Babington House, Somerset: hotel and restaurant review
Read our review of Babington House in Somerset, and find out how the grande dame of modern English country house hotels has kept its cool
What is Babington House’s USP?
The original cool country house hotel, Babington, was one of the very first Soho House Group properties to open, two decades ago this September. Tucked away down an avenue of trees outside Frome (check out our foodie guide to the best places to eat and drink in Frome here), in the Somerset countryside, the honey-stone 18th century manor house is part members’ club, part hotel (it’s open to all but there are reduced rates for members) – and still running at such high occupancy rates that it can be harder to find a free room there than a stray hair on a hipster beard.
Babington is the creation of Nick Jones who, like that other pioneering British hotelier, Robin Hutson (ex-Hotel du Vin and Soho House, now of the Pig hotels), is renowned both for being exceptionally hands-on, and for putting more store by his gut than by conventional corporate strategies. Happily Jones’ instincts with Babington were on the mark. If the hotel’s recipe for stylishly decadent surroundings, casual but carefully crafted food and drink and a playful, unsnobby attitude feels familiar today that’s testament to how much Jones’ blueprint has been copied by others over the last 20 years. When Babington opened it was revolutionary; most upmarket hotels were still employing uniformed staff, starched tablecloths and guest dress codes.
And the vibe?
Fun. Jones is a stickler for details when it comes to the guest experience; expect showers to be powerful and hot, and minibars to come not just with an array of local drinks such as Wild Beer Co Evolver IPA (even the milk for tea and coffee is sourced from a local dairy) but also a proper kettle, a pot to make tea, a little silver tin of homemade double chocolate chip cookies and a beautifully presented cocktail tray that stretches to craft mixers, fresh citrus fruits and zesters.
Entertainment is also in plentiful supply. Within the extensive grounds, you’ll find a gym, two swimming pools (one indoors, under a beautiful timber-trussed ceiling, the other a sleek outdoor number fringed by a giant L-shaped green-and-white striped lounger), tennis courts, a football pitch, croquet lawn, cricket pitch, beautiful sage-green, leather-seated bikes to borrow, a cinema and a sauna, hammam and steam rooms. Overlooking the extensive kitchen garden there’s also a full-service Cowshed spa (book a marhalika massage, an intense but deeply relaxing and unusual treatment that blends Swedish and Thai methods – think sports massage mixed with acupressure).
Members can also tap into a host of organised talks and workshops; recent events have included a Be Good To Your Gut brunch with Eve Kalinik, a wild food foray through the woods, fields and hedgerows around the estate and a supper with Gill Meller.
Which room should I book?
All of the hotel’s 33 rooms are atmospheric and beautifully, if femininely, styled but price may dictate that you go for an attic room in the main house (pretty, with the cheapest rates). If you’re less concerned by finances, there are larger rooms in the main house and the coach house. For slightly more seclusion, there are also three bedrooms overlooking the walled garden that each come with private patios and outdoor soaking tubs but these are the only rooms in the hotel where we felt the design didn’t quite sing (though many regulars disagree and specifically request them). If you want to splash out, book the ‘playroom’, the largest room in the house. Set within the main building it’s 700 square feet of decadence with a four-poster bed, a bathtub big enough for two and a full bar, complete with crystal decanters.
For groups of friends, the old gatekeeper’s lodge, at the end of the main drive, is a self-contained, three-bedroom cottage. Or, if you’re seeking a rustic hideaway but don’t want to rough it, The Cabin is a neat option. A two-bedroom wooden lodge (adults-only), set overlooking a lake, it may have a wood-burning stove and a kitchen that’s a little bit Fired Earth and a lotta Little House on the Prairie but, beneath the country styling, it’s every bit as pampering as the hotel’s other rooms and suites; there are two bathrooms, a kitchen ready-supplied with grocery basics and an outdoor bath.
In all the rooms, the detail is the impressive thing: full-length mirrors come as standard, there are armchairs in larger bathrooms so that you can chat while one of you has a bath, chargers are provided for laptops and phones, hot water bottles are supplied for chillier nights and, in addition to the full-size Cowshed toiletries, smaller vanity items are supplied in the bathrooms to take-away (not just toothpicks and shower caps but deodorant, moisturiser, toner, toothpaste and shaving cream).
If you take a fancy to Babington’s soft grey bath robes, you can buy these and more – a lot more – via the company’s Soho Home website. Each Soho House property has its own range of customized items, grouped under the various Houses (the Babington pool towels, for instance are green and white striped, whereas the Barcelona - check out the best places to eat and drink in Barcelona - ones are coral and white) but a more general range stretches to crockery, glassware, bedding, skincare, armchairs, beds, lamps, even vintage furniture.
What’s good to drink?
Babington’s wooden floored, velvet chaired, Morris wallpapered bar draws a crowd at several points of the day. At the very least, pop in before dinner to perch on one of its red leather bar stools and sip on a cocktail – try a fresh but punchy Eastern Standard (Bombay Sapphire or Grey Goose with muddled cucumber, mint and lime) or a Walled Garden Collins (Bombay Sapphire with freshly picked garden herbs, lemon and soda). For non-drinkers there’s also a choice of non-alcoholic cocktails, including a Stimuless (Seedlip Spice 94 with espresso, demerara and grapefruit oil).
Over dinner, take your pick from a sizeable range of Old and New World wines available by the glass, carafe and half bottle as well as by the bottle (we went for a deliciously smoky French Pinot Noir but more adventurous choices include a Pinot Bianco from Slovenia - check out our guide to the best places to eat and drink in Slovenia- and plummy Chateau Musar from Lebanon). The house red (a Grenache) and white (Vermentino) are both from the Languedoc and start at £24 but prices range up to £790 for a Chateau Margaux Grand Cru Classe.
And to eat?
The Soho House group has a knack for spotting trends just as they are landing and Babington’s approach to food was an early example of that. Where other hotel restaurants, 20 years ago, were chasing Michelin stars, Babington did away with dress codes and stuffiness and went for a much more casual approach: comfort food done with finesse. That attitude has remained, making for a very decent hotel dining experience.
Book a window table in the main restaurant, the Orangery, and enjoy sweeping views of the lawn and the lake through towering Georgian windows while you eat. Curve-backed sage leather chairs, white tablecloths and posies of fresh flowers set a glamorous, slightly botanical tone. It’s all very Instagrammable but be warned: the drinks list comes with a request not to use phones or take photos.
Under head chef Neil Smith, the dinner menu is understated and ingredient-led (that kitchen garden comes in handy). It’s also bang up-to-date: think charcoal-grilled meats, honeyish, coal-roast sweet potato with yoghurt and dukkah and Cornish plaice served with sweet little shrimp. The standout of our meal was a dish of salt-flecked, charcoal-grilled venison, burnished outer crunch giving way to soft pink meat, atop a decorous little puddle of light, meaty gravy and a giant, caramelised leek.
Puddings are simple and comforting, with a hint of childhood nostalgia: strawberry ripple sundaes, gin and tonic jellies, salted peanut chocolate mousse and a range of homemade ice creams and sorbets. We went for a cheese board and, while the cheeses were impressively local (Westcombe cheddar, Bath blue and a Somerset goats cheese coated in ash), and generously portioned, the presentation was a little clumsy.
If you want a more casual supper, head to the bar to snack on spiced cauliflower fritters and Scotch eggs or sit down to imaginative salads (Castlemead chicken with spiced chickpeas and harissa yoghurt), wood-fired pizzas, a cheese and chutney brick toastie or pub favourites (fish and chips, steak and chips, mac and cheese or a Babington burger with jalapeno slaw).
What’s the breakfast like?
For some guests the hotel’s lavish breakfasts are the main reason to check in. Pick a table in the Orangery and you’ll be served a juice shot while you wait for coffee or tea to arrive (apple, celery and mint on the morning we stayed).
In the deli bar, just beside the Orangery, a continental spread covers a high counter. Help yourself to organic yoghurt, house-made granola, pastries, chia coconut pudding, fruit salads, fresh compotes, Bircher muesli, ham, mozzarella, breads baked in house and various juices.
If you’re after the hot stuff, there’s garden rhubarb and pistachio porridge (in season), classics such as boiled eggs and soldiers, kippers, eggs Florentine and a half or full English. Or go for something slightly lighter: tomatoes and a fried egg on rye with sriracha or avo on toast with poached eggs and chilli. As with the cheese course the previous evening, our porridge and avo on toast were full of flavour but not entirely elegantly presented (a much better state of affairs than the opposite way around, of course).
After a more liquid start to the day? Choose from a long menu of House Press juices (grapefruit, orange, lemon, turmeric and cayenne pepper), botanicals (orange, mango, passionfruit, ginger, lime, cacao and maca) and shakes (cold-brew coffee with raw cacao, cashew, MCT reishi and Himalayan salt), another Soho House spin-off brand.
Any other food experiences I shouldn’t miss?
Afternoon tea. Neil Smith also happens to be an avid baker and this complimentary spread of cakes, laid out in the deli bar each afternoon, is dangerous territory for sweet-toothed guests. Wander past its orange sweet cream profiteroles, homemade scones, fresh tarts, cookies, cakes and mini pavlovas at your peril.
Sunday lunch is a Babington institution, too. Starters from further afield (river mussels with green curry, coconut and lime, perhaps, or crispy squid with kasundi and avocado salsa) give way to reassuringly English mains (Castlemead chicken with bread sauce, Gloucester Old Spot pork belly with apple, rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish), all served with cauliflower cheese, duck fat-roast potatoes, honey carrots and greens. Less traditional options include pan-fried gnocchi with romesco sauce, broccoli and almonds, and crispy squid buns with pickled fennel and harissa.
Is it family-friendly?
“Babington House is a club for adults, but we are child-friendly” is how the hotel sums itself up. We’d definitely count it as family-friendly, though you might want to avoid visiting during the school holidays if you’re seeking a more grown-up escape. Children are welcome, with a few dining restrictions (no access to the restaurant for under-10s after 7pm, no children’s dining in the bar, no access to the bar for under-18s after 7pm) and swimming pool restrictions (check current child swimming times before you visit).
Dedicated facilities include a Teeny House (a staffed play space for under-8s) and The Loft, a similar area for older children. How much access you get is dependent on whether you’re a member or an overnight guest and is always on a first come, first served basis.
In terms of bedrooms, go for a stable block room if you have children in tow. Large, split-level suites with board games and Xboxes supplied, these come with an en-suite bedroom for grown-ups upstairs and bunk beds plus a wet room below, for children.
The restaurant serves a simple, crowd-pleasing lunch and early evening kids’ menu (think margherita pizzas, pasta, salmon with peas and potatoes, cheeseburgers, jelly and ice cream, fruit salad and yoghurt).
What can I do in the local area?
Walk, drive or cycle over to The Talbot at Mells or the adjacent Walled Garden Café for lunch. Head over to Bruton to visit the Hauser & Wirth Gallery and have lunch at the Roth Bar & Grill (see here for other places to eat and drink in Bruton). Hang out in Frome, strolling between its independent shops and restaurants – or catching the Frome Independent market if you’re visiting on the first weekend of the month. For a day out Bath is 30 minutes’ drive away, Bristol just under an hour.
Or just borrow a pair of wellies from the boot library by Babington's side door and head out on a walk around the estate’s lake, or off into the countryside. Then return to the hotel and read the papers by the fire in the peaceful wood-panelled library room.
Words by Rhiannon Batten
Images by Babington House/Soho House and Rhiannon Batten