EMILY WILLIAMS tries her hand at glassblowing, wreath-making and pottery, and delves into the seasonal tasting menu at Cheshunt’s next-generation hotel.
Opening a brand new hotel is no easy feat in the middle of a pandemic, but Chris Penn (former
Managing Director of Ace Hotel London) and serial entrepreneur Chris King were right on cue when they opened their latest ‘staycation’ sensation in Hertfordshire. Birch is a co-working hub slash members’ club that makes a refreshing antidote for weary Londoners who’ve had their holiday plans scrapped by Covid-19. Located just outside of the M25, Birch is a respite from urban living without the hassle of travelling too far out of town.
Named after the What3Words system, where every three-metre square of the world map is given a unique trio of words, Birch ‘handle.silk.comet’ is a short taxi drive away from Cheshunt Station. After one mention of the hotel, my driver nodded as though I’d whispered a secret password and whisked me away towards this curious colony out of sight from the main road. Bemused by Birch’s sudden popularity, he revealed en route that it was once his grandma’s school and is now the up-and-coming spot in the area. Families, couples, solo travellers and friends had been flocking in since its official launch in August 2020.
As we cruised along the sweeping drive, the imposing red-brick Georgian manor came into view and it felt like the closest I’d get to starting my first term at millennial Hogwarts. In fact, prior to its use as a post-wartime school, this picturesque property was owned by an eccentric American socialite, Lady Valerie Meux, who bought elephants, ostriches and emus as pets and installed an indoor roller-skating rink just for fun. Her flamboyant party pad sounds as though it would fit the bill for a JK Rowling novel, although only pigs and chickens roam the 55 acres today.
Passing the regal pillars and lioness sculptures at the porch of the mansion, I stepped through the door framed by lavish terracotta velvet curtains and marvelled at the staircase that’s become a hit on Instagram feeds across the country. There’s just something so perfectly ‘undone’ about the way its dishevelled stone steps contrast against the polished walnut handrail and intricate mosaic floors. Architects from Red Deer have played with bold colour and minimalism to breathe new life into the 18th-century building, while staying true to its origins. Even as I wandered into the electric-blue hallway with its suspended lunar lamp, the lofty ceilings seemed to stretch my imagination and create room for new ideas. But upstairs in the sleeping quarters, the rooms tell a simpler story. All 140 ensuite rooms feature earthy jute carpets, breezy linen curtains and quirky valet stands crafted by local designers using recycled materials. Every nook of the place is curated with care, and I also admired the lack of in-room TVs to encourage guests to immerse themselves in the festival-like programme of events. In its place was the gentle babble of an old-school Roberts radio, that reminded me of waking up on wholesome weekends at my family home. Within an hour of arrival, I was already knee-deep into my activity schedule, starting with a thrilling glassblowing session with Gather Glass. The two trained experts made me feel safe when stepping close to the 1,100-degree furnace and manipulating the molten glass with iron tools. The finished result was impressive – a speckled glass tumbler that looked like one I’d just picked up from an artisan homeware store. Next up was my first gong-bath experience with the free-spirited yogi Melanie Fismer. I had no idea what to expect but arriving with an open mind was key. I lay down on a mat next to my classmates and was handed a soft blanket and a fragrant lavender eye mask. Before I knew it I was drifting off to the reverberating sounds of a planetary gong, rainmakers and celestial Koshi chimes. Basking in the soundwaves had a mesmerising effect and I awoke in a blissful haze.
"THE BEST THING ABOUT BIRCH IS THAT YOUR TIME HERE IS WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT. YOU CAN HAVE A NON-STOP WEEKEND KNEADING BREAD IN THE BAKERY, BLASTING OUT A HIGH-INTENSITY FITNESS SESSION, OR ROAMING THE ESTATE WITH FARMER TOM TO LEARN ABOUT GROWING YOUR OWN PRODUCE"
The best thing about Birch is that your time here is what you make of it. You can have a non-stop weekend kneading bread in the bakery, blasting out a high-intensity fitness session, or roaming the estate with Farmer Tom to learn about growing your own produce. Equally, your time at Birch can be very relaxed, from reading in the tree hammocks and watching films in the movie screening room, to huddling around a fire pit with a glass of wine as dusk begins to fall.
As evening drew in, I practically skipped towards the stable block, buzzing after a day exploring Birch’s interactive playground. Little did I know that the sensory experience was only just getting started. Chefs Robin Gill and Ben Rand, famous for their fine-dining pursuits at The Dairy, have come together to create a nature-led culinary experience for Birch members and restaurant guests. Known as the ‘Zebra Riding Club’, after the zebra-drawn carriage that used to ride Lady Meux into London, the disused barn has been transformed into a decadent dining space with exposed beams, vintage furniture and a tasting menu that I’m still thinking about.
Gill has worked closely with Farmer Tom’s circular food concept, to celebrate seasonal ingredients, connect with high-quality suppliers and return all the nutritious vegetable compost to the pigpen. Highlights included a warm bowl of heritage grains with tasty eggs from Birch’s rescued hens, wild Dorset oysters and delicately wood-fired venison, washed down with a crisp white wine from West Sussex. For the finale, the lemon balm rice-pudding with fig-leaf ice cream was a delicious finish to an already memorable meal.
Over in the main house, Valeries is a laid-back daytime dining alternative, where dishes include brown crab and leeks on toast, bacon braised beans and cheese and marmite scrolls. After a nutritious brunch there, I felt fuelled up and ready to dive into my next class with Florette Flowers, whose sustainable ethos echoes the wider Birch philosophy. Using dried blooms like eucalyptus, pampas, wheat and beech, she taught us how to weave their sturdy stems into the rattan base to create an everlasting autumnal wreath to hang up at home.
Before my afternoon departure, I dipped into the pottery studio for a therapeutic few hours learning coil and pinch-pot techniques, while the ceramicist Bryony Applegate rustled up some clay dog bowls for the four-legged visitors at Birch. There’s simply no end to the fun here, and I could have stayed on for days trying out everything on offer. Birch is a stroke of genius that embraces sustainability, human connectivity and creative collaboration. It’s as much an escape from the city as it is for the mind, which is needed more than ever in a year like 2020.
For more information about Birch visit birchcommunity.com Double Rooms start from £150. Book Friday and Saturday and get Sunday free. Memberships are available with a £200 joining fee and then a monthly fee of £120.