Down Hall Hotel and Estate is a 110-acre playground just a few minutes outside the M25 where fun and games are part of the attraction. Toby Keel paid a visit.
When visiting a country house hotel, you expect elegant buildings, comfortable rooms, delightful gardens and perhaps the odd fountain. What you don’t expect is for the grounds of an 18th century building to host the latest sporting craze — yet at Down Hall, near Bishop’s Stortford in Essex, that is exactly what is on offer: the game of padel.
For those yet to be acquainted with the sport, it’s a hybrid of tennis, short-tennis and squash — and perhaps a bit of Swingball thrown in, given that you use a shortened, plastic bat instead of a strung racquet. It’s been hailed as ‘the fastest-growing sport in the world’, with A-list fans including supermodels, politicians (including Emmanuel Macron) and sports stars; David Beckham and Lionel Messi are both said to be mad keen, as are half the drivers on the F1 grid. Even tennis royalty seem to love it: Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Andy Murray all play, with the latter actually having invested in the sport, and the LTA have officially brought it under their umbrella in the UK.
Clearly, it would be madness to book a weekend away just to play padel, a sort of cut-down version of tennis with elements of squash thrown in. Yet you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t at least curious to try your hand at the sport — and it’s a real hoot. It’s far easier to pick up than regular tennis (based on the exploits of two middle-aged people and a kids of 9 and 11) and a lot more forgiving, since walls at the back of the court bounce the ball happily back into play.
It’s the sort of joyous game that makes you laugh rather than getting you frustrated, which fits in perfectly with the relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere at the rest of Down Hall.
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This glorious house was built in the 1720s, initially being commissioned by the poet and diplomat Matthew Prior, but being finished after his death by his friend and benefactor Edward Harley, the 2nd Earl of Oxford, whose marriage to the fabulously wealthy heiress Henrietta Cavendish-Holles (daughter of the Duke of Newcastle) gave him the funds to see James Gibb’s Palladian-influence design, and Charles Bridgeman’s landscape, brought to life.
By the 1930s the hall had become Downham School, attended by the legendary Pamela Harriman — the beloved daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill — and Francs Kydd, mother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
Down Hall became a hotel in 1986, and since then the owners have made significant efforts to retain the underlying grandeur of this classic 18th century building, while also bringing in modern touches. The Garden Room restaurant is the best example of that, with bold colours and patterned walls beneath an ornate plaster ceiling.
Food-wise, a started of pan-seared scallops was excellent, steaks were sound, but the star of the show were the truly inspired desserts — not least, during our visit, a delightfully-made spiced pumpkin mousse.
Rooms vary hugely, from wonderfully evocative suites in the original building to more modest places to sleep as you’d expect of any large hotel. Most, though, even in the newer sections have plenty of character with high ceilings, vast windows and lovely views, while bathrooms are spacious and well-designed.
The hotel reception and restaurant are located off to the side so as not to disturb the original flow of the building. Thanks to that the main hallway — now called the lounge — still has an old country house feel, spacious and grand. You can sit here and enjoy afternoon tea, or head through the french doors to the covered terrace and the grounds beyond.
And what grounds they are. There are huge swathes of lawn, gazebo, a giant chess set, woodland, children’s play area, ponds and even a vegetable garden — as well as the sporting facilities, which include gym, children’s football pitch and tennis courts, as well as the aforementioned padel court. The only thing missing is a pool; frankly, though, you’ll probably be too busy having fun to notice.
Rooms at Down Hall start at £159.50 for a classic double, or £182.50 including breakfast. See downhall.co.uk for more information.
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