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Its handy location and accommodating events team make Down Hall one of the UK’s most approachable grand country houses. Anna Longmore discovers a corporate destination with all the graces but none of the airs
It was only when I narrowly avoided a couple of pheasants on the driveway of Down Hall Country House Hotel that I finally realised I was in the countryside. The name should have given it away, of course, as should the cricket pitch and thatched roofs of picturesque Hatfield Heath. But the journey up the M11 from London had been so easy that my mind hardly had time to get out of city mode.
On the border of Hertfordshire and Essex, 35 miles north of central London and just 40 minutes from Liverpool Street station by train, Down Hall is about as close to the capital as you can get while still looking at green fields and breathing fresh air. It’s also conveniently located for Stansted Airport, which is 20 minutes away on the hotel’s free shuttle bus.
Aside from offering a real sense of retreat, Down Hall’s countryside location also provides corporate clients with valuable space. Set in a sweeping 110 acres, it has great scope for outdoor teambuilding activities, with terrain ranging from rambling woodland to landscaped gardens. The grounds are just as suited to a day’s quad biking and paint balling as more genteel pursuits such as croquet or archery.
Sheila Rogers, who organises events for livestock pharmaceuticals specialist Merial Animal Health, has been using the venue regularly for the past three years and is full of praise for its facilities and staff. ‘We’ve held sports days, murder-mystery evenings, clay pigeon shooting parties, barbecues, football games and incentive schemes at Down Hall and its events team has always been spot on. The grounds are beautiful and there’s loads of space for activities,’ she says.
On the afternoon of my visit – a crisp February day with snow forecast – guests were wisely sticking to indoor activities and here, too, there is plenty of space to play with. The function suites in the main house, an impressive 14th century Italianate mansion, are characterised by high ceilings and soaring windows and include two rooms licensed to stage civil wedding ceremonies.
One of these, the Harley suite, leads out onto the terrace and garden. As I watched the sun stream through its large glass doors, it wasn’t hard – despite the near-zero temperatures – to conjure up images of a summer wedding party on the lawn. Dinners for up to 500 guests at such an occasion can be served in a marquee.
Further space is available in the 10-year-old West Wing, where the purpose-built meeting rooms have a much more business-like feel. On the first floor, a series of conference rooms have been cleverly positioned to make the most of natural light throughout the day, although they are fitted with extra-thick curtains for LCD presentations.
With pretty views over the back lawn, the wood-panelled Oxford, Belcamp, Eden and Liddell rooms would also make appealing backdrops for smaller receptions.
The hotel’s largest permanent events space is the 200-capacity Bridgeman-Selwin suite, which has its own bar, entrance and toilet facilities. Enhanced by impressive chandeliers and offering direct access to the gardens, it is a popular facility, and an ongoing refurbishment programme should have lent a new sheen to the space by the time you read this.
Throughout its 700-year history, Down Hall has been remodelled and renovated by a long succession of owners, and change remains firmly on the agenda. While it is the diverse events spaces that draw corporate clients at the moment, the hotel has just received the go-ahead for a spa development, which is scheduled for completion by summer 2008.
When asked whether the upgrade programme is a sign of five-star aspirations, Lisa Jackson, Down Hall’s agency sales manager, says it is not.
While the hotel certainly has five-star credentials – including a helipad, where pop group Westlife touched down to play for a wedding party last year – Down Hall is not desperate to tick all the five-star boxes, and is all the better for it. How many five-star hotels are willing to create a Santa’s grotto for the area’s schools every year, or to hold swimming lessons for local children?
The atmosphere throughout this property is relaxed and unstuffy, without any hint of the pretensions that can often be found in would-be five-star venues.
That’s not to say that Down Hall is resting on its laurels. Last June, executive chef Mark Jones was appointed to open the Grill Room, an informal 65-cover restaurant in the centre of the hotel. The kitchen’s robust modern British cooking translates just as well to the banqueting menu, which might offer brandy and dill-cured salmon or venison terrine ahead of a perfectly cooked lamb rack or Gressingham duck breast.
‘I’ve been very impressed with Mark. The food has definitely improved and it’s nice to have the choice of a very modern restaurant for breakfast,’ says Merial’s Rogers. She says she has always appreciated the hands-on approach of Down Hall’s food and beverage team. Ahead of each event at the venue, organisers can expect full support in choosing menus and wines to suit the occasion.
However, the most striking aspect of a visit to Down Hall is much less tangible. What sets this well-run, well-loved hotel apart from many faceless hostelries is its air of approachability. As a building, it delivers the stateliness of more prestigious – and more expensive – country house hotels but without the stuffiness.
Not only do staff look happy to work here but guests clearly enjoy their stay at Down Hall. And the hotel is eager to please its clients, putting on a programme of summer picnics and winter murder-mystery evenings and operating a pet-friendly policy.
Such touches may not make much difference to the average conference-goer, but they signify a proactive, can-do approach that makes organising events that bit easier.
Down Hall Vital Statistics
Address: Matching Road, Hatfield Heath,
Bishop’s Stortford, Herts CM22 7AS
Tel: 01279 731441
Number of function rooms: 12
Key Contact: Lisa Jackson, agency sales manager
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2007.