Review: Down Hall Country House & Hotel, Essex

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Good Things’ editor Zoe Perrett enjoys a luxury weekend getaway in her own home county…

Following a Friday afternoon assembly just a few towns away, we screech up Down Hall’s drive a little later than we’d hoped. Tardiness works in our favour, giving us a twilight view of the impressive 16th-century stately home bathed in orange light, in the full throes of one of the weddings that the Essex venue hosts so often.

Although we have unrestricted access to the four-star hotel’s gym, we tell one another – and ourselves – that dashing up and down a few flights of stairs in search of Room 130 puts sufficient cardio points in our kitty to warrant heading straight for the Eden Spa where we’ve pre-booked massages that, given my migraine and LB’s twinge-y back, are most timely.

Spa and ahhh

DownHall August 15 Pool 2

For him, a deep tissue massage; for me, a hot stone affair; for both of us, the couples’ massage room. Choose this option over single rooms if a) you have a partner who can be serious and silent or b) you love your partner not in spite of, but for, his ability to offer a witty running commentary between occasional snore-y micro-slumbers.

We have a lovely almost-hour and emerge relaxed, refreshed and rather fragrant, reconvening post-shower on reclining chairs whose remote-controlled sections offer us an amusing diversion. The wet spa features a hydrotherapy pool, sauna, spa and hot and cold showers, which we flit between until our fingertips are wrinkled and the growling of our stomachs threatens to drown out the water jets.

 Dinner a deux

Venison 2Filling up on the bread basket is a rookie error that we (me the professional and LB the professional plus-one) fall foul of each and every time. Especially when the selection in the AA-Rosette-awarded Grill Room includes white, brown, olive, and raisin and walnut options, all of which must be slathered with butter and sampled whilst we take in the tasteful decor and speculate on the circumstances of our fellow diners.

We show great restraint in saving a roll or two until our starters land – handy, because we’ve opted to take the rough with the smooth and gone for the ham hock terrine and the foie gras and chicken parfait. Down Hall’s chef Matthew Hill is from the Pollock school of plate decoration; each dish features as many dots and dashes as a message authored in Morse code.

The orange-y terrine is adorned with brioche crumb, crisp sage leaves, tiny sticky shallots, and diminutive quenelles of a sort of tarragon-rich tartare sauce. Depending on your psychological state, the butter-encased parfait resembles a slender gold ingot or a Kit Kat Chunky – both apt because it’s rich and sweet; well-teamed with dark cherries, coffee crumb, and a fluffy brioche.

We’re here not only to eat and drink but to make merry; the latter mission aided by my viscous, dried-apricot and-Battenberg-cake Sauternes and LB’s bottle of Malbec which I swirl and sniff, and, like the seasoned sommelier I’m absolutely not, declare its nose as ‘stewed plums and cinnamon!’.

We met over chips three months ago to this day, and so the presence of a Jenga-like stack of the things alongside a flavoursome 10oz aged rib-eye steak is especially apt; and even more welcome than it would be on any other occasion. LB loves peppercorn sauce, I Bearnaise; we’re both pleased with The Grill Room’s versions.

I’m glad for the gooseberry-ish sharpness of my Sauvignon, because the pork belly is definitely a dish for the sweet of tooth. Every component – slow-cooked meat, silky-smooth whipped mash, butternut puree and chunks of vanilla-infused candied quince – is indulgent, and each item complements its plate-fellows, but we agree that a tart element or two would enable us to wipe the plate clean and not wave the white flag halfway through.

As far as I knew, LB ‘likes a cheesecake, but it wouldn’t be my choice’; but tonight he seems to have acquired a newly-zealous affection for that very dessert. I did think the raspberry number with the same fruit in a ripple ice cream would be good – that’s why I ordered it. But no matter; I gain back what I lose in the form of a fair few forkfuls of chocolate tart with almond brittle.

 Sweet dreams

Room 110 SH April16 HiRes01 (1)l

It’s always nice when the post-prandial return journey entails nothing more than staggering a few hundred feet to one’s room, and tonight that’s our great fate.

We might have harboured grand plans for a romantic evening of wild abandon, but our Deluxe room’s calming grey decor and our decidedly distended stomachs rapidly put pay to that notion. The prospect of burying ourselves under that huge, soft bed’s blankets far outweighs the allure of anything more ambitious than watching Dudley Moore in LB’s beloved Arthur before slipping off to the Land of Nod – and so we happily accept our destiny.

The morning after
The heavy curtains which prevent the light seeping in from the huge window that takes up one side of the room mean it’s almost 9am before we awake and there’s no time for the anticipated exploration of Down Hall’s 100 acres of gardens and woodland. I scurry up the steps to our elevated marble bathroom for one of the scaldingly-hot showers I so adore, whilst LB snuggles back down to get every inch of mileage out of that mattress before breakfast.

With a busy day of nothing much in the pipeline, we know we need to fuel up properly, so we start with juice and bowls of cereal from the cold buffet, layering up various flakes and fruits like hipsters styling our next Insta-recipes.

Multiple pots of tea drunk and Saturday papers digested, we reach the Full English by way of a bit of backseat ‘for goodness sake don’t burn the hotel down’ toast direction at the rotary Dualit grill. Then, with regret, we check out – and reach the end of what has been a really rather lovely stay.

Where: Matching Road, Hatfield Heath, Essex CM22 7AS.
Price: A special Valentine’s Day package is available on 10, 11 and 14 February for £269 per couple, including accommodation in a Classic Double room, a four-course dinner in The Grill Room, a bottle of Prosecco, and a gift in the room upon arrival. 55-minute massages in the Eden Spa start from £55.
Bookings: To make a reservation, click here or phone 01279 731 441.

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