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A stay in SoCo

Somewhere in the northern wilds of Wiltshire and Somerset a hot new area is emerging, SoCo, or South of Cotswolds is, whisper it, beginning to outshine its chic northern neighbour…

The green arc around Bath’s eastern side, where the West Country ends and the Wolds begin has long been neglected by travellers who zip through heading south for Devon, north to the Cotswolds, or straight through to Bath, Bristol and beyond.

But not anymore. This lush green, properly rural corner of the country has had a noticeable influx of not-so-muddy boots hot-footing it out of the city and into this bucolic, arty no-mans-land.

The tiny towns of Bruton, Frome (which boasts swanky private members club and hotel Babington House on its doorstep) and Bradford on Avon, all have a historic grandness about them, while also remaining just the right side of quaint to be thriving, interesting towns to live in and not just visit.

A wave of galleries, hotels, foodie producers, restaurants and cultural outposts has been putting this hot spot on the map.

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Hauser and Wirth Somerset

 

Most recent, and notable, is contemporary art space Hauser and Wirth (www.hauserwirthsomerset.com), on the edge of Bruton in Somerset, which is home to Pearl Lowe and Danny Goffey. Drive out of the town and you’ll easily miss this farmhouse and its barns that have been converted into a world-class gallery. Outside, Subodh Gupta’s giant gleaming milking pail bucket, a Louise Bourgeois spider and the gently swaying Piet Oudolf-designed gardens (he of New York’s Highline fame) give away the fact that something altogether new is happening here.

Piet Oudolf meadow
Piet Oudolf meadow at Hauser and Wirth Somerset

 

It’s a cultural version of Daylesford in Gloucestershire, a daring and brave mix that includes a shop, four galleries, landscaped sculpture gardens for outdoor walks; and a truly fantastic restaurant and bar – the Roth Bar and Grill. The simple but brilliant, unpretentious food is a sort of Ottolenghi meets gastropub hybrid. The pulled pork and coleslaw ciabatta was lip-smackingly moreish; chicken with rosemary roast new potatoes kept the children happy; and the salad of butternut squash, kale and roasted tomato with spelt and goats cheese, that was meant to be the side dish, stole the show.

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A Louise Bourgeois spider looms over Hauser and Wirth in Bruton

 

The bar, meanwhile, is an oasis for cocktails, with a dizzying installation built out of local reclaimed materials by Dieter Roth’s son and grandson, Björn and Odder Roth. On Friday nights, locals take over – Reef drummer Dominic Greensmith and Goffey, now drummer for Babyshambles, are in charge of the music. Daisy Lowe has been known to DJ to a crowd that might include locals such as theatre director Cameron Mackintosh, fashion designers Pheobe Philo and Alice Temperley, film director Sam Taylor-Wood or property expert Kevin McCloud.

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You can sleep here, too – Dursdale farmhouse, emblazoned with Martin Creed’s neon words “Everything is going to be alright” – can be rented by the week and sleeps 12.

At the Chapel in Bruton
At the Chapel in Bruton

Don’t miss Bruton itself either. This quiet town makes a big noise: stop for food, wine and a night at At The Chapel on the high street (www.atthechapel.co.uk). Owned by ex-Notting Hill restauranteur Catherine Butler, this bakery, wine bar, restaurant and micro hotel kick-started Bruton’s regeneration more than ten years ago. Stop for a morning cappuccino and you might spot Mariella Frostrup working on her laptop in a corner. Book in at Matt’s Kitchen, a supperclub in Matt’s house on the high street that operates three nights a week, or try Truffles French brasserie. There’s a natural, rustic florist, a rare-breed butcher, and organic grocers and a smattering of galleries and antiques shops – no wonder it’s been alikened to “Notting Hill back in the early days”.

The Ethicurean (photo by Jason Ingram)
The Ethicurean (photo by Jason Ingram)

To the west of Bruton and south of Bristol, The Ethicurean perfectly sums up the mood of the area – it’s a very hip eatery housed in the ramshackle glasshouse of a walled garden, where almost all of the produce is grown. Here country meets cutting edge – they make their own vermouth to go in their Negronis (which come served with a rhubarb swizzle stick), and pickle vegetables to sustain the kitchen the lean winter months. Bohemian, cool, and yet very low-key, it captures the confidence of the region – there can be very few parts of the country where you could open such a venture and succeed financially, to such acclaim. Inside there’s a mixture of yummy mummies, Bristolian hipsters, older artistic types and a few welly-booted walkers. We polished off a sticky toffee apple pudding washed down by a pint of the local Gorge Best beer before heading on to Frome.

The Ethicurean (photo by Jason Ingram)
The Ethicurean (photo by Jason Ingram)

Nearby Frome is a thriving indy town, packed with quirky boutiques, arty spaces and a bit of new age dream catcher thrown in for good measure (well we are a stone’s throw from Stonehenge and Glastonbury after all). The Archangel makes a great pit-stop, and if you want to swoon about in luxury, nowhere does it better than Babington House – the original country outpost of private members club Soho House and the brand’s first hotel.

A little further north in Bradford on Avon there’s a great mixture of shops, galleries and places to run about. The kids will love the country park; we played pooh sticks on the footbridge over the river, and the wandered up to Fat Fowl – a great all-day bistro with jazz on a Sunday and an upstairs play area to occupy the kids.

Old Manor

Just outside the town is the Moonraker (doubles from £135 B&B, www.moonrakerhotel.com), a laidback manor house that feels more like a friend’s rambling house party than a hotel, with higgledy rooms and a restaurant that’s headed up by Matthew Briddon who champions a home-grown farmhouse approach to fine-dining. The pea guacamole with Bath cheese and pancetta served with parsnip crisps and home-made pork scratchings made from the hotel’s own pigs set the tone for a delicious evening followed by the best night’s sleep. Rooms are relaxed and homely and furnished with antique furniture, home-made flapjacks, and local scented candles from Bradford-on-Avon. “When we came here a couple of years ago it was a real gamble,” says owner Tudor Hopkins. “But in that time we’ve seen it change so much, things are just exploding and there’s a real buzz about the area – and we’re getting busier and busier.”

Chef Matthew Briddon in Moonraker's walled garden
Chef Matthew Briddon in Moonraker’s walled garden

For now, thanks to it’s unique location off the beaten tracks of the Cotswolds to the north and the West Country to the south and west, SoCo has managed to retain an authentic, cool vibe, unaffected by tourist coaches and corporate chains. And that’s just the way the locals – and the cognoscenti who do visit – like it.

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This article appeared in METRO on 13 April 2015

ALISON TYLER

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Restaurant review: The Ethicurean

We were driving down to Wiltshire on Friday, minus the children, with an hour or three to spare. We were hungry. “Is there anywhere that we could stop about an hour from here,” asked my husband optimistically somewhere between Worcester and Gloucester trundling down the M5.

I scoured the map. We didn’t really want to drive in to Bristol as we were heading south-east of there, to explore the Somerset/Wiltshire borders. And then I remembered I’d been wanting to try The Ethicurean for a while. But where was it? Not quite in Bristol.

A Google search and phone call later we were booked in to this ethical, hyper-local, sustainable restaurant that sits in a walled garden south of Bristol. I say restaurant, but  The Ethicurean is really a ramshackle greenhouse and shed, stuck to one corner of the Barley Wood Walled Garden. If that makes it sound scruffy, then you shouldn’t go. But if you love the romantic notion of sitting in the orangery of the very garden that the produce on your plate was grown in, and to hell with a bit of damp on the walls, or the wonky mis-matched tables and chairs, then this is the place for you.

The Ethicurean (photo by Jason Ingram)
The Ethicurean (photo by Jason Ingram)

As a gardener, an interiors addict and a greedy appetite for food, I was in heaven! Looking out, sipping cider from apples grown in the orchard, you could imagine Peter Rabbit might pop up at any moment and steal an organic carrot.

But, romance aside, the aims of this place are in credible. Virtually all of the food comes from the garden or is foraged locally, so menus are created each day according to what’s on offer. I was worried that we were visiting at possibly the worst time of the year – the winter season over, nothing would be growing for spring yet, apart from the earliest wild garlic and maybe some nettles and rhubarb.

The Ethicurean (photo by Jason Ingram)
The Ethicurean (photo by Jason Ingram)

I needn’t have been. They pickle and preserve what they can, so the beetroot starter with strained goats cheese was divine. They also make their own cider from the apples and even their own vermouth to go in the Negronis. Our other starter – cider and cheddar Welsh rarebit – did not disappoint. The cider and cheese had been cooked and turned in to a thick fondue, then spread on the doorstep slab of home-baked bread and grilled into submission. A sharp salad of winter leaves and pickled carrot in place of tomatoes, cut through the rich rarebit to clean the palette.

Our mains were even better – considering the chefs were cooking in a shed the size of, well, a shed, this was a miracle. My pork belly was pressed to squeeze out some of the fat and served with chipotle crackling, more beetroot, pickled apple slices and deep, forest green kale. The husband’s bavette was succulent and stylishly presented. We may have been in a garden but there was no heavy-handed presentation, the finesse of the food and it’s delectable flavours were matched by the delicate presentation.

The Ethicurean
The Ethicurean

Pudding? Sticky toffee apple pudding! It could have had more sauce – as the husband pointed out, it isn’t hard to whip up – but it was moist and treacly without being stodgy or heavy. All in all, we were bowled over.

The only thing we couldn’t understand on this sunny, blustery spring Friday lunchtime, was why it wasn’t packed out? People of Bristol, what are you doing?! Perhaps you’re already too spoiled for choice by great, ethical, locally-sourced eateries…

The Ethicurean cookbook
The Ethicurean cookbook

ALISON TYLER

10 of the best welly weekends

Grab your Barbour jacket, pull on your Hunter boots and get outdoors for a bracing winter walk – and you can reward yourself with amazing grub and a gorgeous room for the night at the end of it

There’s nothing more exhilarating on a frosty, clear winter’s day than a country walk over fields and hills, and given you can burn up to 400 calories an hour on a good hike, it’s little wonder the likes of Jessica Biel, Matthew Mcconaughey and Reece Witherspoon are fans. Aside from the amazing views, fresh air and vitamin D, our favourite walks include a welcoming inn at the end, with a roaring fire and delicious dinner. So pack your wellies, kids and dog, and make a weekend of it, as we’ve found the best places to enjoy a rural, rambling escape.

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The Milk House, Sissinghurst

This rustic-chic pub and restaurant with rooms is brilliantly located just across the fields from Sissinghurst Castle in Kent (it’s a pleasing 30-minute ramble away). Welly boots and dogs are practically uniform at this timber-framed building. All exposed beams and open fireplaces, there’s a lounge-y bar with comfy leather sofas and a more formal 9though still relaxed) dining room with a menu that sources 80 per cent of its produce from within a 20-mile radius. The four bedrooms are a tribute to Farrow and Ball and the local theme continue with a range of bath products from Kent, too.

Doubles from £90, www.themilkhouse.co.uk

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Woolley Grange, Wiltshire

This homely small manor hotel welcomes families and dogs – if you haven’t brought your boots, you can borrow one of the many pairs lined up in the entrance hall. And if you haven’t brought your dog, you can even borrow the resident King Charles Spaniel puppy Rex and take him for a stroll around the grounds or over the fields down (or down the lane if you’re pushing a buggy) to Bradford on Avon, or head even further a-field to Ilford Manor which is surrounded by hanging woodlands and then walk back along the river.
Rooms at Woolley are eclectic and homely, combining antique furniture with modern design, while the relaxed lounges are the perfect place to warm up with a hot chocolate after a long walk.

Doubles from £120, www.woolleygrangehotel.co.uk

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The Lord Crewe Arms, County Durham

With properly hearty, country food – think shins, hocks, and shanks of meat – Simon Hick’s modern British menu is as robust and humble as this 12th-century former Abbots Priory. Delightfully understated, but in a very stylish way, this pub with 12 bedrooms is warm and welcoming – grab an armchair in the enormous inglenook and settle in with the weekend papers and a pint of Lord Crewe Brew before heading out to the hills. The pub sits at one of the highest points on the North Pennine Hills and is surrounded by heather-clad walks, but fishing and shooting are also available if you really want to give your Barbour a workout.

Doubles from £105, www.lordcrewearmsblanchland.co.uk

 

Askham Hall, Cumbria

Askham Hall makes a very glamorous home from home – owner Charlie Lowther and his wife Juno have renovated and transformed his family home, a Grade I-listed manor house, complete with a medieval tower, to create a 13-room hip-yet-unpretentious hotel with history. The rooms are relaxed yet grand; a winning cocktail of antique beds, dinner-plate showers and jaw-dropping Lake District views. Sitting in the middle OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof the 70,000-acre Lowther Estate, you’re literally surrounded by walks, from challenging fell climbs to a gentler walk across the estate to the George and Dragon pub in Clifton where most of the food is sourced from the estate itself, or a potter around the Hall’s romatic gardens and woodland and into Askham village.

Doubles from £150, www.askhamhall.co.uk.

 

Wild Rabbit The-Wild-Rabbit_Stylesight6

The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

Since opening last summer this immaculate pub with rooms, owned by Lady Bamford (the brains behind nearby Daylesford Organic), has recently won Michelin Pub of the Year. Behind its alluring honey-hued Cotswold stone walls and sage green paint, the handcrafted interior has antique furniture, stripped walls and open fires – while the menu stocks artisan ales and wine from small vineyards. Expect thoroughly stylish, and seasonal, food such as pot roast partridge or cacao nib crusted venison with girolles, celeriac and figs. While this may be the poshest pub in Britain, it is also surrounded by fields and farms – dogs are most welcome (they even provide dog beds for free). There are walking maps to borrow and you can hoof it over the fields north to Daylesford Organic to visit the spa, farm shop and restaurant there. Chipping Norton, Burford and Stow on the Wold are all close by.

Doubles from £135, www.thewildrabbit.co.uk

Bar area and dining room, Bel and the Dragon, Churt, Surrey BelDragon_churt3

Bel and the Dragon Churt, Surrey

Less than an hour from London, but a welly’s throw from the National Trust-owned Devil’s Punch Bowl – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty offering incredible views, this fabulously-restored country inn has 14 bedrooms, a restaurant and bar – complete with a cosy lounge with an open fireplace and an inviting sofa. The new pizza oven and chalk-topped tables are proving a huge hit with families, while the josper grill (for the juiciest steaks) and wine served by the magnum – you just drink what you can – keep grown-ups more than satisfied.

Doubles from £95, www.belandthedragon-churt.co.uk

okendon

Ockendon Manor, Sussex

Surrounded by the South Downs National Park, this Elizabethan Manor House welcomes guests with a roaring log fire and a cosy, wood-panelled bar. Set in nine acres, and with the South Downs Way, Wakehurst Place and Sheffield Park all on the doorstep, you’ll be spoilt for choice for walks. And at the hotel, you can spoil yourself in the state-of-the-art spa and at the Michelin-starred restaurant.

Doubles from £179, www.hshotels.co.uk/ockenden-manor-hotel-and-spa

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The Gunton Arms, Norfolk

You can’t get much more rural than a 1,000-acre deer park, which is where you’ll find this eccentric-yet-unpretentious pub and B&B owned by an art dealer and interior designer. The buzzy restaurant and bar, headed up by chef Simon Tattersall, who worked with Mark Hix, attracts north Norfolk’s finest, from muddy booted walkers and farmers to artists and landowners alike, who come to watch Tattersall cook over a vast 16th-century open fireplace. As you’d expect from a deer park close to Cromer – venison, crab and seafood abound. Just the thing after a misty country walk.

Doubles from £95, www.theguntonarms.co.uk

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The Grove, Pembrokeshire

Between the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and the Preseli Hills, the boutique Grove hotel, and its award-winning restaurant makes a chic retreat after a wild winter walk. Nab one of the fire-side seats in the lounge a snuggle up with a spicy glass of red wine and a great book. Book the Winter Warmer package and the hotel will pack you off in the morning with a walker’s hamper containing a flask of traditional Welsh cawl and tasty bites to keep you warm and toasty on your walk. Then head back to a roaring log fire, a soothing bath with a box of Wickedly Welsh chocolates and a full body massage courtesy of The Grove’s In Room Spa before delicious candlelit meal beside the fire in our award-winning restaurant (£200 per person per night).

Doubles from £165, www.thegrove-narberth.co.uk

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The Gurnard’s Head, Cornwall

There can be few more rugged or wild corners of Britain than the Zennor peninsula in Cornwall, and after a bracing walk, through cow fields, out to the tip of Zennor Point, you’ll be more than ready for a pint of real ale by the fire in the bar. This is pub-grub at its best and most local, from the ham hock terrine to the venison stew, even the soda bread with locally-churned butter is lip-smackingly good. Rooms are cosy but charming, with brilliant beds – you’ll feel so at home that you won’t want to leave. Dogs are welcome and wellies are practically obligatory round these parts.

Doubles from £110 – or book the fantastically good value Winter Escape: £130 a couple for dinner, bed and breakfast, Sunday to Thursday. www.gurnardshead.co.uk

ALISON TYLER

This article appeared in Metro on 26 January

 

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