The premise was simple: create a country house hotel for the modern day with accessible rates that disrupted this quintessentially British tradition and broadened its demographic. Little wonder The Pig hotels have been such a success since the first opened in the New Forest in 2011.
Gone were the stuffy trappings of its forebears – the curtain swags and pelmets, the chintz and sombre dining rooms – and in their place, a celebration that tapped into the trend for the simple, seasonal and provincial, the heart beating from an informal restaurant serving produce from within a 25-mile radius. The average occupancy for the five-strong mini chain is now an impressive 90 per cent, something that plenty of its ageing peers must surely aspire to.
So how has The Pig flown from sty to sky in just six years? From its first location close to sister hotel Lime Wood in the New Forest, the group has spread over county borders into Dorset, Somerset and, with this, Devon. There is also a Sussex Pig to look forward to later in the year.
Certainly, the most recent opening is the most ambitious. Hitherto, co-owner Robin Hutson had snapped up under-the-radar, failing or failed properties. However, the Devon acquisition – Combe House, one of the UK’s first country house hotels – was a fully functioning, and still admired, hotel until the day the keys were handed over by husband and wife Ken and Ruth Hunt.
Crucially, there was a legacy to respect. The current Grade I-listed Elizabethan building contains medieval remnants, but essentially this is classic country manor territory: a mile-long drive through 3,500 acres of parkland and heavy doors opening onto wooden panelling, oil paintings, a soaring stained glass window, flagstone floors, decorative reliefs, terraced gardens and sweeping views of the east Devon countryside.
The Hunts had run the hotel since 1998, building up a reputation for their warm welcome and personal touch. But properties of this scale can be draining both physically and financially and the Hunts came to the decision to approach Hutson and his wife Judy, who transforms the interiors, before retiring to Australia last year.
Having visited Combe House several years ago, I was heartened to find the decor only subtly reworked in Pig style – heavy sage velvet curtains across the double-height sash windows, botanical print wallpaper, plenty of sage and mink velvet sofas and a library of National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1960s.
The public spaces have been reworked, the dining rooms converted to cosy sitting rooms with crackling fires and the restaurant now in former offices, opened up to maximise bucolic views from the windows, one of which had been blocked – so the story goes – because a former owner hadn’t liked his staff to see him counting his money. However, while all the other Pig dining rooms spill into conservatories fertile with potted herbs and climbers, here the horticultural aesthetic jars slightly in the baronial setting.
This begs the question whether The Pig is becoming a formula. I’m told the Hutsons have been bruised by the notion and are keen to reinforce that it is not, but rather a philosophy for which Judy hand-sources thousands of individual pieces from brocantes in France and further afield.
The scale of their ambition is evident at Combe. An early 19th-century carriage house and stable blocks, previously used as staff accommodation, have been converted into rustic-luxe accommodation not seen at other Pigs. The orangery, once empty and purely ornamental under soaring cedar trees, is now The Folly, a “derelict chic” dining room serving wood-fired pizzas during the day and available for private dining at night. Personally I think it a shame not to keep it open for dinner, given the average stay is two nights.
And what of those accessible rates? There remains a commitment to maintain a diverse clientele, from those who can easily afford the best rooms to those that have saved up to have a night in the smallest – some are available for under £200, others go for up to £335 a night. But there’s one subtle giveaway that the Pig’s demographic has stepped up a notch: a discreet ‘H’ plotted in the lawn outside the main entrance, barely visible – unless you’re hovering at 8,000ft beneath the whirring of rotor blades. The Pig is most definitely flying.
The hotel is in the village of Gittisham, around 10 minutes’ drive from Honiton in the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and four hours’ drive from London. The Otter Valley and seaside towns of Beer and Seaton are all within easy reach, while the regency resort of Lyme Regis in Dorset is around half an hour’s drive away.
The Pig at Combe, Gittisham, Honiton, Devon EX14 3AD (01404 540400; thepighotel.com/at-combe). Double rooms start at £145, room only.
Access: There are two wheelchair accessible bedrooms