Sopwell House in Hertfordshire may date back hundreds of years, but its new £14 million spa wing is very much designed to appeal to today’s wellbeing-focused travellers keen to spoil themselves after the pandemic
Mention Sopwell House to residents of north London or Hertfordshire and chances are there will be a flicker of recognition, with most people probably having been to a function, special occasion or a spa day at this much-loved hotel on the edge of St Albans at some point.
It’s wider known than just there of course, and it had been on my radar for ages too, as we had to-ed and fro-ed for such a long time trying to arrange a stay in between lockdowns and enforced closures of the hotel. Sopwell was keen to finally really show off the fruits of its £14-million labour of love in creating Cottonmill, a massive spa expansion completed in August 2019 – and I was keen to be shown.
Along with enjoying the excellent cooking of someone else, wellbeing and spa time has been the biggest thing I’ve missed. Sitting crunched up over the kitchen table for days on end certainly hasn’t helped either, so I felt I’d earned a bit of spa time, making Cottonmill’s lure even stronger.
Sopwell started life as a beautiful manor house set among 12 acres of grounds within the rolling Hertfordshire hills, and Cottonmill is its dramatic three-storey, state-of-the-art little sister, designed by Sparcstudio, a firm recognised as being at the forefront of spa design.
Cottonmill offers external membership, and those members and hotel and spa guests have access to a range of spaces including a 14.5-metre indoor swimming pool, vitality pools, Rose Relaxation Room, steam room, sauna, salon and nail studio, and new gym with Technogym’s Artis equipment and classes in the new studio, as well as a raft of treatments of course. There’s also the Sitting Room (a casual option to pick up snacks, drinks and lunches) and Pantry for healthy lunches or afternoon tea.
Just when you thought all that was glamorous enough, things step up a few more notches with The Club at Cottonmill, which pitches itself as the UK’s first private members’ spa, “combining the serenity of a spa with the exclusivity of a club”. I got a cheeky little look and it really is next-level luxurious and incredibly desirable.
As soon as you walk in, the quality is evident, including the dressing rooms with Tom Dixon lighting, heated stone parquet flooring, Dornbracht showers and Dyson Supersonic hairdryers.
Once you’re in your robe – it’s time to explore, including the Deep Relaxation Room, with top-of-the-range 4 Senses relaxation beds; Whisper Room with views of the gardens and a centrepiece fireplace; panoramic sauna with glass walls to the garden; a salt steam room; and a botanical steam room.
Meanwhile, the Garden Room has sumptuous banquettes looking over the Spa Gardens, where there are even more places to chill out, and a range of indoor-outdoor thermal pools; it all just exudes money-no-object style, quality and most importantly, serenity.
A host of beautiful crafted experience showers includes Sensory Sky – which recreates showering in the open air under warm rain – and Aquamoon, which has four modes designed to give you a multi-sensory experience where light and water flow transitions are apparently harmonised.
The experience continues out into the gardens of The Club, created by Ann-Marie Powell, a gold-medal winning RHS Chelsea Flower Show designer, and dotted with cabanas, outdoor shower and infinity thermal pool, with sofas around fire pits and three tucked-away hot tubs providing other little corners to hide away.
It’s also worth noting that all spa and leisure facilities are adults-only with no children under the age of 16 in the pool or within Cottonmill Spa, further adding to the sense of tranquillity and exclusivity.
The perfect complement to this is a stay in the Mews Suites, also designed by Sparcstudio. Booking in one of these beauties automatically ensures guests can access The Club; book them into Mansion House bedrooms and spa access is limited to Cottonmill only, although you can then pay extra for a Club at Cottonmill package.
I rushed into the hotel reception late (as usual) off a 25-minute train ride from London’s St Pancras to St Albans and grabbed my room key, but sent myself straight to the spa while my bags got sent to the room. There was no way I was going to eat into any more of the time booked for my Pro-Collagen Age Defy Facial by Elemis; I’m a huge fan of these products and really always see the benefits of them, and I relaxed into the treatment as soon as my speedy heart would let me.
Still glowing (or sweating, I’m not sure which), I decided to just pootle on straight to dinner while it was still a lovely evening, and snagged a table outside at the Brasserie restaurant.
Surrounded by gentle chatter and the clink of glasses, I ordered a vegan burger (this is a new barometer of a restaurant’s quality for me these days, since making the decision to turn vegetarian completely, after years of being pescetarian) and could I help it if it came with fries? For good measure, I added a side order of fresh green beans and peas. And of course, couldn’t resist the sound of those glasses, so I ordered a cold bottle of Picpoul de Pinet; the lovely manager sent the rest of the bottle back over to the room for me.
It was also nice to see on the menu a commitment to Wine To Water, which sees a donation of 50p to this cause to provide clean water to global communities when certain wines are purchased.
Set out in the guest information booklet are details of other causes the hotel commits to, such as Room To Reward, a volunteer-recognition charity created to say ‘thank you’ to local hidden heroes; the local Rennie Grove Hospice Care; and Sleep Smart, whose StreetSmart scheme see £1 per room from hotel stays in November and December given to help rough sleepers in the coldest months.
The hotel’s purposeful initiatives on-site include recycling all Nespresso capsules from the coffee machines in guests’ rooms and switching from small single-use bathroom bottles to larger refillable dispensers.
Sopwell House itself has quite the legacy, with residents having included Alice, Duchess of Dudley, mother to seven daughters and abandoned wife of the explorer Sir Robert Dudley, who is said to have sought refuge there during the Great Plague and Fire of London.
The house was also owned by the Earl of Verulam and Edward Strong, one of the Master Masons of St Paul’s Cathedral, and then Lord Mountbatten. The story even goes that the late Prince Philip’s father, Prince Andrew of Greece, proposed to his mother Princess Alice of Battenburg in the gardens of Sopwell House.
It held such lofty ownership and tales until the end of World War II, with the building eventually becoming a hotel in 1969. It also has a big football story, given it gained fame as a gathering place for the England team before international football events.
Its unusual design includes a glass atrium over the reception area that connects some walls of the original main entrance to the newer interior behind. Other areas of the hotel include a gorgeous bar and cocktail lounge too, with plenty of squishy spots for catching up with friends or for couples to enjoy some time away, while additional dining options include a fine-dining two AA Rosette restaurant available for afternoon tea or dinner.
Little did I know until after my own dinner in The Brasserie that I was actually staying in the Mews, a series of 16 suites set apart from the main hotel and created from the original farmhouse.
Now accessible only through private gates, this gorgeous green enclave has babbling water features, bees buzzing around huge lavender bushes and even its own vitality pool.
As soon as I’d had a quick swizz around the suite – each one also has its own little courtyard or outside area too – I dashed back out into the gardens as the sun was fading, grabbing a solo spot in the vitality pool and letting the bubbles work some magic on a very tired body; then I slept like a baby in the huge bed.
The next morning, I took a little wander round the hotel's main gardens before I left, catching glimpse of some exotic fish in the pond and imagining the romantic moments that must have taken place under a remote gazebo among the greenery.
The gardens also frame a huge events space, which is not all that attractive externally, but luckily the grounds are so pretty, it can get away with this kind of vast extension.
Sopwell is definitely a special occasion spot – but then these days, any time with friends and loved ones is a special occasion, isn’t it? For me, merely being at the hotel was a special enough occasion in itself though, and my celebration was a return to a spa sanctuary and first massage for a long time. If only I’d had more hours to spend at The Club at Cottonmill; that will teach me to be late...