The hedgerows I pass on my journey to Somerset are alive with the first buds of spring, flurries of snowy hawthorn blossoms and the odd blush of coral from a flowering quince. Even the butterflies are waking up. At a service station on the A303, the arterial route that skirts the border between Dorset and Somerset, a yellow Brimstone alights briefly on my windscreen.
What a difference a few weeks make. When I drove along the same road a month ago, many of the fields were under water. In Somerton, a small town on the edge of the Somerset Levels, I had called on Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, a global organisation with some 35,000 members.
This winter – the wettest in England and Wales since records began in 1766 – he has watched the weather with special interest. “Winter has been dominated by dark leaden skies made up of bruised storm clouds, the cumulonimbus,” he says.
Their repeated onslaught caused the River Cary, which snakes beneath his home, to break its banks; for two weeks during the worst of the floods, his view was of a vast lake. Across the wider region, hundreds had to evacuate, leaving a multimillion pound clean-up bill that is still being calculated. Tourism throughout the West Country was hit hard. The owner of the Bull Hotel, a boutique property in the Dorset town of Bridport, tells me that it was down to 27 per cent occupancy in the first week of February, compared with 70 per cent the previous year.
Today, however, the outlook is rather better. “This afternoon, there are cirrus,” says Pretor-Pinney. “Unlike a low dark sky bearing down upon the earth, cirrus clouds are all about escape and optimism. They’re so high up, they give you a sense of the scale of the earth’s atmosphere.”
In fact, for tourism business across Wessex – the Anglo-Saxon kingdom incorporating the modern counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset – there is a surprising sense of energy and optimism, given the challenges of the past three months.
Over the next few months there will be a wave of openings across the region, just in time to capitalise on interest inspired by a new film version of Far from the Madding Crowd, the second of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels, starring Carey Mulligan.
The largest new property is the Gainsborough Bath Spa – a 99-room hotel with a 1,300 sq metre spa that will use Bath’s naturally heated spring water, prized since Roman times. It will be housed in a 1824 building nipped and tucked by Champalimaud, a design group that worked on London’s Dorchester. With its opening scheduled for July, this hotel looks like it will bring a serious hit of polished luxury to this elegant Georgian city, with room rates starting at £289.
More in line with the earthy soul of the West Country, perhaps, are two hotels from Robin Hutson, who helped to define a more relaxed, modern style of country house hotel with the 2011 opening of his 26-room Pig in the Forest in Hampshire. This weekend sees the opening of the Pig near Bath – an inspired 29-room conversion of the Georgian-boned Hunstrete House hotel that delivers more of the charm (think muddy boots in a Farrow & Ball-painted hallway) that made the original Pig such a runaway success.
The Bath Pig is on a slightly bigger scale than Hampshire – if not in room count, at least in style. There’s a deer park, a two-acre walled kitchen garden, sage-and-wattle-coloured interiors peppered with frameless portraits, a greenhouse-restaurant spilling on to a light-soaked terrace, velvet sofas, stuffed animals, a billiards room and airy bedrooms that, in greedier establishments, would cost a lot more than their nightly starting price of £139. But that’s why “Brand Pig” works; characterful, good-value family-friendly hotels in the English shires where the food is local and unpretentious but the service sharp and accurate enough to satisfy finger-clicking Londoners.
The second new Pig is the much-anticipated Pig on the Beach on Dorset’s Studland peninsula, due to open on May 24 with 23 rooms. It is a building site when I visit but, even with a moat of mud, it has a delicious dollhouse-like charm. There is a whimsical confectionery of arches, carved stone mullions, Victorian leadwork and Purbeck stone roof tiles.
More than anything, it has England’s best beach hotel location east of Cornwall, with views over grassy ha-has framed by holm oaks, and pretty beach huts lining sandy strands within easy walking distance. Among the highlights are two thatched oak-framed “dovecote” rooms overlooking the kitchen garden.
To build these suites in a historically appropriate context, Hutson had to roll in the big guns: landscape architect Kim Wilkie and architect Ben Pentreath, who between them managed the local planning department – as well as consulting the National Trust, from whom the Grade II-listed hotel is leased. “I explored every inch of the English coast from Dover to Weymouth,” says Hutson. “Within easy striking distance of London, this was the only naturally beautiful site left among the conurbations of bungalows and caravan parks.”
A 45-minute drive west, the Seaside Boarding House has almost as good a position, on the cliffs of Burton Bradstock. It too has been enjoying strong pre-opening interest, thanks to the credentials of the team behind it and thanks to its wild, exposed position affording spectacular views of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast from its French-windowed restaurant.
“We’re on the edge of the world,” says Mary-Lou Sturridge, a co-owner of this restaurant with rooms and former managing director of the Groucho, the London club known for its celebrity membership.
After seven years of delays in investment and planning, Sturridge insists they will open by October 1. The architecture, which Sturridge describes as Addams Family meets Crossroads (the 1970s British TV soap set in a motel) will appeal to those averse to cute seaside cliché but demanding about the quality of their food and their cocktails. As to where the guests will come from, she says: “This is the furthest part of England where you can go for a weekend, and still get back to London on a Sunday night.” She knows her market intimately – which is one reason why locals are calling the project “Groucho-on-Sea”, despite there being no formal link with the Soho club.
To be fair, Sturridge’s market has a precedent in the neighbourhood: from food writer Tom Parker-Bowles to artist Tracey Emin, the Groucho crowd already likes these West Country reaches. Many are willing to take the drive down the A303 because of the lure of restaurateur Mark Hix.
The celebrated Dorset-born chef is currently upcycling a B&B in Lyme Regis for a mid-April relaunch. The eight-bedroom 1 Lyme Townhouse will be a welcome addition to the town because even with the popular Alexandra Hotel in Lyme, more rooms are needed to cater to visitors flocking to Hix’s Oyster & Fish House and to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s newly redone River Cottage HQ (an excellent venue for private parties after a post-fire refit), which is a couple of miles out of town.
In Dorset, where locals cast as extras in the Hardy film have only recently shaved off their beards, it is hoped that demand is only going to grow when the box office casts its star dust over the region’s velvety green hills. In the Somerset town of Bruton, however, there is little need for more glamour, with local faces including Supergrass rocker Danny Goffey and his wife, singer-turned-fashion designer Pearl Lowe, among those who frequent At the Chapel, the town’s buzzy restaurant with rooms.
The small town will, however, get a further nudge into the limelight when Iwan and Manuela Wirth – the influential husband-and-wife art dealers who have four Hauser & Wirth galleries between London, New York and Zurich – open an outpost in a converted farm on its outskirts on July 15. The gallery will offer a restaurant, a meadow garden created by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf and also a six-room guest house in the 18th-century farmhouse. Alternatively, visiting collectors can choose nearby Babington House (the country outpost of London members’ club Soho House, which opened in 1998), or else the Talbot Inn at Mells, a fancy eight-bedroom inn reopened last February by three former Soho House employees.
I call in at the Talbot for a half-hour pit stop, and ask a local at the bar what he thinks of all these changes. He pauses to consider my question. “It’s all very … tasteful,” he carefully replies. For a moment I wonder if he too is going to talk different shades of posh paint, from Elephant’s Breath to Mouse’s Back, a subject that has dominated my conversations with Wessex’s new flock of hoteliers. Instead he decides to sip his pint in peace, while staff fuss with check-ins and, outside in the courtyard, a gaggle of sun-drunk guests share a bottle of chilled white wine to toast the first show of spring.
This article has been corrected since original publication to reflect the fact that Bath is a Georgian, not a Regency, city