We bounce along past the thatched cottages, green fields and beech woods of East Devon en route to the tiny village of Gittisham. Here, our “Piggy Land Rover” turns down a driveway marked by a sign of a golden pig and pulls up at our destination, The Pig at Combe, deep within a 3,500 acre-estate laced with cedar trees and meadows grazed by Arabian horses.
Opened in July, this is the fifth hotel in the group’s litter – and its furthest incursion into the West Country. Its setting is Combe House, an Elizabethan manor in the Otter Valley, and there’s an atmospheric timelessness to it, despite the building’s extensive refurbishment. Climbing plants hug its windows, huge cedar trees cast shadows over the manor’s golden stone and smoke puffs from multiple chimneys.
Which doesn’t, of course, mean it’s stuffy. Pig hotels’ founder Robin Hutson and hotel director Fiona Moores have done away with a traditional reception desk in favour of a glamorous bar with a roaring fire. Another (life-size) statue of a pig protects a collection of Penguin books lining the mantelpiece and the fire’s flames are reflected in an elegant chandelier – and the bar’s colourful crystal glassware. As you enter the room a rack of deep pink umbrellas and garden herb-infused vodka bottles say “welcome, throw off your coats, sink into a red velvet sofa and get going on the cocktails.”
Shabby chic is the name of the game at all the Pig hotels and Combe retains this approach, combining original features (portraits of the building’s previous owners, original oak floorboards and marble fireplaces) with a casual edge – staff wear jeans and pink shirts, and tattered armchairs and antique embroidered sofas look like they’ve been doing their jobs for centuries.
The hotel’s 27 bedrooms combine elegance with practicality: gold mirrors turn into flat-screen TVs at the touch of a button, and antique chests and cabinets picked up by Robin’s wife, Judy, on her travels house larders packed with British produce – including olive favourites Chase popcorn, Burt’s crisps and Cracking Nuts – as well as KitchenAid coffee machines and kettles to brew Prince and Sons teas. Other luxuries include Roberts radios on bedside tables, fluffy white towels, his ‘n’ hers sinks, Bramley bath oils and toiletries and – in our room – a roll-top bath sitting below a pretty lace-curtained window.
No two bedrooms are the same so it’s worth discussing your preferences before you book, whether that’s a cosy hideaway room in the attic with a mahogany writing desk, exposed beams and sloping brick ceiling or one of the 10 rooms set in what was originally the property’s stables.
As well as the bedrooms, restaurant and bar there’s a suite of reception rooms to snuggle into with a book or a pre-dinner drink. Sit in the drawing room and enjoy a refreshing lavender cocktail with lemon verbena from the garden, glancing between the stunning scenery beyond the windows and an extensive wine list – double sided A3 pages of tiny writing for each colour (well-briefed staff will help you out if you’re overwhelmed by choice).
Afterwards we pad through to an exquisite dining room with stripped-back paneled walls, bare wood floors and huge windows. Pots brim with homegrown plants, frames display butterflies and insects and furniture is elegantly mismatched.
Food at most of the Pig hotels is centred around each property’s kitchen gardens and this one is no exception. Head chef Dan Gavrilidis works with Combe’s gardener and forager to infuse olive oil with homegrown herbs and smoke salt in a little on-site smokehouse.
In addition to seasonal starters and mains there’s a section of the menu dedicated to produce literally picked that morning. We choose salt-baked celeriac with squash, creamy ricotta and crunchy, honey-coated pumpkin seeds (though purple mizuna with garden pickles and chargrilled chicken sounds very appealing).
A visit to The Pig isn’t complete without some piggy bits, of course. We plump for BBQ pork belly pieces and pork scotch quails eggs (fresh from the quail house out back) to nibble on before moving on to a crisp pig cheek wheel on a creamy cassoulet-like base, and tender chargrilled pork loin with garden parsnip mash and honey-roast carrots.
Not a pork fan? The proximity to the coast means The Pig’s 25-mile radius promise covers some fantastic fish and seafood, from Brixham to Beer (yes, that’s a place). Crisp-skinned John Dory is served with clams in a light parsley cream sauce. One plant pot of triple fried chips and a plate piled high with crisp smoked paprika onions later and we’re extremely full.
Palate cleansers of forager’s sorbet (we try pear but the flavours rotate seasonally) are served in delicate crystal glasses with icing sugar-dusted pistachio biscuits. Then it’s onto pudding. We’re tempted by the forced rhubarb mousse with poached rhubarb and buttermilk sorbet but order, instead, an intensely rich slice of chocolate tart made with chocolate, mint and a syrup infused with three types of mint from the garden.
Breakfast is another piggy affair – namely a huge round table piled with bowls of homemade granola, cereal bars, pastries, fruits and yoghurt. A chest in the corner hosts spreads and breads as well as a poach-your-own-egg station (a pile of egg cups sits beside a basket of pale blue Cotswold Legbar eggs from The Pig’s hens and a sous vide machine). There’s a whole host of hot options, too, starting with the piggy breakfast – black and white pudding, sausages and bacon – and huge kippers lifted with a mixed garden herb butter.
After tasting its fruits you mustn’t leave the hotel without exploring the gardens that provide the kitchen with such abundant produce. The scent of fresh mint hits you as you duck through a stone arch into the walled herb garden (unsurprisingly, we discover, as 12 varieties of the stuff are grown here) and technicolour tomatoes grow in polytunnels alongside cavolo nero and lemon verbena.
Set back beside these well-tended allotments is The Folly, available for private dining and casual lunches. Hotel director Fiona describes the atmosphere at this former orangery as “derelict chic” though that’s maybe overplaying it: windows have, at least, been restored to flood the room with light.
We sit here, at large communal tables beneath basket-woven lampshades, to enjoy wood-fired flatbreads, piggy bits and local ales. If it’s warm enough you can take your cocktail or coffee outside to sit on the terrace beneath giant vintage parasols – and those cedar trees – and admire The Pig at Combe’s golden hued beauty.
Written by Alex Crossley
First published October 2016