Travel Birch: A spectacular fall from grace for one of...

Birch: A spectacular fall from grace for one of London’s hottest new members’ clubs

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We never got the chance. A couple of months after that first visit, the hotel closed unexpectedly along with its sister property, Birch Cheshunt in Hertfordshire. Administrators took over both hotels, with Selsdon citing “cashflow pressures” as the reason behind the operator’s decision. Staff were let go and even the sheep were reportedly returned. An Instagram post by Westcott showed a space that was never even finished, paintings resting against the building’s old wood panelling.

Birch Selsdon had been open for just seven months, following two years of multimillion-pound renovations. Birch Cheshunt, which had first welcomed guests in 2020, lasted three years. It was a spectacular fall from grace for Birch, originally launched to much excitement by former Ace Hotel London managing director Chris Penn and entrepreneur Chris King. Though they left the brand long before the Selsdon hotels opened (in 2022 and 2023 respectively), Penn’s original vision still resonated.

“We felt that there was an opportunity to take assets that sat just outside of cities and had become unloved as conference centres and wedding venues but had inherent beauty. They seemed to be very disconnected to the needs of a modern consumer. They were in such wonderful locations for people in cities to escape to, but the proposition within those buildings wasn’t reflective of what these consumers could get on their doorstep,” Penn told me, speaking via phone just days after the shock announcement.

Hotels do close, but they’re often quickly reborn in new incarnations. When Ace Hotel London shut in 2020, its operators renovated and reopened it as One Hundred Shoreditch in March 2022. Huge, suburban spaces might be a harder sell though and parent company Aprirose has removed all trace of Birch from its website, leaving hotels from Travelodge, Premier Inn and Hilton that feel very much at odds with the brand’s original philosophy.

Birch pitched itself as a hippyish, creative version of Soho House, intent on “looking like a hotel but feeling like a festival”. The idea appealed to many, but the Selsdon hotel may have been too “hipster” for some locals (as one comment on the website Inside Croydon suggested). It wasn’t polished enough for the hipsters either – and, with both hotels home to more than 140 bedrooms and cavernous public areas, adding the necessary sparkle would require dedication and plenty of cash.

Rooms started at about £140 per night and reflected the price tag: more student digs than Soho Home. The official line about Birch’s lack of TVs and other amenities was that guests were encouraged to explore the grounds and take park in on-site activities rather than lounge around in their pyjamas, but that looked a lot like cutting corners to some. Others were left unimpressed by the service and surroundings.

Originally, Birch’s reused and recycled approach was born out of a strong desire for sustainability. “Every decision… was made with integrity around this idea of truly caring about its impact on the consumer, the building, the natural environment and the world. That meant sometimes we felt that it was better to repurpose something than buy something new. And I think in the early days, consumers really understood that because we were talking directly to them,” said Penn.

Birch Cheshunt, meanwhile, seemed on a downward trajectory. Previous guests I spoke to had vowed never to return. One friend’s disastrous stay a few months before closing included black stains on the carpets, strange paper signs telling everyone to be quiet, reception staff who refused to book her a table at the restaurant and told her they’d organised a taxi when they hadn’t, and a half-eaten sandwich left lying by the pool for the entire weekend.

A Google review of the Selsdon property from two months ago said: “At one point I left the pool area to get something from my car, when I returned there was a queue to get back in and was told that the area was at capacity and I wouldn’t be allowed back in despite all my stuff and my partner still being in there along with my empty sun bed. They eventually let me back after a few minutes of wrangling but the staff are clearly out of their depth and have not been trained properly.”

Insiders murmured that an indefinite pause on plans to build a UK base for Hollywood’s Sunset Studios nearby was the final nail in the coffin for the troubled Hertfordshire hotel.

Despite all this, there was plenty that Birch got right. Securing Westcott, who had previously worked with Jason Atherton and Tom Aikens, was a coup and his restaurant Elodie became the only one in Croydon to feature in the Michelin Guide. Meanwhile, the roster of activities appealed to experience-seeking millennials and Gen Z-ers.

On Birch Selsdon’s final day, staff and members mourned a unique building where there was a genuine sense of camaraderie, a fantastic restaurant and some of the best grounds in Greater London. “This was a transformative space for me and my family and we have felt very real grief at the closure. Devastated for all the friendly and dedicated staff we got to know since May,” said one comment on LinkedIn.

Quite what these transformative spaces will morph into next remains to be seen. Milan Vuceljic of Moorfields Advisory, who is Birch Selsdon’s joint administrator, told The Telegraph: “The assets will be marketed in due course while we continue to manage the closure of the hotel. We believe the Selsdon hotel provides a good opportunity to potential purchasers.”

Penn hopes the land won’t be turned into luxury flats. “I think what would be most sad is if there’s a big residential development because I believe these old estates should be loved by many people and enjoyed by many people,” said Penn.

Whatever happens, there likely won’t be anywhere quite like Birch again. And love them or loathe them, suburban London won’t be the same without them.

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