By Kate Mead
You may have spotted Down Hall as the grand backdrop for The Great British Bake off during lockdown, but did you know you can stay there.
This country estate on the border of Essex and Hertfordshire, less than an hour from central London, has a rich history that dates back centuries and has been home not only to aristocrats, but royalty over the years.
It also served as a wartime hospital and a girls’ boarding school, boasting an alumni that includes British First Lady Clarissa Eden and Princess Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd.
Now a hotel and spa, millions has been spent on Down Hall to restore the house to its former glory, including a new West Wing and an award-winning fine dining restaurant. Here’s what happened when the Boutique Handbook checked in for the night…
Down Hall Hotel Review
Due to its countryside location, Down Hall is best got to by car. Its sweeping driveway shows off the stunning 110-acre park and woodland that surrounds the hotel, instantly provoking anticipation of a Downton-style stay.
There have been many changes to the building in its 10-century history, but the classic Italianate exterior of the magnificent mansion that remains today is the work of architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell, completed at the dawn of the Victorian era.
Stepping through the rotunda into the grand house, you can feel the history in its walls. The décor is tasteful and twinned with curiosities. Chandeliers hang from traditionally-coved high ceilings, but its natural light is the real winner, flooding through skylights and a lengthy French window terrace.
There are 98 rooms at Down Hall hotel in the Main House and the newly-built West Wing. They range from classic doubles to the signature Liddell Suite, named after the mansion’s 1960s owner, complete with a real flame fire and feature bath at the end of the bed.
All are tastefully designed with a period feel and all the mod-cons you would expect from a hotel, including a selection of ESPA toiletries, tea and coffee facilities, a laptop-sized safe and mini fridge.
We stayed in a lovely garden-facing Deluxe Room that was spacious enough for two with an extraordinarily comfortable bed and mammoth-sized pillows. It was a busy Saturday night when we stayed, but our room gave us the privacy for an uninterrupted and peaceful night’s sleep.
The rooms in the Main House are only accessible by stairs, but the newer rooms on the West Wing offer patio level access through French windows for more accessible accommodation. There are Executive rooms with pull out beds for children and pet owners don’t have to keep their furry friends at home. Dogs are welcome to stay in one of the patio rooms for £20 a night and a bed, water bowl and treat box is provided.
FOOD AND DRINK
The Garden Room restaurant offers fine dining from an à la carte menu in a beautifully designed greenhouse-style space. In just under two years since its launch, it has already won 2 AA Rosettes.
Decorated in sage and mustard furnishings with wildlife-themed wallpaper, dishes are designed around what is grown in Down Hall’s kitchen garden. Head Chef Sam Blunnie told us the restaurant is dedicated to farm-to-table local produce, including Hatfield Venison and Great Garnetts Farm pork. There are future plans to install hives and cultivate local honey on site.
During our visit, the menu was heavy with seasonal vegetables, many from the garden just yards away, including a Butternut Squash Risotto (£19) and a Roasted Celeriac Wellington with Hispi Cabbage (£21).
For starters we had the Crayfish Tails (£16), delicately set off with dill emulsion on a melt-in-the-mouth toasted brioche. Mains were succulent Cod Loin (£32) with sweet baby leeks and a tender Chicken Supreme (£29) served with carrots with a yummy mustard kick. Meat lovers can order steaks cooked on the Josper, a cross between a barbecue and charcoal grill, uniquely flavoured with wood from the estate.
Desserts were the showstopper, using seasonal fruits as their inspiration. We had the mouth-watering Vanilla Poached Plum (£10) with a zingy orange sorbet and the technically impressive Pear and White Chocolate Delice (£11), a delightful white chocolate casing containing a dreamy, creamy poached pear on a biscuit base accompanied by a delicious pear sorbet.
The special experience was only amplified by a sturdy wine list, attentive waiting staff and a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere. Even if you’re not staying there, Down Hall is worth a visit for the restaurant alone.
For a more casual, but no less enjoyable dining experience there is The Terrace. On arrival we had a delicious homemade pizza for lunch (from £17) and there are plenty of dishes to suit every appetite, such as small plates of Koftas (£13), Bao Buns (£12.50) or a hearty Fish and Chips (£18.50). Sadly, we ran out of time to sample the Afternoon Tea (£40pp in the week and £42.50pp at weekends), served daily, but hopefully next time. Picnics can also be pre-ordered and enjoyed on the manicured lawns when they weather is good.
The sweeping lounge complete with opulent white and gold pillars, a large fireplace and a sleek plinky-plonky piano is fit for a ball. While the cosy Fox cocktail bar, decorated in warm mauves and greens, invites you to recline on a wing-back chair or sink into a velvet sofa to enjoy something from the well-stocked bar in a dimly-lit corner.
If posing as Lord or Lady of the manor isn’t luxury enough for you, the Eden Spa will ensure that you feel like royalty during your stay. Two-hour slots can be booked at an extra cost (£28pp) to make use of the hydrotherapy pool, sauna, steam and relaxation rooms, where you can chill out with a drink. On hotter days, loungers are available on the terrace. A spa mini-package of use of the wet spa and a 25-minute treatment is available at £75 per person.
Our masseuse Megan treated us to an amazing back, neck and shoulder ESPA massage which felt so much longer than 25 minutes, for all the right reasons. Staff were thoughtful and friendly and on hand to provide quality ‘me’ time. It really is worth adding to your stay.
There are three single treatment rooms and a luxury double room offering a range of massages from £49, facials from £40 and body treatments from £46, with special packages for menopause retreats and people living with cancer. Manicures and pedicures by Jessica Nails can also be booked from £22.
To top up the energy, there are plenty of activities available to guests, including a 24-hour gym and tennis court. You can even play a spot of Croquet or a game of boules – the reception have all the equipment you’ll need for a round or two. For the kids, there’s a playground, space for a friendly kickabout and all the family can enjoy a battle on the Giant Chess set.
There is plenty for the intrepid explorer too, from the kitchen garden, orchard and duck pond to the fairy garden and bug hotel further into the woodland. The Trim Trail was sadly closed due to tree replanting when we stayed, but the rural environments are well worth putting on the wellies for. There are little extras for pooches too. On check in, they are gifted a WOOF box containing treats, a Lily’s Kitchen meal, personal tennis ball and a map of local walks.
Down Hall is ideal for a romantic mini-break, family getaways or a dog friendly escape and offers all you would expect and more from a country spa retreat. This Halloween, they are hosting Enchanted Cinema’s open air cinema experience and fireworks on November 5. A three-day Christmas package including festive dining, entertainment and a visit from Santa is also on sale priced at £1,050 per adult and £525 per child.
Prices start from £208 a night, including breakfast
Read next: New UK hotels to know about
Read next: Restaurants with rooms worth booking