In April, mid-lockdown, if you’d asked me to name the travel destination that would next lure me out of Margate, my money would have been on an international big-hitter. Perhaps California, where I have family, or Colombia, where I have unfulfilled travel aspirations. As it turns out, it was Cheshunt that finally got me out of Kent.
Strange as it may sound, this trip to Cheshunt felt significantly more intrepid than Colombia or California. Because travelling solo in the UK scares me. This is quite the admission, because in recent years, I’ve styled myself as the poster child for solo travel.
I recently wrote a travel memoir, Departures largely about solo travel, and spoke, with bluster and bravado, about the joy of solo travel at festivals such as Port Eliot, Wilderness and Stoke Newington Literary Festival. But this summer, trying to think of a UK holiday plan for one, I realised that solo staycations made me hyperventilate.
I’d have no problem spending a week in Austin, Texas, on a solo city break; but doing the same in Manchester? No way! WEIRD. A week wild camping in Sweden? Sure thing, but glamping alone in Sussex would feel lonely and terrifying. Arriving at the Burning Man festival in Nevada alone is no biggie, but spending a night alone at a country house hotel in the Cotswolds, well, I’d be so intimidated I’d have to hide in my hotel room.
One of the things I relish most about international travel is that we fearlessly do things we’d find embarrassing or dangerous at home. When we travel, we benefit from some sort of favourable emotional exchange rate, whereby we’re able to take risks we can’t back home. But this summer, stuck within the confines of the British Isles, desperate for a bit of a break, I was flummoxed when I tried to think about an affordable, easily accessible, non-boring and non-lonely staycation for one.
And then Birch popped up on my radar, by which I mean my Instagram feed. Birch (birchcommunity.com) is the most talked-about hotel in the UK at the moment, mainly because it’s not really a hotel. Yes, it’s a Grade II listed Georgian mansion with 140 rooms, a gym, restaurants and people taking theatrical selfies on the steps, but the word “hotel” is conspicuously absent from its website and Instagram page.
As I travelled north on the overland train from central London into deepest, darkest Zone 8, my Instagram notifications pinged with effusive messages from friends. “OMG, it looks amazing. I can’t wait to visit!” Reviews of Birch have been mixed, with some guests depicting it as a mawkishly millennial hipster hellhole and others hailing it as the future of travel.
One of its co-founders, Chris Penn, the former MD of Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, tells me they settled on “community” because “the word ‘hotel’ brings a lot of expectations, but also a lot of restrictions, and we wanted Birch to be different”.
Although this sounds like cringey marketing-speak, it’s true that the trick to enjoying Birch is to not see it as a hotel. You can see it as a swanky co-working space with rooms. (“The Hub” is open to members and Birch guests, and feels simultaneously futuristic and retro, and I’m able to lure busy Londoners out to Birch for meetings, propelled by curiosity and the sheer power of Birch’s Instagram campaign.)
You can see it as a sort of stretched summer camp for adults, with crafty workshops and activity sessions. (My three days are a busy schedule of ceramics classes with the in-house ceramicist, Emma Louise Payne, sourdough baking with resident baker Sohail Hussain and candle-pouring with Niko Dafkos of Earl Of East.)
You can see it as a fabulous destination restaurant – Robin Gill’s Zebra Riding Club, in the old stables – with affordable (£300 for a three-night-stay) rooms attached. (The tasting menu is a steal at £48, and again, I was able to lure a friend out for dinner.)
What all of this adds up to, for me, is a perfect solo staycation pad. The rooms at Birch are simple enough that I don’t feel guilty for not sharing them with a millionaire lover, the service is friendly yet unfussy, so I never feel like I stand out for being alone, and the activities mean I instantly make friends, so it’s not really a solo staycation at all. And I suspect it’s this last bit that makes any solo staycation a success.
To read more articles by Anna Hart, see telegraph.co.uk/travel/team/anna-hart