Down Hall, Hatfield Heath
Down Hall must be doing a lot right. The AA recently upgraded it from four Black Stars to four Silver, following a £6.5million revamp, which swept through the 100-bedroom country house hotel adding a brand new spa launched in early 2016.
The location is much of the appeal: for Londoners it's just a 30-minute train ride away, Stansted Airport a mere 15, and if you live in Hertfordshire or Essex the hotel lies smack on the border of both counties (for the purposes of this website I class it as Essex due to the Chelmsford postcode).
Once you’ve driven around winding bends linking picturesque Essex villages with comical quintessentially ‘ye olde’ English names such as Threshers Bush and Shellow Bowells, the long driveway up to the house rewards the effort with the view of its ornate Italianate exterior.
Inside there are a couple of disappointments: the reception feels dated and not befitting the grandeur or era of this Victorian mansion. Similarly the large hall where groups of female guests sat enjoying afternoon tea appears lavish with high ceilings, chandeliers and huge windows with views across the grounds, both front and back. However, on closer inspection the furniture was modern which slightly detracted from the relaxed country house feeling.
Down Hall has a long and rich history including ownership by Henry VIII, being used as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers during the First World War, a girl’s boarding school and an antiques business and conference centre. I can’t help think it’s a shame that some of the antiques couldn’t have remained here. The late Jade Goody got married here, fittingly perhaps given her endearing belief that there was a foreign country called ‘East Angular’.
Our room was a newly decorated deluxe type set in the main house, overlooking the gravel driveway and the grounds. It was immaculately decorated with a ‘neutral palette’ which was soothing, yes, and very comfortable, if a tiny bit boring. There was no bath but a generous walk-in shower with very on-trend grey tiles. A welcome surprise is that the usual boring minibar setup is replaced by a more characterful cream painted desk, which holds a good selection of teas from family-run PMD (as well as coffee and hot chocolate there is also complimentary bottled water in the fridge – a thoughtful feature many hotels neglect).
Guests can’t get bored as the room holds a noughts and crosses set - a larger version sits outside on the landing space styled as a pale upholstered lounge area. My daughter and I played cards – and noughts and crosses - before I nipped to the Eden spa, set to one side of the main house, for a quick 25-minute facial. Despite the brevity of the treatment, it did the trick with salon strength ESPA products well applied to some success: cleansing, massage and a mask. The stresses of life, specifically around my eye area were softened and I felt a bit more in tune with my revamped surroundings.
Job done it was time for dinner in the Grill Room. We ate unfashionably early, and for the beginning of our meal were the only guests in the 66-cover restaurant, but it didn’t feel awkward or empty. The maître d was welcoming and attentive and the waitresses equally helpful. The 110-acre grounds aren’t just for show; they grow a lot of the produce used here, from herbs to butternut squash, pumpkin, courgette and beetroot, as well as providing attractive woodland and landscaped gardens.
The return of Matthew Hill, formerly the sous chef, recently appointed head chef, was a great move. I can’t comment on his predecessor, but our starter was spot on. Silky mushroom soup with truffle was a good choice for an under-the-weather Maya.
The main course kept up the pace: slow-cooked hake, sweet potato, fennel, samphire and langoustine tempura are some of my favourite foods. The fine-dining puddings were a little too, well, fine dining for a child, so the waitress’ thoughtfully suggestion of a brownie with ice cream from the bar menu was a good move. Larger and more satisfying, it went down well.
Breakfast in the same room, after a good sleep in the peace the setting provides, is a sociable event with central stations laden with pastries and serve-yourself cooked breakfast or you can order off the menu. After two hot lattes and a flick through the newspapers for me and a few hash browns for Maya, we set off again through those winding lanes.
* Doubles from £109 B&B, downhall.co.uk