself into an otherworldly gong sound bath (£20 for an hour.) You can just as easily spend your time sipping margaritas in hammock chairs under leafy canopies on the grounds: it’s up to you to work out what will be more relaxing.
We enrolled in a 45 minute glass blowing lesson, mesmerising and terrifying in equal measure. Manipulating glowing red molten glass, shaping it with wet newspaper and watching it expand from a lungful of your breath is an experience all of its own. Workshops like these are often booked solid in London, so staying at Birch is a great opportunity to try your hand at something new on your break.
Elsewhere, you can catch a movie in the deckchair-filled cinema, or unleash your inner folk singer in the music room, complete with a piano, drums, guitars, a xylophone and shaggy rugs to sink your toes into.
Beyond the mansion, past the chicken coop, pig pen and rows of vegetables sewn by in-house farmer John, is the Wellness Centre. It’s a sleek, modern facility complete with a gym and a fully operational spin studio.
Mind you, this is all just phase one – there’s more to come. Construction on a lido is underway, and there are plans for a full menu of beauty treatments once the dust has settled on Covid measures. Watch this space.
Membership: You don’t have to sleepover to take advantage of all Birch has to offer; members can access the benefits too. Sign up and you’ll get access to 30+ fitness and wellness classes, as well as entry to the gym. Members also get discounts on food and drink, meeting room and bedroom hire, plus discounts for their friends too. You can jump the queue on table bookings for The Zebra Riding Club, as well as the hotel’s Festival and Weekender tickets – there are big plans for Halloween and New Year’s Eve. Membership is £120 per month, with a £200 joining fee.
Food & Drink
Referencing Lady Meux once more, The Zebra Riding Club is Birch’s gourmet dining offering. The smart restaurant uses ingredients from Birch’s farm in its seasonal and locally-sourced tasting menu (£45pp).
Highlights included grilled bread piled high with chunks of juicy tomato garnished with Calabrian anchovy, and the main of succulent Swaledale salt marsh lamb. You can add on an oyster course and a cheeseboard for additional cost, but the set menu is pretty substantial. Dessert was the triumph, a comforting bowl of blackberry ripple ice cream with white peach and a crunchy rosemary biscuit. Alongside the wine list, there’s a small curation of cocktails to try: I sank into the Garden Sour, whose foam was so indulgently thick it was like climbing under a duvet.
Though well priced, the tasting menu is a little over ambitious. There are hits certainly, but one or two misses too – we weren’t the only ones shrinking away from certain plates.
What’s really wonderful is the bakery, which consistently offers delicious breads and pastries. They’re best at breakfast at The Store, a grab-and-go coffee shop opposite the music room. Options range from substantial (thick slabs of bacon in warm potato bread rolls) to saintly granola cups. A cheese pastry, sticky with streaks of Marmite, was delicious, but would have been even better had it been oven-warm.
For lunch, snacks and peckish moments, head to Valeries, another eaterie named in honour of the omnipresent Lady Meux. Adjacent to Birch’s reception, management is trying a new system in order to check the social distancing box. Simply scan a QR code for the online menu, then place and pay for your order before picking it up from Valeries’ register. You’re free to take your feast anywhere on the grounds – and with such lovely interiors and lawns, you’ll have your pick of settings. Try the courgette, basil and honey flatbread, smoked short rib or the roast chicken with all the trimmings for Sunday lunch.
Birch can organise picnic baskets and private evening BBQs too but be sure to book ahead as these are ridiculously popular.
Mediums and twins, located in both the Grade II-listed mansion house, all start at £130 per night. We stayed in a twin room in the main house overlooking the lawns, close to music, bars and restaurants. If you’re after peace and quiet, try the off-shoot building, where rooms are more spacious and further away from the action.
There are also single bedrooms (starting at £110 per night) which are perfect for solo staycationers – of which I encountered one or two. However if you’re coming with a crowd, you’ll be better off with a Bunk Room, which has a double bed and a bunk bed, starting at £150 per night.
Dogs are welcome, but only in certain rooms, so mention this at the time of booking if you’re planning to take Rover with you.
Best for: a countryside-lite staycation you can get to with your Oyster card.
Rooms from £110 a night.