There’s a lot to be said for taking a January staycation: avoiding winter cabin fever post-Christmas, a chance to enjoy quaint English country towns in their wintery finest, and discovering cosy boltholes to curl up. Boutique hotel At the Chapel in Bruton, Somerset, located just a two and a half hour drive from London, offers exactly such an escape and does so within what must be one of the most beautiful settings: an immaculately restored 17th-century chapel, which seamlessly blends contemporary luxury and home comforts.
Converted by owners Catherine Butler and her partner Ahmed Sidki, a furniture designer, this super-stylish hotel opened in 2008 and now has eight bedrooms. As well as functioning as a hotel, At the Chapel is (importantly) part restaurant, part wine store, and part artisan bakery. Locals (including Dominic West, I hear) regularly pile in for takeway stone-baked pizzas, film screenings and their weekly Thursday night talks which range is subject from poetry, music and literature, to film and architecture. The film director Julien Temple also sometimes hosts informal film screenings in the downstairs lounge. This place seems to lie at the heart of Bruton’s community and its bohemian intellectual spirit – which definitely reminds me somewhat of a rural mini Notting Hill.
Upon entering the heavy wooden doors of At the Chapel, you immediately feel awed by the building: two original arched windows in the restaurant space lie ahead, against a soaring high ceiling, suspended bauble lighting and tall church candles, whilst underneath are wooden tables with calfskin chairs. It’s an immaculate restoration and whilst the sense of history is palpable, the look is contemporary, with exquisite furniture.
After our very friendly welcome, we were shown to Bedroom 6 on the first floor. This south-facing room is the kind of space one could live in, with antique restored dark wooden floorboards and light pouring in from the shuttered window which offers views onto the beautiful Somerset landscape. It’s very picture postcard and testament to the medieval makeup of this town: looking out onto Dovecote, you can see the Church of St Mary. Built in the 12th century, this is one of the earliest churches in England, founded by King Ine in the 7th century AD.
The bathroom feels like utter luxury. With underfloor heated grey-marble tiles, a freestanding bath and walk-in shower, Ren toiletries and views of the local church, it’s the kind of bathroom you which you had in your home.
Before heading out, we enjoyed an afternoon coffee and freshly baked scone in what feels like the heart of this place: the beautifully restored chapel restaurant which doubles as an all-day café for hotel dwellers and locals alike. This buzzing space manages to effortlessly combine the old and new and is bursting with energy from breakfast to dinner. In the gallery space at the top, the white minimalist walls display a rotation of modern artworks by local artists. The colourful current works are by Luke Piper. It’s all very creative.
Our well-made coffees felt totally artisan and judging from the artfully lined up bags of coffee beans on the bakery shelf, this is something they rightly pride themselves on. Made with oat milk, my latte was creamy yet robust: it was exactly the kind of 4pm afternoon caffeine boost we needed.
My companion’s scone, served with homemade strawberry jam and clotted cream, equally matched its surroundings. A golden bake with a delicately sweet, buttery aroma, the scone had that fresh-out-the-oven appeal. Crumbly in all the right ways, each well-risen half formed the perfect carrier for thick lashings of clotted cream. Though it could’ve done with the addition of raisins for added texture and depth of flavour, the sweet yet savoury aroma resembled the crust of a loaf of freshly baked bread. I now understand why the bakery lies at the heart of this village and for £1.50 (to eat in) the scone felt like an absolute steal!
For our first excursion in Bruton, we made our way to Westcombe Dairy, a small artisan dairy maker, which is a 10 minute drive away from the town. Specialising in traditional Cheddar and other West Country cheeses, the cheeses are made using unpasteurised milk from their own cows. As well as supplying cheese to Waitrose, they also supply to Neal’s Yard: this is clearly quality cheese. Following notification from At the Chapel that we were en route, we were warmly welcomed by Paul who gave us a private tour of the factory, the storeroom and offered us tastings of their Unpasteurised Cheddar, Duckett’s Aged Caerphilly and Somerset Ricotta.
The cheeses didn’t disappoint: though Cheddar is one of the most efficient forms of cheeses to mass produce, hence why it was the only cheese allowed during the wars, the cheddars here had a totally unique flavour that set them apart from any other supermarket offerings. With a softer texture than other Cheddars, the batch tried had a warm, round flavour, balancing milkiness and juicy acidity very well.
In creating something so unique, Westcombe Dairy seems to be capturing or creating the taste of Somerset. Indeed, Paul explained that their ambition is to develop a sense of “terroir”, a terminology borrowed from wine-making, to connote how a particular region’s climate, soils, aspect (terrain) and makers themselves affect taste. Contextualising food and drink in such a way makes total sense to me: the same dish, cooked by different chefs, tend to taste totally different. As my mum as always tells me, the mood of the maker affects flavour.
A trip here, together with one of their guided tours, is totally recommended.
After enjoying a bath in the luxury bathroom back in Bedroom 6, we went down for dinner into the now candlelit chapel area. I’d been persuaded to visit At the Chapel so that I could spend a long evening in their restaurant and try their wood-fired pizzas! So popular are their pizzas that on Friday and Saturday evenings, they tend to make up to 150 to cater for the popular takeaway trade. Why you would not choose to dine on this ecclesiastical site, though, is a mystery. The terroir of this restaurant definitely adds to the enjoyment of the pizzas, as does the view of the open kitchen. Lots of locals also seem to visit the bar area for a glass or two of their impressive wine selection, alongside their delicious bar snacks such as the tasty and freshly made parsnip and kale crisps and foccacia with olive oil.
With so many good options on the menu, my companion and I shared two pizzas: Taleggio, field mushrooms, thyme (£11.25); and Buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomato and basil (£8.50), with added wood-roasted artichokes. In sum, they were definitely worth the two and a half hour drive! My companion rated these pizzas, particularly our bianco, as one of the best they’ve tasted. Not only were the ingredients quality, particularly the fresh and enormously cut woody Portobello mushrooms, but the bases were a triumph and testament to the skills of the bakers here who I learn bake through the night from 10pm. The unique feature of these pizzas seems to be their crusty finish which gives these sourdough pizzas a focaccia-like finish. The tallegio on the pizza bianco was also an eye-opener: with a pungent flavour, this soft cheese had an interesting aromatic, fruity note which complemented the thyme seasoning very well.
To share alongside, we could resist a small plate of Bagborough goat’s curd, beetroot, orange and walnut (£8.50), a Mixed leaf salad (£3.75), and garlic and rosemary Pink Fir Apple potatoes (£4). The goat’s curd, with it’s medium sweet flavour, sat alongside the beetroot very well. My companion, meanwhile, loved the well-seasoned and perfectly roasted baby potatoes, whilst the green salad offered just the kind of freshness you need alongside pizzas.
For afters, I enjoyed the most refreshing Lemon and mint sorbet (£6), which was the perfect palette cleanser after all that cheese. The pungent scoops reminded me of a peppermint tea in sorbet form! Opting for something locally sourced, my companion couldn’t resist the Westcombe ricotta, lemon, almond cake with vanilla gelato (£7). Nutty, grainy, and not overly sweet, the cake felt very grown-up. Our meal left us very well-fed.
In the morning, still-warm croissants are either left at your door or you can go down to the restaurant to enjoy which is exactly what we did, wanting to be in the heart of the action once again. Alongside, I enjoyed a banana milkshake made with soy milk, banana and honey. Although I felt like a big kid, sipping on a milkshake in a hotel, my drink left me with a big smile and was the perfect accompaniment to my perusal of their impressive magazine spread, featuring Vogue, Elle and the very-well curated to Cereal journal.
When you’re hear, don’t miss exploring Bruton itself with its undercurrent of creativity and a hippyish sub-culture. Modern art gallery Hauser & Wirth is a five-minute drive away and has a wonderful-looking restaurant, Roth Bar & Grill. Their salad counter looked fantastic. Equally good, I hear, are their hot chocolates which local dog-walkers come here for!
The shopping in Bruton is noteworthy too. Particularly charming is Caro, a Sandi-style home accessories store, which sells trinkets such as luxury beauty products, including the Austin Austin brand, as well as charming kitchenware and tiffins, and beautiful leather satchels.
Caro also sell their own chocolate with impressive and unique flavours such as Earl Grey & Biscuit, and Black Pepper, Almond & Pine Nut. When I heard these were made in partnership with Somerset-based chocolatier, the Chocolate Society, a brand which is sold in Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Liberty, I couldn’t resist a quick stop there, which is about a 10 minute drive away, on our way back. I highly recommend their slabs of dark chocolate with sea salt and whole almonds.
I love that this corner of the countryside has a bohemian edge and At the Chapel seems to lie at the heart of this wider bonhomie. It’s beautiful, trendy and immediately welcoming.
At the Chapel, 28 High Street, Bruton, BA10 0A3