Only a few minutes’ drive from the famous Stourhead Gardens, a veritable jewel in the crown of the National Trust and about an hour from the picturesque town of Bath, read on to learn why Coppice Retreat is the perfect location for couples looking for a taste of the good life.
With River Cottage HQ an hour and a half away and free range eggs available down any country lane, this is a great place for a foodie getaway. And, although the kitchen at Coppice Retreat fits neatly onto just one wall, it is so cleverly designed and equipped with all the essentials, it allows for some proper home-cooking away from home. There are John Lewis mugs and an Alessi cafetière and the best knives we’ve ever encountered in a self-catering property so, you can really get stuck into some luxury cooking. Or, if that’s not your thing, the oven is also a microwave so you can treat yourself to some convenience food. Well, you are on holiday, after all!
The studio is light and airy, with oodles of natural light from the numerous double glazed windows (from The Green Building Store). French doors open onto a small veranda, which overlooks a private lawned garden, which guests can enjoy. In summer, you can dine alfresco on the decking whilst enjoying a spot of bird-watching. We stayed in autumn, so it was a bit too chilly for outdoor dining but thanks to the environmentally-friendly insulation, we were nice and toasty indoors and we still enjoyed the bird-watching literally on our doorstep: we just did it through the windows.
For discerning travellers looking for eco-conscious hosts, you can rest assured that Gabriella and Neil have adhered to their personal principles in this conversion and in the way they run their holiday accommodation. In addition to the provision of environmentally friendly cleaning products, the studio boast greater eco-credentials: it is well insulated and there is energy efficient light; electricity is generated via PV panels and much of the hot water used is heated by solar tubes. Our hosts demonstrated an awareness of the neighbouring wildlife, which comes as standard in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and were able to suggest interesting local walks right from their doorstep.
An added touch of luxury, which is very much in keeping with Gabriela’s style, is the provision of locally produced organic soaps by Enchanted Plants. We were so impressed with the toiletries that we paid a visit to the shop in Shaftesbury but, guests don’t even have to do that as Gabriela will sell you gift bags at the studio.
Another lovely touch was the quality of the ingredients in the welcome pack: organic bread made by the local Vicar’s wife and sold at the delightful Semley Village Stores, organic milk and butter and mini jars of Ajar of jam, whose Blueberry Thrill jam was a delight.
We happened upon Semley Village Stores by chance and thought it uber-chic with its heritage colours and extensive array of local, fair trade and organic produce. We were charmed when tables were set up for us to breakfast outside (so we could sit with our dog) – and even more so when a packet of decaf tea was opened just for me when it had, moments earlier, been sitting on the shelf as part of the shop’s stock. It was only later that we discovered the shop is a community initiative run by volunteers, which not only impressed us further, but made us want to move to Semley!
We whiled away a rainy day, enjoying the kaleidoscopic colours of Stourhead Gardens in autumn, taking photographs for our portfolio and enjoying this very special season and we also enjoyed some great walks right from the doorstep.
Later in the week, we enjoyed some unseasonably excellent warm, sunny weather in Lyme Regis where we ‘divided and conquered’, with the male contingent from our party going fossil-hunting (and fulfilling a life-long ambition) whilst I explored the old town and discovered a gem of a shop selling jewellery (no pun intended), and an enchanting spot in a remembrance garden, where I was able to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet and soak up the sun. It was hard to believe that only two days previously we had woken to snow!
Not that the weather affected our holiday in the slightest. We found it surprising just how fabulous a holiday there was to be had in Dorset in November. Visiting Bath on a snowy Sunday made us feel quite Christmassy and our Sunday lunch at The Marlborough Tavern (just round the corner from the Royal Crescent) ensured we were full of good cheer. It would appear that Bath is recession proof for we saw many shops whose branches have closed in the North of England, still trading in Bath. It strikes me as a great place to do some Christmas shopping with a mix of independent shops, high street brands and great names like, Joules.
The last planned stop on our whistlestop tour of Dorset, Wiltshire and a tiny bit of Devon was to be River Cottage. Had we saved the best until last?
Well, I’m delighted to say that we had. But, before going to River Cottage HQ for a private tour and photo shoot, we were off to sample the delights of the River Cottage Canteen at Axminster. We were greeted by Tim, and shown to a table in the lovely light and airy back room behind the deli – yes, the bit you see on the telly. The menu changes daily and is on environmentally-friendly blackboards (no paper menus) with another blackboard listing the provenance of the main ingredients: Mussels from Exmouth, fish from Lyme Bay, that kind of thing: uber-local ingredients in fact.
I started with an aperitif, whilst we savoured the delicious home-made bread, whilst anticipating our mouth-watering starters: mine the delicious, warming roast squash, apple and sage soup and my husband’s the scrumpy battered cauliflower with herb mayonaisse.
I am always keen to try new recommendations for sustainably sourced fish so, unsurprisingly, I opted for the Red Gurnard for my main course, which was served on a bed of fennel, leek, spinach and new potatoes dressed in lemon butter. The aroma greeting me as the dish was served tantalised my tastebuds into getting ready for action and they were not disappointed: the white flaky fish fillets were cooked and seasoned to perfection. This is the sort of food which is well worth over an hour’s drive to enjoy. My main course was accompanied by some lively, refreshing River Cottage elderflower wine, which tasted of summer and brought a smile to my face. I was fortunate enough to be able to also try the Exmouth mussels which were large and juicy and cooked with diced apples in white wine: heavenly!
There was a great choice of tempting desserts using seasonal produce. I plumped for the roast plum with walnut crumble and lemon cream and I wasn’t disappointed. The poached pear with thyme shortbread also got a ‘thumbs up’ from us, and the cinnamon ice cream which accompanied it was just sublime. Whilst we could have happily whiled away the rest of the afternoon soaking up the atmosphere and drinking tea and coffee, alas, on this occasion, we had no time for we were due at River Cottage HQ for a grand tour.
The setting for River Cottage could not be more idyllic, nestling as it does in the gently rolling countryside, with stunning views in all directions. As we made our way down the track, we met Hugh’s sheep and sighed deeply as we took in the stunning vista.
Just as we arrived at the cottage, we saw Hugh leaving. We later learned that he was there to prepare for the filming of the latest Channel 4 ‘Mash up’. None of the chaos that usually goes along with filming (and film crews) seemed evident and our tour, which incorporated the gardens, the cookery school, function room and animal enclosures (including a spot of duck-sexing), culminated in a visit to the kitchen and dining room where we were allowed to photograph the crew – and the now famous kitchen.
In February, there was a devastating fire at River Cottage and the barn, which housed the function room and cookery school, was destroyed. Happily, this did not deter the team from delivering their courses and hosting beautiful weddings and, after we’d surveyed the remains of the barn (now encased in scaffolding) we were treated to a tour of the marquees which now host the newly separated function/cookery school areas.
Unsurprisingly, given the stunning view from the marquee, at least one ‘happy couple’ has requested the marquee for their ‘big day’ in favour of the Barn and, I have to say, I don’t blame them one bit. On a sunny day, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather celebrate someone’s nuptials.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to attend River Cottage’s cookery school, you can see it now on the Channel 4 series ‘Three Good Things’ and you will get a really good idea of the space. Despite its temporary nature, the school has everything you need and I for one can’t wait to return and enroll on a course.
And, that was meant to be the last of our holiday experiences… However, the glorious sunshine which greeted us on our last morning tempted us to delay our journey home and instead, we headed for Pythouse Kitchen Garden in Wiltshire. We were so glad we did! What a treasure of a place: a romantic walled-garden oozing with late flowering blooms. We meandered up and down the rows of veggies and then explored the shop and enjoyed an early lunch at the café – opting to sit outside and soak up what were possibly the last decent rays of sunshine of the year. What a fabulous way to end a most remarkable holiday – and one which we would whole-heartedly recommend.
Coppice Retreat, please visit: http://www.thecoppiceretreat.co.uk/enquiries
Internal photos of Coppice Retreat, by kind permission of Neil Baird: http://www.alljustpixels.com/
To book a table for dinner at the Axminster Canteen, go to:http://www.rivercottage.net/canteens/online-booking/ (No bookings required for lunch)
To learn what’s on at the River Cottage Cookery School, visit:http://www.rivercottage.net/cookery-school/
For more ideas of things to do in Dorset, go to: http://www.visit-dorset.com/things-to-do