Birch and the future of ‘work near home’

Lying on my large bed in a light and tranquil room overlooking storm-strewn daffodil lawns, I wondered if I had arrived at the future of work.

I was alone at Birch, a hotel occupying a Georgian manor in 55 acres of land on London’s northern fringe, desperate to replenish my energy after my family and I got Covid-19. Outside, there were roaming pigs, a chicken coop, a herb garden, wellness centre and lido. But the sight of awaydays, team meetings and freelancers who were using its shared spaces made me feel that I hadn’t quite escaped work.

On its website, Birch bills itself as a community of “interested, and interesting, people [who] live, work and play at Birch”. On the Friday and Saturday I spent there, these interested and interesting people were busy at the gym, beautician and restaurants, the co-working spaces, bars and coffee zones, as well as the meeting rooms. There were teams of colleagues — many sporting ironic mullets and moustaches — who were there for corporate getaways. One woman I spoke to had brought her team for a much-delayed Christmas gathering, with some of them going strong at 7am the next day.

There is something of the shape-shifter about Birch, whose brightly painted interiors and vast displays of dried flowers make it perfect for Instagram. It is a bit work, a bit pleasure, a bit healthy, a bit gourmet. Kids can come to play in the games room, take part in a nature walk, watch a film on deckchairs in the screening room, or do an arts activity.

Twice delayed by the pandemic, Birch finally launched in August 2020. The business model is a mixture of hotel guests and members who, in exchange for a £200 joining fee and £120 a month, receive discounts on food and drink, hotel stays and room hire — there are now 750 members. It was founded by Chris Penn, who helped launch Ace Hotels in the UK, and Chris King, an entrepreneur who has set up bars and a sports recruitment firm.

Their ambition is to create an informal and blended environment that allows people to work, alongside going to gym classes, socialising and meeting colleagues. King tells me by email that they want to bring “together a creative community in an interesting, stimulating environment. Post-Covid, there’s clearly a bigger audience that is interested in working near home, and there’s a raft of new offers coming to market to meet this demand.” He points out, though, that most of these are in a high-street or business-park setting.

This blurring of leisure and business predated the pandemic, of course, with the hideous neologisms “bleisure” and “workcations”, where travellers tacked on a weekend stay in a hotel after a meeting or conference. Soho House got there before them, with Babington House in Somerset and Soho Farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Birch, which is in Hertfordshire, 30 minutes from London’s Liverpool Street, is cheaper, with rooms from £140.

I feel a bit lukewarm about such a merging. Recently, I contemplated booking a cottage that would allow me to work from the countryside for part of the week, then down tools and holiday. I already find the concept of washing up, cooking and cleaning while on holiday slightly annoying, but conducting video calls on a ropey WiFi connection while my family stretches out in front of a fire seemed a step too far.

I also have an aversion to co-working spaces, which stems from a period of freelancing when I went to a local venue to prevent myself from becoming deranged by isolation. Rather than making me feel embedded in a work community, it compounded my alienation. Birch, which has plans for other sites, will hope I am in the minority.

Members seemed happy enough in co-working spaces that were fun and relaxed, with the requisite tankards of free juice, as well as coffees and sandwiches to buy.

In the wellness centre, I enjoyed the stretch class, which was challenging without being punishing. Yet here again it seemed that groups of colleagues kept breaking into peals of laughter, which gave me the sense that I was not in a fitness centre but a bystander at a corporate awayday.

The places that felt like more distinct experiences were more satisfying. The pottery studio, where I made a shonky vase and something that could pass as a small pot, was absorbing and calming. So too was the bread-making class in the bakery.

I felt the same about the restaurant, The Zebra Riding Club, which is open to visitors and set back in the old stables. It is overseen by Robin Gill, who has worked under Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc, as well as opening his own restaurants (Bermondsey Larder, Sorella and Darby’s). The menu is divided into vegetarian, vegan, fish and meat, with options for kids too. I opted for the carnivorous version, a delicious tasting menu of mackerel, blood oranges and tender beef. I could probably exist on nothing but the spongy, moist sourdough for the rest of my life but I soldiered on, managing to devour a chocolate eclair.

I was so full (but content) that I retreated to my bedroom. Here, it was quiet and, at last, I felt I had got away. The owners have banned televisions from the rooms, as they want guests to go out to converse and experience the various offerings. I was delighted to seal myself off.

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