MICHELLE TOMPKINS finds a ‘fascinating’ sporting connection on a romantic break to a Hertfordshire spa

A KICK by kick commentary of England’s Euro ’96 semi-final v Germany was not exactly what I had in mind when I decided to whisk my other half away for a romantic break in Hertfordshire.

I had envisaged cosy small talk in front of an open fire, drinks in hand, or perhaps a long stroll in the countryside, followed by relaxation time in the hot tub. So how did I find myself listening to an enthusiastic retelling of Paul Gascoigne’s agonising miss from Alan Shearer’s pinpoint cross? It was the 98th minute, don’t you know, and would have seen England through with a golden goal.

If only Gazza had been able to make contact at the far post, we’d have definitely beaten the Czech Republic in the final… zzzzzz……

I’m blaming the hotel décor. Sopwell House – our St Albans base for said romantic break – is just half an hour or so from Wembley, and as such has played host to some of the greatest footballers England, or rather the world, has ever seen.

In homage to its famous guests, the walls of one corridor are lined with signed shirts from some of the biggest matches of all time. There’s a shirt signed by the German team in 2000 from the last game ever played at the Twin Towers; Ian Wright’s Arsenal goal-scoring record shirt; one signed by the Brazil team from the 2012 Olympics and even a 1966 World Cup shirt, with Nobby Stiles’ signature.

And then there’s that England semi-final shirt from 1996, which seemed to inspire the most awe of all in man who had, until that point, shown a very keen interest in football but stopped short of out-and-out obsession.

Like all good WAGs, I listened, I smiled, I nodded, and I let him get it out of his system. And then I ordered another sauvignon blanc and suddenly I had my own opinion on football. Who’d have thought it, eh?

I don’t know if the WAGs are able to accompany their HABs on these hotel stays – I suspect not – but I can see them fitting right in at Sopwell House. Set among 12 acres of peaceful countryside, the 300-year-old country house hotel has 128 rooms and suites, two restaurants (one with two AA Rosettes), a conservatory bar, a cocktail lounge and a beautiful spa.

For those with the cash to splash (and goodness knows that includes footballers and their wives), you can upgrade to The Mews, a gated courtyard of suites across the road from the main hotel, which have their own outdoor thermo spa set in landscaped grounds, as well as private hot tubs.

We were lucky enough to be given one of these vast and luxurious suites, described by our hotel guide as “your very own country home”, and boy, were we happy to make the most of it.

Football talk forgotten, we were quickly into our fluffy robes and out into the below-zero air for a sprint to the steaming spa, where we stayed until the sun went down and our skin had wrinkled to a prune.

A warm up in front of our fire was followed by another dash out to our personal hot tub. Did we need another pummelling from the jets? Of course not, but how often do you get the chance to lie back and look at the stars in a hot tub in your own back yard? It had to be done.

If hunger hadn’t kicked in, we might never have made it to dinner, but eventually we were driven by rumbling tummies to get out of those robes and into the shower to get dressed for the night. And what a good job we did – however decadent room service might be, it can never be a match for a proper three-course feast at a gleaming white tablecloth, cooked by chefs who clearly know they are doing.

Appetisers of deep fried cheese and salt and vinegar popcorn that made our eyes water came with our cocktails, before we were presented with an amuse bouche of parmesan custard. Mouths happily amused, it was onto the starters – a ballotine of Scottish salmon for me and a terrine of confit duck and duck liver for him. The salmon came with a tangy horseradish cream to cut through the richness and a tapioca wafer thin enough to see your hand through. Elegance on a plate.

For mains, we chose butter poached halibut for me and the cannon of salt marsh lamb for him, but to be honest I could have chosen any one of the six dishes on the menu that night and been very happy indeed.

My succulent fish was sat in a herby broth, swirled with broccoli puree and accompanied by a seaweed gnocchi, while the lamb came with a more traditional potato dauphinoise and honey-glazed carrots.

A dark chocolate pave was calling out to my other half, who can’t resist a chocolate pudding. I wasn’t going to have dessert but was swayed at the last minute by the ‘exotic’ cheesecake, which promised a pineapple salsa and passion fruit gel. It was a good decision, as the combination of sharp and tangy flavours made for a taste sensation, even if I felt I was rolling to the bar for our nightcap rather than walking like the elegant WAG I was pretending to be.

We slept as only one can when feeling fully relaxed, slightly drunk and sleeping in a room with a super king size bed and blackout curtains in the middle of the countryside – deeply and soundly. When we finally awoke, it was a mad dash to make it for the 10am breakfast deadline – if only we’d had the forethought to order room service this time.

Breakfast is a more relaxed affair, served in the Brasserie rather than the restaurant, and comprising a help-yourself buffet of just about everything you could ever want.

Museli, compote and yogurt was enough for me, but then I gave in to the temptation of ‘proper’ meaty sausages, which I stuffed inside a breakfast roll. So much for a healthy start after the excesses of the night before.

The full English was a no-brainer for my partner, who kept stealing glances around the room to check for famous footballing faces. On the way back, he couldn’t resist one (long) last look at those signed shirts, spotting legends he’d missed the first time and regaling me with their goal-scoring history.

One day, maybe the next time I take part in a pub quiz, I’ll be glad of the knowledge that, in 1997, Ian Wright ripped off his shirt to reveal the message '179 - Just Done It' when in fact it was only his 178th goal for Arsenal.

Or maybe not.


Sopwell House is in Cottonmill Lane, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 2HQ

Tel: 01727 864477


Standard rooms in the main hotel start from £154, while suites in The Mews cost from £274.

Dinner in the restaurant is £35 for the two-course menu or £39.50 for three courses.