Words: Tim Heap
A weekend spent lounging in a country hotel retreat has never particularly appealed to me before.
I imagined these sprawling rural estates as the stomping ground of elderly middle-class couples bickering over whether cream or jam goes first on their afternoon tea scone, or mums and daughters bonding and bitching during a spa session.
Generally speaking, give me a couple of days soaking up the buzz of a city, getting sore feet from racking up countless steps wandering around, and stopping in every bakery, café or restaurant to refuel, and I’m a happy man.
But in February, after a busy start to the year – which included snagging a new boyfriend – an invitation to Down Hall Hotel & Spa over Valentine’s Day weekend seemed like a good opportunity to relax and unwind for our first mini-break.
After crawling up the sweeping gravel drive, we reached the impressive Italianate building, which dates back to 1322 and boasts 110 acres of grounds on the Hertfordshire/Essex border (Sawbridgeworth and Harlow Mill train stations are each a 10-minute drive away).
Through various refurbishments and extensions over the years, it now offers 98 bedrooms, plus various stately reception rooms, The Grill Room restaurant, a terrace bar and the adjacent Eden Spa.
After checking in, we made our way up a grand staircase to our first-floor room, which blended classic elegance with modern comfort.
Warm muted colours were instantly soothing, the large sash window letting in light and a cool breeze, and a plush king-size bed looked rather inviting.
But, resisting the urge to nap, we headed outside to explore the grounds, armed with a handy map of walking trails that we spotted in the room.
It was a beautiful, warm day (during that freak February heatwave), so we opted for the longest route, which is still an easily strollable 2.7km.
There are three other trails, each one colour coded and with signposts along the way to keep you on the right path.
It took us through manicured gardens, woodland groves and swathes of snowdrops, but we were soon back at the rear of Down Hall where a giant chess set stood waiting — insert joke about a couple of queens…
After a disappointing stalemate, we swallowed our pride along with a cup of coffee and biscuit in the room, then strolled next door to the spa.
Offering a full menu of treatments, we enjoy time in the Wet Spa (hydrotherapy pool, sauna, steam room and indoor and outdoor relaxation beds), before a full-body Inner Calm massage.
Although undoubtedly relaxing overall, our massage therapists got the giggles when the oil bottle started making certain amusing noises, and the soothing music cut out for a time halfway through.
Dinner that evening was served in Anglo-French AA Rosette-awarded restaurant The Grill Room, and exceeded expectations.
My rabbit stew main was lip-smackingly good, and a dreamy chocolate and pistachio-based dessert made for a very satisfying finish, along with the dregs of a bottle of house-recommended white wine.
Breakfast was also served there the following morning, with a good hot breakfast selection accompanied by a smaller cold buffet. The waiting staff seemed a little flustered and understaffed, but were very approachable for anything we needed.
By the time we checked out, I felt thoroughly relaxed and refreshed, having barely left the comfort of Down Hall for almost 24 hours.
Compare that to returning from a busy weekend break and feeling like you instantly need another weekend to recover – maybe there’s something in these country hotel retreats after all…
This June, the hotel presents its inaugural Live At Down Hall weekend, with Jools Holland and James Morrison taking to the stage to perform amidst the landscaped gardens and beneath the stars.
Accompanied by his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, Jools Holland will perform live on Saturday 15 June with a host of special guests, while Brit Award-winner James Morrison will follow on Sunday 16 June.
There are a range of packages available, including overnight stays and picnic experiences, as well as general admission tickets from £75.