Stranded in the UK, Carolynne Dear enjoys a warm English welcome at one of Devon's most charming country house hotels
A porcine presence in the bar at The Pig at Combe.
I can't remember ever being more excited about a mini-break.
At the end of a tumultuous year, which is concluding with a longer-than-anticipated trip to the UK following the introduction of yet more draconian re-entry restrictions back in Hong Kong, the prospect of a couple of days of relaxation, fine wine and yummy food in a large manor house in the English countryside has me weeping tears of joy. Never has an overnight bag been packed faster.
I was booked for a stay at one of the UK’s infamous ‘Pig’ hotels, which are dotted around England’s prettiest southern counties. Over the years I’ve heard a lot about the Pigs, but brief trips to England over the last decade have never yielded an opportunity to slope off to try one.
My destination this time, The Pig at Combe, is nestled in the Otter Valley, overlooking more than 3,500 acres of Devon’s finest countryside. Think Four Weddings and a Funeral with a dash of Jane Austen.
The country house hotel is located within an Elizabethan manor in Devon.
The litter of Pig hotels is the brainchild of hoteliers Robin and Judy Hutson, who opened the first Pig in Brockenhurst in England’s leafy New Forest in Hampshire in 2011. The Pig at Combe, a Grade-I listed Elizabethan property and to which I was headed, joined the fold in 2016. Further siblings include The Pig near Bath, The Pig on the beach (Dorset), The Pig in the wall (Hampshire), The Pig at Bridge Place (Kent) and The Pig at Harlyn Bay (Cornwall). The word is that a further pig will be joining the porcine empire in 2021. Unfortunately current Covid restrictions in the UK mean that The Pig at Bridge Place is temporarily closed. Yes, we are all in tiers (sorry).
Comfortably shabby chic in style, the Pigs squeal rustic charm rather than Downton Abbey-esque extravagance. Think artfully mismatched antique fixtures and fittings, with stunning chandeliers sparkling over rugged-up bare board floors and squishy velvet sofas parked next to roaring open fires.
The Pig at Combe sits outside the charmingly thatched village of Gittisham and the mile-long driveway meanders its way through the stunning East Devon countryside until the honey-hued property comes into view.
Enjoying the '25-mile menu' in the main hotel restaurant.
Of course nowhere is immune to Covid these days and that includes 400-year-old country piles. On arrival, I’m met by a blackboard positioned by the large oak front door reminding guests that face masks are to be worn throughout the property. Likewise, hand sanitiser pump bottles have been positioned in strategic spots throughout the building.
Another pandemic-induced prohibitor means the receptionist is unable to show me my room, she can only guide me as far as the locked door. An unexpected result of Covid for me is that after a year of not really doing very much in the way of travel or hotel visits, I seem I have forgotten how to ‘mini-break’ and immediately manage to lock myself out.
However, once I’ve regained access via the friendly receptionist and her spare key, my room turns out to be stunning. The huge space is dominated by a clawfoot bath underneath the large stone mullioned windows hung with lavish floor to ceiling drapes, along with an open fireplace beside an oversize king bed. Sleek 21st century touches include a Nespresso coffee machine and a 'smart' TV hidden within a gold-framed mirror.
My stay turns out to be exactly how a good old-fashioned weekend house party should be, elegant but unpretentious, comfortable rather than formal - and with plenty of delicious food and well-shaken cocktails.
Dinner takes place in the main restaurant following Christmas cocktails by the open fire in the bar. Forget starched waiters and dressing for dinner, the Pig staff are comfortably decked out in Converse and jeans, with formality and fine dining replaced by friendly and competent service and a tasty menu using the best local and homegrown ingredients. Guests are invited to 'dress comfortably'.
An important feature of the Pigs are their kitchen gardens in which much of the produce for the restaurants is grown. At The Pig at Combe there are no fewer than three walled gardens, supplying the chefs with plenty of seasonal veggies and herbs. The ‘25-mile menu’ ensures produce that can’t be grown on-site is procured from local suppliers within a 25-mile radius as much as possible. My local plaice is beautifully complemented with Russian red kale and baby brown shrimp. Further menu options during my visit include Welsh lop pork chop, Darts Farm lamb rump, Elston Farm venison loin and Combe-reared pork shoulder. I particularly enjoy the ‘Piggy Bits’ sharing nibbles, including crispy pork belly strips with apple dipping sauce, pigs in blankets with cranberry dipping sauce and leek rarebit.
One of three walled herb and veggie gardens that supply the kitchens.
After a beautiful blue-sky first day, I wake the following morning to the wind howling inside the chimney breast and rain lashing those beautiful Elizabethan windows - the perfect excuse to pull-up the goose feather duvet and luxuriate in my huge bed listening to Christmas carols on Classic FM.
Well-rested, I wander down for a late breakfast booking looking forward to a good old-fashioned ‘cooked English’. The wait staff regretfully informed me that Covid had put paid to the usual breakfast buffet, everything must now be served-to-table. No matter, the plate deposited in front of me groaning with sausage, bacon, tomato, mushroom, eggs and black pudding is just what I had been hoping for.
The Potting Shed treatment rooms.
By late morning I’m heading off to the potting sheds at the back of the main house which have been cleverly and cosily converted into treatment rooms. Covid rules mean form-filling, a temperature check, mask-wearing throughout my treatment and a reduced massage experience. “I can only work on your back and your legs,” my lovely Italian therapist informs me, before sadly confiding after a bit of delving on my part that she is “hoping to return home to see her family in the Spring”. I must admit I shed a tear into my eye mask at this point. Oh, this pandemic…
However, she works wonders and an hour later as my hot stone massage comes to an end I feel more relaxed than I have done in a long time.
And so my 24-hour escape from the realities of 2020 comes to an end. I’m already planning a return trip for when our family is finally reunited. If you’re in the UK right now, a Pig mini-break is a perfect mood-lifter. Otherwise, if you're a Brit, these hotels would make an ideal location for a summer ‘homecoming’ celebration when the world (hopefully) opens up again.
There are three self-catering cottages on-site and most rooms inside the main house are large enough to fit a cot or extra bed.
The grounds are huge with plenty of opportunity for burning off pent-up lockdown energy. There’s a swing hanging from a cedar tree outside The Folly.
Children’s menus are available in the dining spaces.
I stayed mid-week in a Big Comfy Room with a super-king sized bed, walk-in monsoon shower and freestanding bath; prices for this room category start at GBP275 per night.
The Pig at Combe, Gittisham, Hontion, Devon, EX14 3AD, England.