To the wilds of Wiltshire and Somerset, or SoCo as I’m calling it, short for South of Cotswolds.
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 have been putting this hot spot on the map.
Most recent, and notable, is contemporary art space Hauser and Wirth, on the edge of Bruton in Somerset. Drive out of the town (do stop for food, wine and a night at At The Chapel on the high street) 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 an art shop, four galleries, landscaped sculpture gardens for outdoor walks; and a truly fantastic restaurant and bar – the Roth Bar and Grill. A farm shop will open in spring 2015. We turned up on a wet Saturday in November, knowing they were fully booked, with two toddlers in tow, and they still smiled cheerily and managed to find us a table. The simple, unpretentious food is a sort of Ottolenghi meets gastropub hybrid. What they do is simple but amazing (so much better than complicated and failing!). The pulled pork and coleslaw ciabatta was great; chicken with rosemary roast new potatoes kept the four-year-old very 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.
And the bar… if only we hadn’t driven! It’s 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. The children loved trying to spot some of the more obscure items amongst the junk: a rolling pin, a violin, a shoe!
You can even sleep here – Durslade farmhouse, which is emblazoned with Martin Creed’s neon words “Everything is going to be alright” – can be rented by the week and sleeps 12.
Up the road in Frome, was the best little shopping street I’ve seen in a long time – St Catherine’s Hill. Packed with indy 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), it’s a fantastic town to potter and purchase Christmas presents in. The Archangel makes a great pit-stop, and if you want to swoon about in luxury, nowhere (really nowhere, except perhaps Limewood) does it better than Babington House.
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 rive, 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.
Stay at Woolley Grange, just outside of Bradford, where children are the stars of the show. It feels more like a friend’s rambling house party than a hotel, with higgledy rooms that accommodate almost any arrangement of family set-up, and two restaurants so that you can go posh and grown up, or gastro and family. The pool and spa are perfect for rainy days – and everyone has kids so there are no glaring looks – while the Woolley Bears’ Den is a free (yes free!) Ofsted-registered crèche run by Joan who has been with the hotel for 20 years. My two came running out with pictures and freshly made, if delightfully wonky, jam tarts and the older one asked if she could go back again the next day. High praise indeed.
Who says a cultural break and kids can’t mix?
My secret address book