There are hotels where you stay in your room watching TV and ordering up room service. We’re not judging. There’s not a damn thing wrong with that. There are hotels where it’s all about dressing up and showing out and having sparkling conversation and stiff drinks (or stiff conversations and sparkling drinks) in the lobby. Again, we’re not judging (see above). And then there are hotels where there’s so much stuff to do you almost need a secretary to run your stay. Birch is such a thing.
Located so ‘just’ out of London you can actually take the Overground and then jump in a five-minute Uber, Birch has taken over an historic mansion in the country (well, it seems like the country when you’re there) and made it a playground for the young, the not-so-young and anyone that has any young part of their brain left. It’s the bright idea of someone who used to run The Ace in Shoreditch, so you get the vibe.
And you know that this is not just some country house hotel (although it was just some country house hotel before this incarnation) before you step inside: outsize signage, fun outdoor furniture, touches of quirk that seem to promise a good time.
Inside, the décor is distressed (at some points so distressed you almost want to recommend counselling) and funky with broken plaster walls teamed with the most immaculate gilding, serious modern art alongside something that someone’s been brought in to paint on the wall and staff that call themselves ‘placemakers’.
And being a real-school old-school bona fide country mansion, it rambles. Turn left for a huge screening room with deckchairs, carry on for an inside/outside terrace kind of bar, further still for a huge salon, where you can step out back onto another terrace with sofa set-ups for the quaffing of wines and spirits. Or you could walk across there into countryside that you can’t see the end of.
Turn the other way from reception and you have a tiny bar that whips up the coldest, strongest vodka martinis-with-a-twist this part of ‘just outside London’ has ever had whipped up for it. Further on, past re-conditioned phone hood things (you’ll only know what these are if you’re 40+ or have seen The Sweeney), you get to The Hub, which is apparently a co-working space but it seems that co-working comes with cocktails these days (well, it was a Friday, we can cut slack).
Off this space – which is both worky and leisurey all at the same time – are rooms for meetings (you can join the co-working thing if you live this way) or for music (instruments provided) or whatever. Outside there is regular wild yoga but if it’s looking dicey weather-wise, they bring it in here. Or up there past the room where you can do pottery.
But that’s not all. Trail outside, past the farm, where a lot of the food from here is grown/reared, and through the courtyard where someone is doing glass-blowing of all things, past the ‘interactive bakery’ where you can knock up your own loaf, is The Zebra Riding Club, named after one of the aristos who lived here who apparently had zebras and rode them (we suspect she stencilled horses ‘cause zebras are famously not available for being ridden willy nilly, and we know how they feel!)
The Zebra Riding Club is, and we imagine this is not controversial to assert, the finest place to eat in this part of the world. Fabulously done out in – what are we calling this? – eco glamour? Wood cabinets, retro florals, lampshades made from crumpled brown paper all coming together to create a warm and sophisticated vibe for food that comes straight from Robin Gill, who, if you know your food, you’ll have heard of. Strange and wonderful things sourced locally, healthy-seeming and totally unique.
But when you’re not eating or drinking or watching TV or taking in a movie or wild yoga-ing or glass-blowing or making a dozen wholemeal rolls or using the huge state-of-the-art gym or getting rubbed up the right way in the Spa (coming soon – thank Covid for the delay) you can join a spinning class in their totally techno spinning suite or make a candle or build a bird box (we are actually not kidding here!) or grab a bacon roll and a pain au chocolat because you’re worn out from any or all of the above.
They call it an escape from urban living and you can do what the hell you want with it. As for us, we were happy to lap up those extra cold martinis out on the lawn as others set out on excursions and activities. And remember what we said about not judging and about there being not a damn thing wrong with it!