The latest addition to The Pig’s litter has arrived, reinventing an East Devon manor house. Estella Shardlow is tickled pink by the new offering…
“I have been here before,” I said, to borrow a phrase; I had been there before; my grandmother’s 80th birthday some 12 years ago. I remembered a honey-coloured Elizabethan manor house that revealed itself in glimpses as the car progresses up a sinuous driveway. Imposing oak-panelled rooms, and firelight glinting on champagne flutes. The atmosphere was slightly stiff and serious; one behaved as if in church. With roots stretching back to William the Conqueror (or the king’s half brother, to be precise) When I was growing up in a neighbouring town, Combe House was a grande dame reserved for special occasions. Now I was returning to this lush corner of East Devon a decade on to see what sort of makeover the Pig group had given the old gal.
Change was apparent the moment I stepped into the Great Hall. Once a simple thoroughfare, it’s become a vibrant hub thanks to a newly installed bar, displaying rows of mismatching vintage glassware and house-infused vodkas. Heading through to the main restaurant, an even bolder transformation is revealed: all that dark wood has been sanded down like a scrubbed farmhouse table, and a vast bricked-up window has been opened up so that natural light floods in. In this conservatory-like space, the cobwebs have well and truly been blown away with a breeze of mint and basil from the potted herbs that spill over the mantelpiece and windowsills.
This sets the tone for the entire property: relaxed, rustic and simply beautiful. The Pig has had this formula down to a fine art ever since it opened its first property in the New Forest five years ago, its owners having pedigree from Hotel du Vin, Soho House and Starwood. There’s now a litter of five hotels dotted around the south of England, from a Dorset beach to central Southampton.
In the guest rooms, mullioned windows are veiled with antique lace, while larders and minibars cleverly concealed in antique cupboards – an artful blend of contemporary luxury and the antique. You’ll find both powerful rainfall showers and oil paintings from the manor’s historic collection. An old garden folly has been ‘semi-restored’ with the addition of a wood fired oven and tables fashioned from reclaimed wood, becoming a casual indoor/outdoor spot for flatbreads, drinks and cigars. Even the parasols on the terrace are bespoke, fashioned from antique fabrics.
The tour de force, however, has to be the walled kitchen gardens. These neat terraces house a mind-boggling array of vegetables and herbs (ginger rosemary, anyone?), as well as a Smoke House, where everything from salmon to salt gets the special treatment, a Quail House, and two Potting Sheds now functioning as quirky, cosy treatment rooms. There’s a bevvy of seasonal fruit from the orchard, and bee hives for honey – in fact, produce from the Pig at Combe’s 3500 acres dominates the restaurant menu (anything they can’t produce in-house is sourced from a 25-mile radius, which handily encompasses the Devonshire coast for fresh seafood). Understandably, the Pig is keen to show off its natural bounties, with garden tours for guests and fishing rods on hand for those who want to ‘catch their own’ from the stream.
In this way the Pig is flawlessly attuned to what today’s luxury guests really crave – time and tactility. Conspicuous consumption is being replaced by a desire to sink manicured fingernails into soil to prise out some seasonal veg, to roll up cashmere sleeves to knead some sourdough, or perhaps even milk a cow.
And what a feast there is to enjoy as a result of the gardeners’ labours! Making no bones about it with a menu section titled ‘Literally Picked This Morning’, there were sweet, earthy roasted carrots and wild garlic crème fraiche, beetroot risotto topped with crumbled Devon Blue cheese, and crispy tobacco onions dipped in paprika and celery salt, an incredibly moreish signature dish. Not to neglect the local seafood, I also tried some ‘Fishy Bits’ – a trio of cuttlefish croquettes, Pollock skewers, soused sardines with cucumber – followed by Lyme Bay scallops with Oyster leaf, which does somehow taste remarkably like the shellfish. Combe honey set cream with raspberry mint sorbet and granola formed the perfect light, summery pudding. English vineyards are also well represented on the wine list, including sparkling Hambledon from Hampshire.
Knowledgeable, unstuffy staff talk of the produce and the place with genuine pride, as if aware they’re part of something special. Everyone looks happy as they go about the grounds – well, why wouldn’t you be here? I visited on a gloriously sunny day when the lawn deckchairs were filled with the hotel’s first guests, but it’s easy to imagine a different appeal in wintertime, with logs crackling in the broad fireplaces and one of those claw-footed bath tubs brimming with bubbles.
The Pig, quite simply, is perfection.
The Pig at Combe, Gittisham, Devon EX14 3AD. Doubles from £145 per night; breakfast from £10. Accessible rooms for guests using wheelchairs. (0345 225 9494; thepighotel.com)