Having gadded about the country for a bit, Tom and I booked ourselves into a Landmark Trust property in deepest Devon for the last week of our holiday.
We discovered the Trust last year, and delighted in staying in the 16th century Swarkestone Pavilion for a weekend. No internet, no TV, no immediate neighbours… absolute heaven. We chose Shute Gatehouse near Axminster this time as it’s a bit bigger (it sleeps five), and being starved of space in our otherwise-lovely little London flat can get quite trying. It’s a very different kind of luxury to the hotels we’ve been staying in recently. More spartan, obviously, and Tom has been trekking over the not-inconsiderable hill to the nearest village every other day for supplies, but just as lovely in a different way. It’s wonderfully relaxing to be so isolated, and to have complete agency over our time.
Before arriving, however, we didn’t have time/ forgot to read the information pack, so spent one freezing night wrapped in blankets and staring at the smokeless-fuel-only wood-burner (there was no smokeless-fuel provided), and then a second freezing night wrapped in blankets staring at the it-only-lights-with-fire-lighters-you-idiots fuel we’d bought (we didn’t read the instructions on the smokeless-fuel either, so didn’t get firelighters). Finally, on our third day, we united smokeless fuel and firelighters and got the wood-burner cheerfully flickering with warmth.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time staring at the ceiling so far. Not out of yellow-wallpaper madness, but because it is captivatingly beautiful. Although the gatehouse was built by William Pole in 1560, when he bought the nearby Shute Barton, the Jacobean plasterwork that currently adorns the ceiling was acquired more recently from the North Devon County Council. Don’t worry, it was taken from a house in Barnstaple that had been demolished in the 1930s, it wasn’t ripped from a National Trust house on the sly. “So… how long would it take to do that?” Tom asked, feigning an innocuous tone. Sigh. “I could do it. It’s only plaster. But it would take me a long time to perfect the design, and I’d have to look into the process of creating moulds and securing it to the ceiling as I don’t know enough about it” I replied. “Oh, that’s alright – you’re good at that sort of thing” he responded. I guess I’ll be ornately plastering all the ceilings in our house when we finally buy one then. Could be worse.
Anyway, to celebrate the long-awaited immolation of our bricks of desiccated peat (smokeless-fuel), we decided to head into Axminster to have lunch at the River Cottage Canteen. A pilgrimage, and one which did not disappoint.
Tom and I are big fans of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottaging exploits. Particularly the early series, A Cook on the Wild Side, in which he transformed a landrover into a travelling kitchen, flirted his way around the UK and slept under a boat. This was TV gold, and should not readily be forgotten, as these were the days when Hugh was experimenting with youthful, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and his meals often turned out wonderfully shit. It’s great watching him eat them.
Hugh with a fish (image source here)
His focus on conservation, organic produce and back-to-basics philosophy really appeals to us, and I’ve often mentioned his recipes and ideas in former blog posts (though of course I’ve given them my own twist.) As we happened to be staying nearby, therefore, we decided to pop in.
River Cottage Canteen and Deli is located in bustling Axminster. The space is airy and light, and the metal lighting-frame suspended above you contributes to a sense of being in a particularly clean barn (a barn also full of cider, which sounds like the best kind of barn doesn’t it). The menu was varied, and impressed us both, which is pretty good considering we are a carnivore and a vegetarian-who-eats-crustaceans team.
For a starter I went for the Portland Crab on Toast, Boiled Egg and Tartare Sauce. It looked great when it arrived, crisply presented and a nice combination of colours and textures, and it tasted even better. Tom had the Higher Hacknell Ham Hock and Fava Bean Broth, which disappeared before I even had time to enquire after it (it was good, evidently). For a main I chose the Double Baked Goats Cheese and Walnut Souffle, with Spiced Celeriac, Pearl Barley Broth and Parsley Pesto. It was almost too good; mind-blowingly well thought-out and detailed for a vegetarian dish. Tom had two starters for a main course, the Portland Crab on Toast and a Smoked and Cured Venison with Hazelnut and Apple Dressing. Despite preferring his meat red Tom actually favoured the crab dish, which is testament to its excellence. Although I enjoy good food I’m really not a ‘food person’, so I’ll sum it up without being too effusive : every aspect of the meal – the flavours, the textures, the presentation, the service – was of the highest quality.
It’s a beautiful part of the country, and will be even more spectacular when the floodwaters recede. Hopefully before too many more buildings are swallowed by the rising tide.
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