I am lying on my back, sun glistening down on the grass, perfectly relaxed for the first time in months – and just 600 metres from the M25.
Beyond my yoga teacher’s rustling wind chimes is the faintest buzz of traffic. This is Birch hotel: a woodland oasis of health, creativity and indulgence, and the perfect tonic to this summer’s stresses.
A five minute drive from Junction 25, the 140-room Cheshunt hotel sprawls out from its centrepiece, a Georgian mansion on a slick of green lawn in 55 acres of woodland. The interiors are thoughtful: flooring stripped back to faded mosaics, period features picked out in bright hues, handmade pottery and dried flower posies.
Rooms are compact and simply decorated. There’s no TV, but that won’t matter – you’ll be spending your time exploring. Start with a high intensity boot camp, hop on a treadmill in the gym, or hit the woodland trails for an early run.
Take a drawing or pottery class. Lie back in a deckchair in the cinema room. Make your own soda bread or help knead today’s sourdough. File that report from the co-working space. Introduce yourself to the hens and pigs. There were sheep, I am told, but they escaped into the forest.
As evening draws in, grab a grapefruit spritz from the drinks cart on the back lawn. Visitors spill out from the terrace to swing chairs and picnic blankets. Grill dinner over an open fire, grab a ball from the games room, or watch the sun drop in the sky. Then there’s just time to lose a round of pool before dinner.
Birch’s centrepiece restaurant is the Zebra Riding Club (named for an eccentric former resident who had zebras draw her carriage). Chef Robin Gill worked under Raymond Blanc and Marco Pierre White.
His set tasting menu makes the most of seasonal ingredients grown on site – though perhaps relies a little too much on the novelty of charring on an open flame.
That said, a mini courgette and feta tartlet appetiser was delicious: salty and sour with a wafer thin crisp of shell. Buttery sourdough paired beautifully with crisp pickles, smoked cream and a subtle umami hit of miso. Tangy broth with sweet corn kernels, grains and soft boiled egg was a highlight, overshadowing the main course of silky aubergine, beans and a crisp salad.
Opt for the vegan dessert, a peach sorbet that more than matched my blackberry ripple ice cream. You can pair your meal with Ortega white wine from the Kent Downs or a leafy lemon and pine cocktail. Meat eaters can switch in red mullet, oysters and lamb – but vegetarians certainly won’t miss out.
After dinner, head to the music room to live out your rock band dreams without complaints from your neighbours. The bar is nearby, amply supplied (Japanese whisky was a special delight) and hammocks on the front lawn make a secluded spot to watch the stars appear.
Autumn is upon us now and the coming months look uncertain – but Birch is a welcome escape from reality. There can be few places better to run away to.