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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
This article appeared in METRO on 13 April 2015