Back in the Office? This Wild Country Escape Near London Is the Remedy

This grand estate was once home to three generations of the Meux family, and now offers a back-to-nature weekend break
This grand estate was once home to three generations of the Meux family, and now offers a back-to-nature weekend break | © Photo by Inna Kostukovsky
Photo of Sam Murray
Desk Editor6 October 2021

If you’re feeling the strain of a return to office working, a stay at Birch, just outside London, could well be the remedy. Wild yoga, beekeeping and farm-to-table dining will have you rewilded in no time.

Looking for a peace-inducing weekend break from London with all the stresses of planning a trip taken care of? Join our expertly curated four-day Swim Wild, Sip Cider and Meditate in Rural England trip in Streatley-on-Thames. You’ll enjoy stand-up paddleboarding lessons on the river, sample award-winning cider and hike the Chiltern Hills – all in the name of chilling out.

This grand property was once the Theobalds Estate, home to the Meux family | © Inna Kostukovsky

Early starts. Long commutes. Awkward lift chat. A post-lockdown return to the office may well have you furiously searching for your next weekend getaway. Birch in Hertfordshire, around a 30-minute drive north of London, could well be it.

The property was once the Theobalds Estate, a residence occupied by three generations of the Meux family. Had you been alive in 1878 – and a lover of aristocratic scandals – you may well have gasped upon hearing that Sir Henry Bruce Meux had wed Valerie Susan Langdon, an actor who was also rumoured to have worked as a banjo-playing barmaid and sex worker.

Contemporary society may not have approved, but the couple certainly had the power of pizzazz. Lady Meux would travel around London in a zebra-drawn carriage, while the pair added extravagances to their estate including an indoor roller skating rink and a zoo-worthy collection of animals featuring an elephant, emus and a bear.

The exotic wildlife has gone, replaced by a more ethical form of hospitality | © Adam Firman

Though they died in the early 1900s, their flair for entertainment (which convinced Winston Churchill and the soon-to-be King Edward VII to stay at the estate) lives on at Birch.

The exotic wildlife has gone, replaced by a more ethical form of hospitality based on creativity and community. The design of the grounds leans towards rewilding, rejecting the ruler-cut lawns and geometric shrubberies you might expect of such a storied estate. Instead, you will find chickens and saddleback pigs, beehives and herb gardens spread across the grounds.

Chickens are just one of the farmyard animals you might encounter across the estate | Courtesy of Birch

At the heart of the offerings is The Zebra Riding Club, a 70-seat restaurant in the former stables, helmed by chef Robin Gill. Following the Birch ethos, his restaurant is all about using produce that’s close at hand, much of which comes from the estate farm.

His dishes are unflashy, but executed with the quality you’d expect from someone who’s worked with Marco Pierre White at the Michelin-starred Oak Room and with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.

The food is hearty but forward-thinking, using ingredients from the estate | © Steve Wood

Though the restaurant is impressive, it’s just one of many reasons why Birch is a worthy destination for your first escape from the city after returning to the office.

If you’re seeking a back-to-nature experience, join the resident beekeeper for a guided tour of the hives, a surprisingly tranquil activity that may help to change your opinion of an animal many would prefer to avoid. And if you’re buying £2 pots of honey at the supermarket, the tour may make you rethink that, too.

Join the resident beekeeper for a guided tour of the hives | Courtesy of Birch

If you’re more interested in releasing the tension you’ve built up on those packed tube rides, there’s a fitness centre with a gym, spin studio, yoga space and juice bar. And if you want to combine the two, outdoor classes mean you can loosen up with wild yoga and hit the weights in the woodlands.

Try a wild yoga workshop to unwind after a tough work week | © Steve Wood

The real highlight here, though, is the chance to interact with strangers in a relaxed environment – people who aren’t your colleagues, of course.

Birch is not quite Glastonbury, but there’s definitely a festival vibe. There’s a dining spot in a tipi, a screening room with adult-size pillows, and a communal music room should you wish to bash out a tune of your own. Better yet, there’s a secret garden with a 25m (82ft) David Hockney-inspired lido. Kids are kicked out at 3pm, so adults can enjoy the Mirabeau bar and music.

Kick back and listen to live music | © Steve Wood

During the day, you can mix and mingle by joining one of many cultural activities on offer. Head to the pottery studio for daily classes, or to the art studio for a life drawing session (relax – you’re the artist, not the subject), or join master carver JoJo Wood and learn to whittle your own spoon.

Whatever style of weekend break you opt for here, it’s unlikely you’ll be thinking about unsent emails or unfinished spreadsheets.

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