Here I am, wafting about underneath a canopy of wisteria. It all looks very serene and idyllic, but don’t let appearances fool you! Just out of shot: a cockapoo eating the remains of a small dead bird, a three year-old trying to touch the remains of the aforementioned small dead bird, Mr AMR shouting at both the dog and the three year-old in an attempt to get them to leave the dead bird alone and a four year-old crying because her empty blackbird eggshell has broken again.
(The egg is called Layla. Everything seems to be called Layla in this house, from dinosaur torches to “precious” stones that have been unearthed from the flower bed. But now we also have the remains of a tiny egg, called Layla – it’s the smallest slither of impossibly delicate, pale blue shell. It started off as roughly two-thirds of an empty shell, but four year-olds have no concept of the word “fragile” and so within two seconds it became half of an empty egg and half a day later the majority of that had disintegrated too.)
Anyway. I read an article at the weekend that discussed something called “cottagecore” which apparently is a sort of romanticised vision of what people think their lives would be like if they lived in the country. Possibly in a tiny, wisteria-hung, seventeenth-century thatch cottage, making pots of jam on the AGA and securing little squares of red and white gingham over the tops of the jars with bits of old string.
Now I’m not one to shatter people’s dreams (I also don’t live in a cottage, so perhaps I don’t even count) but if you’re living in the city and tinkering with the idea of finding a remote abode somewhere and replacing your daily London commute with Zoom meetings plus a weekly office trip then note that:
a) you will never make jam, or if you do then you will make it only once
b) you will want to take a sledgehammer to your AGA within a matter of weeks
c) your thatch will have a bazillion insects and small, crawling animals living in it – think of it like Mr Twit’s beard, but with more activity
Oh, it’s easy to see country life as one big romp around the haystacks in a smocked white dress, but the reality is is that you’ll spend 90% of the time wearing your oldest tracksuit bottoms and mud-caked wellies, standing on the roof of your car in an attempt to find some mobile phone signal. And if you’re doing that then you’re probably trying to phone the oil people to come and fill your oil tank or the sewerage people to come and empty your septic tank or a roofer to come and repair your ancient roof.
I jest, of course. I am the most susceptible person ever to romanticised visions of pastoral life – how do you think I ended up here? And country life has much going for it – a slower, less frenetic pace, clean air, lots of space and greenery and wildlife, gorgeous old stone houses and picturesque #cottages – but dear God don’t think that you’ll suddenly turn into the sort of person who has time to make jam. Unless, that is, you’ve already got the time to make jam.
One of the biggest things I’ve realised, since moving to the sticks, is that plopping yourself somewhere geographically different, especially somewhere more remote, will not in itself automatically change your life. We moved from the outskirts of London to the depths of Somerset with a two year-old and a six month-old baby and for some reason, perhaps because I was postpartum and slightly crazed, I thought that by escaping to the country we would also escape the overwhelming intensity of our everyday lives. But if anything it made life harder. People (the three that we knew in our new county!) were suddenly more spread out – there was no peering out of the window on the offchance that we’d get a friendly wave – and each trip to the shops or a cafe or a baby class involved an epic loading and offloading of small children into the car, so much so that eventually I just didn’t bother.
And you think you won’t miss the bright lights of the city (“I never use the theatres anyway! Why pay such a premium to live in a city when I don’t even use it?”) but once you’ve unpacked all of your boxes in your remote Herefordshire manor house/Devonshire bothy and you’ve knitted your hemp blanket to keep the vegetable patch warm, won’t you be itching for just a little bit of excitement?
Just playing devil’s advocate! Don’t shoot the messenger!
It has taken me the good part of three years to get used to living in the countryside. Granted, I did double-whammy and moved the whole way across the country as well as going remote (what can I say? The house sang to me like a wanton temptress) but still. There are things to consider – things that don’t seem important at the time of moving, but will gradually creep up on you after the three month Honeymoon period is over.
It starts with a general sense of unease – a niggling feeling of is this it? – and then it grows, daily, until winter sets in and you feel the full, bleak force of untempered weather. Because there are no distractions, really, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere; you wake up and look outside and it’s all about the weather. In winter that means rain, rain, wind and a lot of mud. In a town, or in the city, you notice the weather but I feel as though it’s more of an inconvenience if it’s bad – and a huge bonus if it’s good. Life still goes on, streets have Christmas lights and stalls have mulled wine; but if there are no buzzing cafes, bustling pavements and nice shops, and your immediate entertainment involves walking, tending to the garden and more walking then… It’s a different way of life.
I now feel at peace with it, but it’s taken a while and I’m not afraid to admit it. I’ll also come out and say: it can be lonely. There.
So, people lusting after the cottagecore life; if you’re feeling isolated now, in lockdown, then it’s a good time to consider how you would feel with the slightly different level of ongoing isolation that living remotely brings. True, outside of lockdown you are free to socialise and visit family and meet friends at the local organic (“all meat is raised and butchered on the estate!”) pub but everything is slightly more effort. You don’t just pop out for a donder to the shops if you live in a hamlet – you pop out to walk the dog and yes, you see the owls taking flight as the sun goes down and you get to appreciate the sound of absolute, definitive silence as you lay your head on your pillow at night, but you have to ask yourself, would you miss the sound of human life around you?
If the answer is no then go full steam ahead with your #cottagecore dream. Have chickens pecking at your doorstep and dry your boots on the top of the AGA and lomp down to the river with the dog instead of queuing to get into the tube station at Holborn at rush hour. For me, the benefits of living in lots of space and peacefulness vastly outweigh the perks of the city, but then I did live in London for over a decade, then a few more years within easy commuting reach, and I feel as though I got my fix.
So who am I to tell you what you want? If the #cottagecore life seduces you and you find yourself on Rightmove then the best of luck – maybe I should write a guide on what to consider! Just don’t expect to make jam…
It normally takes me about two years to get around to writing up my hotel reviews (it’s well over a year, I think, since I visited the Bedruthan in Cornwall and I still have the notes fresh in my mind, as though I visited yesterday!) but I’m trying to be more organised and proactive and – why not? – reactive and so TA-DAH! here we are with a post that’s actually fresh in my mind and not from my ever-growing backlog of drafts.
What an intro.
Great. You don’t want to miss this one, especially if you enjoy the odd luxury weekend away somewhere rural but refined. Polished rural, I like to call it. It’s a thing. It’s all the bits of the countryside that people who are not from the countryside want to see, packaged up with deep, hot baths and fifty types of artisnal gin in the bar and a boot room stacked high with Hunter wellies. Hotels that are surrounded by gorgeous countryside, viewable through huge windows from a comfy chair, but that also have paths.
Because nobody would come to the real countryside, not for a luxury break. There’s nothing relaxing about a constant barrage of mud, psychopathic tractor drivers and wifi signal so weak and frustrating it makes you want to go at your own face with a cheese grater.
Obviously there are many good things about the countryside (clean air, slower pace of life, actual space), all I’m saying is that these country hotels (the good ones) manage to parcel up the country life experience so that you’d be forgiven for believing that anyone outside of the M25 spends most of the day either leaning against an AGA or throwing more logs on the fire. Rug on lap, dog at feet, glass of gin in hand and the firelight gently flickering as you read a romantic novel.
Anyway, the Newt In Somerset is the latest polished rural country house and by God do they do it well. This isn’t a hotel, it’s a destination – you could spend an entire day just going about the gardens, which are so splendid that non-guests actually pay to visit them. As a day trip.
They are magnificent, with acres of food-providing beds and orchards, wild areas, a deer park and a cutting edge, forward-thinking garden museum that you’d pay the entry price for alone.
So you have the gardens, which are an attraction in themselves, and then you have one of the most excellent spas in existence – so quiet, so instantly welcoming, so brilliantly designed – and a whole load of different places to eat and drink. Not in a “resort” sort of way, it’s not as though the place has themed restaurants popping up all over the shop, but you can climb up to the huge garden cafe that sits majestically on top op the lands, or you can have coffee in the greenhouse or dinner in the gloriously dark and sexy dining room…
The gym looks like the sort of gym very famous people would go to. I rarely mentions gyms, because WHY you would want to exercise on your relaxing break is beyond me, but this one is notable. The glass that fronts the entire building is formed from one sheet (the largest installed in the whole of Europe last year – geek fact) and it’s just spectacular. It’s no secret that I love a bit of elegant, streamlined modern architecture set against historic buildings and The Newt just do it so well.
It’s an absolute triumph in planning and design – like entering the world’s most perfect village, but if the village had been built by a perfectionist with unlimited budget. I can imagine it must have cost tens of millions of pounds. (The Daily Mail say 50 million, but hey. Pinch of salt, etc.)
And so to the main building, which is your classic Pride & Prejudice early Georgian affair, but with a cheeky little twist. In fact the twist happens before you even get through the door, because all of the woodwork (window frames, door frames) have been painted grey. It’s always a bit of a surprise when they’re not the usual off-white. Part of me hates it, that departure from the way things should be, but the other part of me admires the boldness. And it screams “we’ve done a shitload of work on this hotel – it’s basically a new build in an ancient shell!””
Which it is. The inside is immaculate, with huge panes of glass set against exposed stone walls (sound familiar? It’s like House Reno deja vu!) and bedroom walls and ceilings that are so flawlessly plastered you’d be hard pushed to tell you’re in an old house, until you go to the windows and see that they are the original sashes. The bedroom was borderline too clean for me, finish-wise – spots set into the ceiling, shining out through peepholes cut into the plasterboard, and pristine furniture, but on the other hand there’s no denying that this gives everything a really high-end feel. There’s no shabbiness – no worn leather armchair or frayed rug, none of your ubiquitous country house edge, but if there was then perhaps it would feel a little too much like the hotels that are already well established in providing a luxurious rural bolthole.
In short: go to The Newt if you’re after a countryside break. I can’t see how you’d regret it. Plenty to do, plenty to eat (and there’s a garden-to-fork philosophy, so a vast proportion of the ingredients have zero air miles and are just about as nice as you can get them) and bedrooms you’d happily live in. Make sure you do the spa and the garden museum and absolutely factor in a trip to nearby Bruton, which has the Hauser & Wirth gallery and is cute as a button. Within twenty minutes you have the market town Frome (the most “woke” town in the UK, apparently) and Wells, which is the UK’s smallest city but has an absolutely epic Cathedral. Or, you know, just lounge about at The Newt and drink their cider and eat snacks.
You can find more info on The Newt here – rooms start at £255 per night. No dogs allowed, which is also something that sets this hotel apart. Most country offerings are heaving with dogs, which is both lovely and at the same time annoying, depending on where you stand with dogs. The Newt do accept children, which is both lovely and at the same time – oh, you know the drill.