You might imagine that from Silicon Valley to the wilds of North Devon is a bit of a stretch. For Michael Birch, however, who with his wife Xochi founded Bebo, the social networking website in 2005, it’s something of a circular journey. In the village of Woolsery – this is the shortened version of its full name of Woolfardisworthy, because this is, rather unusually, a village with two names – his great-grandparents built the village shop and his grandmother was born above it. Many of his family still live in the village today. So, when he heard the historic village pub having been in long disuse was about to be turned into flats, he decided to step in.
This, though, was just the first step. The Collective, as it is known, now also has an impressive village shop (with a post office) a gourmet (yes, really) fish and chip shop, luxury accommodation for visitors over three cottages, two rooms and two suites, a 150-acre farm and a Georgian manor currently undergoing refurbishment.
I stayed at the Old Smithy, a cottage for two over two floors with a lovely courtyard garden. Now, I have stayed in some beautifully appointed hotels but few would measure up to the style here – nostalgic yet whimsical, historic but fun. While keeping the bones of the original cottage – and there are plenty of rustic touches such as beams and exposed brickwork – there is also a fabulous kitchen (the coffee machine grinds the beans, too), a massive shower and a roll-top bath and two wood burners (one is in the bedroom for ultimate romance). This is before we get to the art and the vintage pieces dotted around, the massive sofas in front of the fire that promise you will wind down, the breakfast you order the night before during the turn-down service and appears in a hamper the next morning.
And this is unlike any hotel breakfast I’ve ever experienced. My main course was centred around nettles. What? Curated by the restaurant in the Farmers Arms pub and chef Ian Webber, all of the ingredients are produced on the farm or by local specialist producers. So those nettles came as a fritter with spiced fermented vegetables, nuts and seeds and two poached eggs. It was quite superb and came with the side dish of (in my case) sweet clover and vanilla yoghurt, strawberry, rhubarb jab and toasted sunflower seeds. The rhubarb cordial was, I think, a riff on kombucha, fizzy and delicious. More conventionally, there was whiskey and honey porridge, crumpets or hog’s pudding with eggs and smoky bacon beans.
Expect, though, the unexpected whether we’re talking about breakfast here or dinner at the Farmers Arms itself. The pub is now much more of a restaurant though there is a bar that opens out on to a lovely courtyard (and there’s a rather convenient door to the garden of the Old Smithy, so not a long walk home after dinner). The bar itself has won an award recently as the best in the south-west – they make all their own cordials and flavourings from foraging around the farm.
The farm is, of course, organic, wedded to sustainability and grows almost everything that’s used in the Farmers Arms kitchen, as well as supplying the village shop. They celebrate nature and practise what’s known as edible forestry – an innovative approach to farming with layers of produce all growing together, everything from roots to fruit trees. It’s not just fruit and veg – though there is plenty of both and they’ve planted a new orchard – they have their own pigs, sheep and cows, too. The farm to fork concept has been around a while now but rarely is it taken so seriously as it is here. Of course, to be fair, most chefs don’t have the luxury of 150 acres as their kitchen garden!
Ian Webber, though, certainly makes the most of it and dinner at the Farmers Arms is pretty special. Just like the cottages, it’s a big, beautiful space, broken down into several rooms to make it cosy. It’s a menu that needs a bit of thinking about. So while I did, I started with a Crab Apple Bramble – a delicious mix of apple gin, rosehip and mint. My first course consisted of the very local mussels in probably the most delicious sauce I’ve ever had (I know cider, cream and tarragon were in there). The Major feasted on grilled sardines with spiced lamb sausage, green tomato chutney and fermented garlic. Our main courses were equally interesting (monkfish and scallop fishcake for me and a particularly interesting dish for the Major with beetroot, blackberry and juniper). We neither of us had room for a pudding though they certainly sounded tempting – Baked Peruvia Chocolate Custard with beetroot, sour cherries and Florentine.
The Collective is, you might say, the whole package. The accommodation is beautiful, the food is sensational, the area is wild and windswept with a dramatic coastline made for wreckers (an ideal location for anyone wanting to film a re-make of Jamaica Inn). I can’t wait to see what they do with the Georgian mansion…
For more information about The Collective at Woolsery, including details of where to stay and eat, please visit www.woolsery.com.