Down Hall review: A country house hotel retreat where you can try out the sport which has the A-listers buzzing

Down Hall Hotel and Estate is a 110 acre playground just minutes from the M25 where fun and games are part of the attraction. Toby Keel paid a visit.

A visit to a country house hotel awaits you with elegant buildings, comfortable rooms, lovely gardens and maybe a fountain or two. What you wouldn’t expect is the latest sporting craze taking place on the site of an 18th-century building – but Down Hall, near Bishop’s Stortford in Essex, offers just that: the game of padel.

For those new to the sport, it’s a mix of tennis, short tennis and squash – and maybe a bit of swingball, since you’re using a shortened plastic racquet instead of a strung racquet. It has 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 insanely excited, as are half the drivers on the F1 grid. Even tennis kings seem to love it: Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Andy Murray all play, with the latter actually investing in the sport and the LTA has officially brought him under their roof in the UK.

Of course it would be madness to book a weekend just to play padel, which is sort of a stripped down version of tennis with squash elements thrown in. But you wouldn’t be a person if you weren’t at least curious about trying your hand at sports — and it’s a real hoot. It’s much easier to learn than regular tennis (based on the exploits of two middle-aged people and a child aged 9 and 11) and much more forgiving, with walls at the back of the court happily putting the ball back in play.

It’s the kind of upbeat game that will make you laugh instead of frustrate you, which fits perfectly with the relaxed and enjoyable vibe of the rest of Down Hall.

This magnificent house was built in the 1720s, originally by order of the poet and diplomat Matthew Prior, but after his death his friend and benefactor Edward Harley, 2nd Holles (daughter of the Duke of Newcastle) gave him the means to build it see James Gibb’s Palladian design and Charles Bridgeman’s landscape brought to life.

By the 1930s the hall had become the Downham School, attended by the legendary Pamela Harriman – Winston Churchill’s beloved daughter-in-law – and Francs Kydd, mother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

The Garden Room Restaurant in Down Hall.

Down Hall became a hotel in 1986, and since then the owners have gone to great lengths to preserve the underlying grandeur of this classic 18th-century building, while also adding modern touches. The Garden Room Restaurant is the best example, with bold colors and patterned walls beneath an ornate stucco ceiling.

Food wise, a seared scallop starter was excellent, steaks were healthy, but the star of the show was the truly inspired desserts – not least, on our visit, a delightfully prepared spiced pumpkin mousse.

Rooms vary widely, from wonderfully impressive suites in the original building to more modest sleeping quarters, as you would expect from a large hotel. Most, even in the newer sections, have lots of character with high ceilings, large windows, and lovely views, while bathrooms are spacious and well-designed.

A “Feature Room” at the Down Hall Hotel, Essex.

The hotel reception and restaurant are located laterally so as not to disturb the original flow of the building. Thanks to this, the main hallway – now called the lounge – still has the feel of an old country house, spacious and grand. You can sit here and enjoy afternoon tea or step through the French doors onto the covered terrace and grounds beyond.

And what are their reasons. There are huge lawns, a gazebo, a giant chess set, forest, a children’s playground, ponds and even a vegetable garden – as well as the sports facilities, which include a gym, a children’s soccer field and tennis courts, as well as the aforementioned padel court. The only thing missing is a pool; Honestly, but you’ll probably be too busy having fun to notice.

Rooms at Down Hall start from £159.50 for a Classic Double or £182.50 including breakfast. Visit for more information.

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