Barometer: travel

A Weekend Retreat: At The Chapel

Almost as soon as we step off the train, Bruton feels familiar, so much is it the archetype of the sleepy English country town. The 14th-century church (“one of the proudest” in east Somerset, according to Pevsner) is surrounded by the playing fields of King’s School (founded 1519), from which muddy boys are trooping off for their post-match tea. We pause to admire the ruined dovecote, then climb one of the ancient alleyways, known as “bartons”, that rise from the banks of the Brue into the town centre.

But there are surprises here too, an eccentric edge. A stuffed lioness stares from a shop window (not for sale, says the owner, in gratitude for her saving his life by cushioning the impact of a drunken fall).

A few doors down, behind honey-coloured walls, is our destination, a 19th-century congregational chapel transformed in 2008 into a restaurant, artisan bakery, wine shop and event space. Even knowing that in advance, it’s another surprise to step in from the silent street and grey afternoon to a huge white room, bathed in light and buzzing with people, eating, drinking and chatting. I had been gearing up for a harrumph about how food and drink were the only devotions left in modern Britain, but it is impossible not to be pleased by the scene – a grandparent treating a child to hot chocolate, welly-wearing young couples drinking wine, friends spreading out with the papers. Every new hotel professes its desire to be a “hub for the community”; here is a rare example of one that is.

The then-derelict building was bought on a whim in 2000 by a visiting London couple, Catherine Butler and Ahmed Sidki (“Kevin McCloud told us we were mad!” she says). Thankfully, these were not the usual dreaming downshifters with zero experience – Butler’s long restaurant career included co-founding the Café Med chain. Denied lunch at a rural pub that stopped serving on the dot of 2pm, she started planning somewhere open all day, serving everything from breakfast bacon rolls to espresso martinis.

The latest addition is the bedrooms. Five were opened last year, another four are due to be ready next month. At the top of a winding staircase, ours is another eye-opener – instead of country kitsch, it is sleek and modern. Walls are white, the floor is black, the robes fluffy and grey. The exposed roof beams, rough and weathered, join seamlessly into the grey marble of the beautiful bathroom.

Each room features original work by a different artist – in ours it’s Louise Bourgeois – and there are pieces by the likes of Martin Creed and Tracey Emin throughout the building, much of it on loan from acclaimed gallery Hauser & Wirth. Which brings us to the final surprise. Currently, Hauser & Wirth operates in London, Zurich and New York but is working on a new gallery in a converted farm on the edge of town. From summer 2014, it will be London, Zurich, New York, Bruton – maybe this isn’t such an archetypal country town after all.

At the Chapel

High Street, Bruton, Somerset, BA10 0AE. 01749 814070;

Doubles from £100

Getting there

Bruton is 20 miles south of Bath. Trains from London Paddington take 1 hour 55 minutes

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