Exotic Lady Meux brought glamour, several Whistler portraits and a Christopher Wren masterpiece to Maureen Lipman’s favourite hotel
Just before lockdown, I went on holiday. Three and a half days in an activities hotel in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, about 45 minutes’ drive from home. Not what you’d call ‘long haul’.
My last holiday was four years ago. My partner had had a hip replacement and I had the superbright idea of jetting to St Lucia to a spectacular hotel in lush, tropical settings.
Tripadvisor omitted to tell me that in St Lucia it rains every morning, for hours. Lounging chairs get sodden, ground surfaces get glassy and the member of the couple on aluminium crutches gets crabby. The other one spends a week crouching with her arms extended, like a tennis player on the receiving end of Serena Williams’s first serve, waiting to catch him.
Since then, I have stayed busy in London and Manchester, crocheting hats in front of Celebrity Gogglebox with Gyles Brandreth, manning the corner shop in Coronation Street, calling out Comrade Corbyn and getting elevated to Damehood – you know the sort of thing.
Here, suddenly, was a whole week free.
Birch is a concept hotel. I do like a concept. Or rather I liked what was missing from the concept. No TVs in the rooms, no telephones and no kettle. No pool, hot-stone therapy or jacuzzi.
Instead, I was offered ‘activities’. For a bit of extra dosh, Birch promised me glass-blowing, plate-painting, pottery classes, bread-making and cool yoga. There would be a music room, restaurants, guided walks and – the deal-maker – a Roberts radio in my chamber.
The hotel is in Theobalds House – formerly Theobalds Palace, a vast, towered stately home built in 1585 by Lord Burghley, Secretary of State to Elizabeth I. Demolished in 1650, the house was rebuilt in the late 18th century.
A century later, it was home to Sir Henry Meux, a brewery heir, married to Valerie, a splendid, banjo-playing actress, barmaid and prostitute, who rode a phaeton around London drawn by two zebras.
She was painted three times by Whistler. Harmony in Pink and Grey (pictured below) hangs in the Frick Collection in New York. Another, Arrangement in Black, is in the Honolulu Academy of Arts in Hawaii. The third was torn to shreds by the painter. He shouted at her after she complained at having to pose.
She answered, ‘See here, Jimmy Whistler. You keep a civil tongue in that head of yours, or I will have someone in to finish these portraits you have made of me.’ And so he ripped up the painting.
Lady Meux even had Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar – his 1672 gate to the City of London on Fleet Street – taken to Theobalds as its gatehouse in 1880. It returned to London in 2004.
Since the death of Lady Meux and her second husband – Sir Hedwig Lambton, who took her surname to inherit her estate – Theobalds has been a Royal Artillery outpost, a police riding school, a school and an adult education centre. It still has vestiges of all these incarnations in the fabric of its walls.
The makeover is best described as shabby chic: country home blended with Soho House. I’ve never been to Soho House but I assume it has long, linen curtains over plain oatmeal blinds in its bedrooms, with a stripped-wood floor splashed carelessly with paint from the peeling if not actually distressed walls.
I loved the tessellated, tiled lobby and the meandering maze of rooms and studios, with comfy nooks and crannies lit by lamplight. In the hall there was a proper fire of sweet-smelling logs, and the staff were young and unfazed.
When I say meandering, I mean corridors within corridors. It reminded me of Newland High School for Girls in Hull 50-odd years ago, where I frequently got lost on the way to double chemistry, hiding in the bike sheds or conjuring up a period pain in order to bunk off.
My bedroom had huge sash windows, looking over a rolling field, sloping down to a flame-coloured wood. Corduroyed families of kids and dogs clung upside down from tree-hung hammocks and slithered over cannons. Rows of braziers were lit and a couple of marquee-sized wigwams were hung with lights.
In the far left of my view, there were actual sheep and surprisingly dainty saddleback pigs. I could have been in deepest Patagonia. We have very few saddleback pigs in downtown Paddington.
It was half-term when I was there. So the hotel was teeming with bearded dads, mites in chunky wool, cockapoos and flat-stomached mums. And they were all fixated on their computers.
Never mind; I had my Elizabeth Gilbert novel to read and a friend was joining me for the last two days. And, by now, I had discovered that everything on the menu in the duck-egg-blue Valerie café was right up my street.
Beautifully inventive food, with chunky portions and not a hint of pan-fried or drizzling, or anything nestling in a flurry of its own coulis. Roast pumpkin with crispy lentils was so good I had it three times – not at the same meal.
I took my mint tea to the cinema, which had rows of navy and white deck chairs to snooze in. But there are only so many times one can relish Frozen, The Lion King or Finding Dory without having a genius grandchild to hand to stare at, helpless with love.
I became relaxed. So much so that I completely forgot my plate-painting class. I did remember the guided tour in hissing rain, with Farmer Tom and his cocky Jack Russell posing as a retriever. He was so interesting – on organic farming, GM food, smoking bees, weedkiller substitutes and what you can discover from the blue paint on a ewe’s bum and the pecking order of chickens – that I almost enjoyed the steady stream of water trickling down my cleavage.
On my last morning, I sat on the wide patio, drinking in the view of a large tree which I identified as an English oak. To make sure, and in my new guise as a nature-lover, I took a photo on my new app, Print This, and waited to be proved right. Seconds later, it said, with more than a hint of smugness, ‘This is a Canadian serviceberry tree.’ I live; I learn.
I shall return to Birch when this lousy war is over and all the kids are all unmasked and wriggling through double chemistry. Then I shall turn off all my screens and pot, paint, blow glass and learn how to turn a sheep the right way up. I will come home, with a contented stomach and no suntan, proudly clutching a painted bowl and a piece of unshapen glass.
On the room-service menu, there are two quotes from Bill Murray: ‘Whatever you do, do it 100 per cent. Unless you’re giving blood’; and ‘Life is so damn short, for f*ck’s sake – just do whatever makes you happy.’
I think I did.