February 9, 2015
Country-house retreats The Pigs have taken shabby chic to market.
By Victoria Mather
Whoever thought of calling a collection of country-house hotels The Pigs and thinking it might fly? This is the devolution of deluxe. In 2011 Robin Hutson, once general manager of Chewton Glen - the definition of plush country-house hoteldom - and then creator of the-Hotel du Vin chain, set out to smash the genus as we knew it from the last century. No whispery dining rooms, no unforgiving over-stuffed sofas, no old fashioned chintz. The new-fashioned is mismatched teacups, Roberts radios, furniture bought at country auctions, and, the defining ta-dah: kitchen gardens. Hutson and his company director David Elton, formerly of Starwood and Ritz-Carlton hotels, were on-trend.
First up was The Pig in Brockenhurst, the transformation of a scuzzy New Forest pub into a user-friendly hotspot for urban escapees who feared they might not be Notting Hill enough for Babington House. Hutson was executive chairman of the Soho House hotel group and knew the Babington model. "At The Pigs we appeal to a broad church and at an attractive price point," he says. "My parents would hate Babington, my twentysomething children would hate Chewton Glen, but both groups feel comfortable at a Pig. Sadie Frost goes to The Pig on the Beach, but so do crusty old colonels." Indeed. The beachy Pig at Studland Bay, Dorset; latest in the litter, has been full ever since booking opened last spring. Understandable during a sensational summer, but at lunch on a chilly winter's day when the ferry from swish Sandbanks was closed? It was buzzing. A hearty number of the red-trouser brigade; bright young things down from town; multi-generational tables in the restaurant with granny and grandpa on the oysters, their children on the vino and the tots tucking into sausages. Log fires were roaring, the bar twinkling with vodkas and gins infused with herbs from a kitchen garden so immaculate it could be a still life. The smiley staff dart about wearing blue ieans and tailored pink shirts and confiding, in a caring way, that the pig's cheek comes with teeth attached. Scary but delicious. What Hutson wanted was "To take the anxiety out of visiting a country-house hotel. They're usually stiff and formal, with the statutory crunchy gravel drive, manor house, rolling lawns and Uriah Heep waiters. The Pigs give people a bit of a jolt if you think it's a pub, that's great, you'll get a nice surprise, but we don't pretend to be full five-star hotels." He's refined shabby chic via the art of the approachable, thus tapping into the wealth of the middle band that has not been serviced before with a consistent product that's fun and quirky. "We didn't overthink the brand, but The Pig is a friendly, amusing character and not snobbish."
Hutson and Elton were ahead of the game when they espoused foraging at Lime Wood, their pre-Pigs, slick New Forest hotel for sophisticates who like to put designer wellies in the back of clean Chelsea 4x4s. These guests never actually wear them, regarding the country as exterior decoration to be seen from the windows of suites by interior designer David Collins. You don't need gumboots to get from the bar to the spa. Yet the food is a way of bringing country to plate without any messy mud. Forager Garry Eveleigh is out in the wild to do that for you. All the food is seasonal and what is not cosseted in those leitmotif kitchen gardens is sourced within 25 miles. Hence Dorset whelks with wild garlic butter and Purbeck eggs with verbena mayo at The Pig on the Beach. A map on the back of the menu is there to reassure eaters fussy about food miles. Personally, I find this agitating. I came across it at the Park Hyatt in Washington, having gone for the first inauguration of President Obama. The menu told me my veg had been harvested with scythes by the Amish in Pennsylvania and my steak had come from a laughing cow called Mitzi. Too much information. How could I eat Mitzi now we'd been formally introduced? Yet if you've got the credentials, you gotta flaunt'em. Greed is good, provided those crispy rock oysters were plucked from Brownsea Island, if not by virgins at dawn then at least by a local fisherman rather than captain Birdseve.
As for the kitchen gardens, this is a personal triumph for Elton a passionate gardener who learnt at the feet of Miriam Rothschild. They are indeed works of art; one wants to take them home, preferably along with head gardener Alex Coutts. In the walled garden at The Pig near Bath, Ollie Hutson produces red Russian kale, spinach and beetroot to enchant the most veg-averse. His fruit cages burst with raspberries and blackcurrants, and you can see this abundance being delivered from the garden to the kitchen table, a chefs room where guests can quaff and scoff. No self-respecting hotel worldwide is now without a showcase kitchen garden, from the funky new Amilla Fushi in the Maldives, to the herb beds on the roof of the Mandarin Oriental, Paris, to the Rosewood Mayakoba, which grows 45 different types of vegetation and holds outdoor cookery classes.
The Pig in Brockenhurst was followed by the friendly Pig in the Wall, Southampton, a B&B with four-posters and a Land Rover to take you to dinner in the New Forest. The Pig near Bath, formerly the Hunstrete House hotel, is Jane Austen Georgian with a library, billiard room, deer park and 25 cracking bedrooms in the main house and suites in the garden called bucolic names like The Apple Store. A lap of luxury, not laptops. Each Pig has its own character, which is the clever twist. The thatched garden bothies at The Pig on the Beach look like the mushroom upon which Alice's caterpillar sat in Wonderland. The outdoor bar has viby music and the spa treatments are held in shepherds' huts on wheels. What The Pigs are not is Lady Bamford's Wild Rabbit, the apogee of exquisite taste in the Cotswolds, or even Sam and Georgie Pearman's The Wheatsheaf Inn in Northleach or their 131, Cheltenham, which have an American-cool twang. They are part of the gastro-pub-grows-up sensation, but, as Hutson says, the point of The Pigs is not to be five-star (it would be nice if the wood-burning stove in your bathroom at Studland was lit for your arrival but, hey, DIY) but to be super-comfortable, dead relaxed and shabby-chic. It's caught on like wild fire and The Pigs are in clover.