August 23, 2016
Rare Breed Article - as featured in Conde Nast Traveller, written by Sally Shalam.
After rounding one more blind bend on a narrow Devon lane, the village of Gittisham comes into view. with cottages of cob and thatch and a narrow bridge spanning a stream. The Pig hotel has just swung opcn its doors in what was Combe House, an Elizabethan manor of gabled austerity. It overlooks a combe, or valley, of extraordinary peacefulness and when I first visited in the late 1990s. I fell in love with it. Stepping straight into the ancient Great Hall softly lit, fire crackling in an enormous grate, panelled walls dark and shiny as liquorice, there was a sense of being spirited back in timc.
Now it has become The Pig at Combe, the fifth and most westerly of the hotels opened by Robin and Judy Hutson, with business partner David Elton. The first arrived in Hampshire in 2011, soon joined by others in Somerset and Dorset. Each occupies a building of historic interest (Combe is Listed Grade I, as is The Pig at Studland). Elton takes care of landscaping - no mean feat, against the ticking clock of a launch, if grounds are to provide alluring vistas and tumultuous planting - while the Hutsons focus on the hotel itself.
The couple are true innovators: even before we quite know what we want next in a hotel, they capture it. In 1994. with Master of Wine. Gerard Basset, they mixed together a love of wine, casual bistro dining and boutique bedrooms to create Hotel du Vin, a highly successtul string of city hotels, sold 10 years later. Robin Hutson, former chairmain of Soho House. then stepped in at Lime Wood hotel in the New Forest, bringing in chef Angela Hartnett to deconstruct the country-house restaurant to represent what he called 'fun dining'. The Hutson magic blender went into operation again fivc years ago and out came The Pig, their modcrn rendition of relaxed country stylc which has no truck with five-star pomp. Bedrooms and public spaccs are nothing short of splendid, but staff - many nurtured through the ranks and all fiercely loyal to the Hutsons - scoot about in jeans and Converse trainers. The food is determinedly unfussy and artisanal and you don't have to take out a second mortgage to stay.
The Great Hall's Panelling is now stripped, with deliberate roughness - a backdrop to warm colour, pattern and clcver things such as beautiful lampshades made from vintage sari silks. Daylight filters through coloured wineglasses behind the bar. boldly positioned along one side of the Great Hall, perhaps stealing something of its thunder although probably not for a first-timer. The former restaurant has bccome a drawing room and library. The drama of decorative plasterwork and intricate woodcarving rubs along with ovcrsized sofas, Timorous Bcasties wallpaper and a sidcboard laden with cakes on vintage stands, as though one were dropping in to see a relative for tea. Now relieved of whispering diners' they are charming and relaxed places to loll about in.
While no two Pigs are identical, common elements connect them like silken thread. Each has an abundant kitchen garden, for example, central to the ethos of freshness and localism, here steeply terraced behind the house. In all of them. Bamford spa treatments are delivcred in thc seclusion of either a shepherd hut or, as at Combe, in a rustic outbuilding.
The restaurant occupies the former lounge bar and a function room, which has been knocked through and given an uplifting coat of pale paint, with tumbling pots of fresh herbs and cheery, bright nasturtiums. It is fabulously inviting, not least at breakfast, when possibly the best buffet in Britain appears on mismatched china, but more so at dinner, when tiny candles flicker on wooden tables.
Small producers are key on a 25- mile menu of unceremonious simplicity - chilled pea soup with caramelised onion bun, cylindra beetroot with crispy chickpeas and Cox apple, and a main dish of unctuous braised featherblade with a summery potato salad. The real reason Combe is going to be hangout of the season, though, is The Folly, across the lawn. The coolest orangery this side of Port Eliot has been pressed into service as a bar complete with Scandinavian stove and wood-fired oven.
There are 17 bedrooms in the main house, suffused with light from westfacing stone-mullion windows. Judy Hutson's interiors layer luscious velvet, virginal cotton, old leather and polished wood. Nothing screams for attention. The Attic is the cosiest and, in truth, a suite; number 18 has a terrace overlooking the expansive lawn that unfurls from the vegetable beds down to the entiance. The 10 stableyard rooms behind, some
with second bedrooms and bunks, are reached through an aromatic herb garden and afford greater privacy. The Horsebox is the most unapologetically rustic of all: it retains the original stalls, now reimagined as room partitions. While The Pig may have airbrushed out any unwelcome realities of rural life - muddy floors, rampant weeds, wasps' nests - I wake on satin-smooth linen, to birdsong, and feel right at home. as though this really isn't a hotel at all. I have been successfully, almost imperceptibly, fast-tracked to the rejuvenating joys of the English countryside. More than a restaurant with rooms, yet with no pretensions to be a posh country-house hotel, The Pig has slid into the space between with absolute accuracy. Pack your trainers, a healthy appetite, and get in with The Pig crowd.