What 2020 championship season successfully navigated the Covid Era by requiring participants to live and compete in a rigorously maintained social bubble?
If you said the National Basketball Association, your answer is only half-baked.
Yes, the NBA hunkered down in an isolated community at Walt Disney World in Florida. But the contestants on the U.K.'s The Great British Bake Off, known in North America for obscure legal reasons as The Great British Baking Show, also spent their season in a bubble.
Usually, the easy-to-watch show (don't worry—there are no spoilers here) is set in a temporary tent on the grounds of Welford Park near Newbury, a 50-minute train ride west of London and not far from Downton Abbey's Highclere Castle. During normal seasons, contestants go about their regular lives during the weekdays and commute to the tent for tapings on weekends.
After 11 seasons, the show has become a pop culture institution in the United Kingdom, and producers felt it was crucial to keep baking and carry on, pandemic notwithstanding.
So they moved the set to the grounds of Down Hall Hotel & Spa, a gorgeous Victorian-era luxury retreat on 110 acres about 33 miles northeast of London. Instead of taping on weekends over the autumn, everyone involved with the show—cast, crew, judges—lived and cooked at the hotel in late summer.
For six weeks, cast and crew never went home, agreeing to regular viral testing and no outside contact. Each episode was shot over two days, followed by two days off, so the entire season was recorded much faster than usual, and with much more day-to-day intimacy between the participants.
The judges, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, had separate dining facilities from the contestants. Whenever a baker earns the rare compliment of a Paul Hollywood handshake this season, rest assured there was a team of health experts behind the camera ensuring that all shaken hands were well sanitized.
The show is currently airing on Channel 4 in the U.K. and streaming in the United States on Netflix. On screen, viewers see no evidence of the complexity and intensity of the production measures happening behind the scenes other than when, on one recent episode, a baker's children showed up to congratulate them for a success. Normally, children remain back at home.
Fans of the baking program weren't previously able to stay overnight at the show's home on vacation, either. But in a 2020 twist, TV's endearingly bready tournament has unexpectedly given rise to England's newest tourist attraction.
On your next trip to the United Kingdom, you, too, can stay at Down Hall (not to be confused with Down House, where Charles Darwin lived—but you can visit there as well).
The 98-bedroom Down Hall lies near the village of Bishop's Stortford, which dates to Roman times at least. The hotel's building replaced an earlier Tudor edifice in the 1860s. But unlike Downton's Highclere, the ruling family was unable to keep it going in changing times, so the estate was sold years ago.
For the past century, Down Hall has lived lives as a World War I hospital, sanitarium, and conference center. Now, the luxury hotel and spa is popular with weddings, honeymoons, and romantic rendezvous.
Despite the apparent luxury, rates are manageable. How about this Executive Patio Room, which opens out onto the landscaped gardens and has a starting nightly rate of just £105 (US$137)? The Feature Room on a higher floor (pictured above) is even more plush and starts at £201 (US$262).
The hotel's restaurant, The Grill Room, serves modern English cuisine using seasonal ingredients from an on-premises vegetable garden. The cocktail bar stocks more than 25 types of gin. There's also a gourmet Sunday lunch that comes with roast meat, Yorkshire pudding, and all the trimmings.
And no luxury country hotel worth its clotted cream—or worthy of being the new seat of Bake Off—would be without a gorgeous afternoon tea laden with scones, sandwiches, and an elegant view of rolling green lawns. You can even make your own "soggy bottom" in the onsite spa.
To get to Down Hall from London, take a 40-minute train to Sawbridgeworth from Liverpool Street station and then hop a cab for about £10 (US$13).
Down Hall's website is www.downhall.co.uk.
Below, allow the show's new cohost, Little Britain's Matt Lucas, to give you a tour of Down Hall's grounds and the elaborate production "biosphere" that he called "the safest place in Britain." (The video was shot the day before filming began, so it contains no spoilers regarding the outcome of the program.)
— British Bake Off (@BritishBakeOff) September 28, 2020