If you’re yearning for a UK mini-break with a difference then you’ll be hard pushed to find a better escape than The Birch – the UK’s most trendy new hotel to open this year. Unleash your creativity, feel at peace and be prepared to be impressed.
It is easy to introduce The Birch as you would for any luxury new hotel launch, it’s a 140-bedroom converted Georgian Mansion, set in Theobalds 55-acre Estate, Hertfordshire, just 30 minutes from London’s Liverpool Street Station. However, this is where the comparison ends, as The Birch is not like any other hotel, it’s a totally new concept – I expect you’re either going to love it or hate it.
Even the name, Birch (handle.silk.comet), takes on an innovative approach – as the first British brand to use new location technology, what3words, an app which enables people around the world to share precise locations, with every 3 metres square having a unique combination of three words.
The brainchild behind it is Chris Penn, former Managing Director of The Ace Hotel London Shoreditch, recently the highest-placed hospitality operator on the CoolBrands list, he leaves behind one cutting edge hotel to launch another.
The Birch is a members club, but one where everyone’s welcome, as you do not need to be a member to stay here. Non-member hotel guests and restaurant diners still get access to everything on offer. The incentive to become a member, for a cost of £120 a month (and a £200 joining fee), offers you full access to the Wellness Space, two restaurants, three bars, co-working space… and the daily-run programme of classes and events (including wild yoga on the lawn, ceramics workshops in the pottery studio, sourdough-making, beekeeping and foraging walks around the grounds). There are a few other perks too, such as discounts on room rates, spa treatments and food and drink.
“The Birch is not like any other hotel, it’s a totally new concept – I expect you’re either going to love it or hate it”
The concept is both bold and brave, and although (it seems) aimed principally at the Gen-Z and Millennials generations who work in the city, amongst the many fashionable city-dwellers the hotel was bustling with multi-generational families and parents with young children too. The mornings took on a very different feel to the party-vibe in the evenings, where cocktails were flowing and DJs were playing their latest sets on the lawn. The hotel was much quieter, people were few and far between during breakfast time, with just a handful queuing for coffee dressed in their gym gear, or taking their pampered pooch out for a stroll.
The Birch is described to look like a hotel, and to feel like a festival. And I think this is quite an accurate description – a boutique festival mind, more Larmer Tree and Wilderness rather than Glastonbury.
The number of classes and activities on offer is really what sets it apart from your more usual hotel stay, and with so much going on it is unstuffy and feels non-judgemental. Everyone is made to feel welcome and encouraged to give it a go, to try something new. With so much variety to choose from, every visit is likely to offer a personal and individual experience. Here’s how we spent our time…
GETTING INTO THE GROOVE
The sun was shining so once we had settled in we headed out onto the lawn where we had our own evening BBQ pit. You have the option to book a BBQ pit by day or by evening, with both meat and veg boxes available – it’s a DIY-style affair, although you’re provided with instructions, tongs, and all the treats you need. We also had our QR code to hand, given to us when we checked in – this was the link to our food ordering app, another unique idea from The Birch’s chef Robin Gill who wanted to create new ways for guests to feast on food. You simply order your food and drinks from the online menus, then collect from Valeries who will call or text you when it’s ready. You can then choose to sit and dine in the restaurant, or, take your food away and eat wherever you like. You are encouraged to quite literally eat and drink anywhere, be it on a deckchair in the movie room, on a blanket or hammock in the back lawn, or even in the Library.
There is plenty of space and beautifully furnished rooms to choose from – especially in the Grade ll-listed Mansion House with its impressive entrance, mosaic floors, grand staircase and original paintings uncovered on some of the ceilings during the two-year-long renovation. In fact, we spent much of our first evening exploring the rooms, wandering our way through the creative corridors, stopping in at the games room, popping our head into the pottery studio, and taking a peek at the think pods, art studios and music rooms.
Originally The Birch was home to the eccentric Victorian socialite Lady Meux, who it is claimed, used to ride through Mayfair in a zebra-drawn carriage, once had a menagerie and her own roller skating rink at the house (now the wellness space – a separate building just across from the Mansion).
ACTIVITIES AND CLASSES
First on our activities schedule, Wild Yoga outdoors on the lawn. We were lucky with the weather, it was a beautiful morning. The stretching and the sound of the gentle breeze through the trees restored our energy and set us up for the day ahead.
Following a coffee and breakfast from The Store we popped into the bakery for one of their drop-in sessions and joined the bakers in one of their daily rituals making delicious sourdough. We enjoyed it so much that we returned in the afternoon where we made Pain au chocolat.
One of my highlights was attending a guided nature walk with farmer Tom Morphew around the Birch grounds. Tom’s passion for nature and bio-diversity and knowledge in his field was fascinating. We met his pigs, collected eggs from the chickens and admired the kitchen-garden.
Tom explained his vision, and how together with chef Robin Gill, they had ambitious plans to grow much more estate-made produce and be as self-sustainable as possible. Tom also told us about the garden walkabouts and farmer days he would be launching, where he’ll be teaching guests how to grow and compost as well as forage in the woodland.
You can’t leave The Birch without trying something new, for me, this was Watercolour botanicals. Illustrator Katie Rose Johnston led the workshop designed to help you relax and unwind through painting. Inspired by the flowers and nature surrounding Birch we learned some simple techniques to paint plants and foliage in watercolour.
I took a look around the Wellness Centre, it was fully kitted out with state-of-the-art fitness equipment – and is a huge space. As is often the case in hotels there was no-one actually working out there at the time. I imagine when they open the eagerly anticipated Lido – a 25-metre outdoor pool surrounded by nature with poolside BBQ and Lido bar – it will become more popular.
THE ZEBRA RIDING CLUB
The culinary heartbeat of The Birch, The Zebra Riding Club restaurant is a much more ‘normal’ dining experience than that of the grab-and-go concept at Valeries. Here you must book a table in advance, you then order from the waiter or waitress, and dine in the restaurant. With much of the produce from the growing farm, woods, and local surroundings, the unfussy menu is described as being led by nature. I ordered oysters sourced fresh from Achill Island off the West Coast of Ireland and they were delicious.
The Birch (handle.silk.comet) is the first to open, with no secret that the vision is to roll out the concept with further hotels launching close to other major cities across the UK. And you could suggest the timing is impeccable too, with more people searching for work-life balance following the coronavirus pandemic lockdown having had an opportunity to reflect while on Furlough. Plus, with more businesses closing their offices and previous commuters now working from home, The Birch might also fulfil the demand for a co-working sociable space, especially important for those in the media and creative industries. So the questions is, could this community-centred creative work-play hub become the hotel of the future? Personally I am one of the lovers (not haters) – I really enjoyed my time at The Birch and I definitely plan to return.