Since its opening in July, this elegant yet modern country house hotel near Honiton, Devon, has swiftly become as popular with guests and critics as each of its four other siblings. Janet Harmer pays a visit
Bookings at the Pig at Combe, the 27-bedroom, Grade I-listed Elizabethan property, near Honiton, in Devon, speak for themselves. Occupancy during August reached 96% – an astonishing figure for a new opening. In fact, all of the Pig hotels are virtually full all year round and together achieve an annual revenue of nearly £20m.
The Pig brand first appeared in 2011 with the launch by Home Grown Hotels of its first property, near Brockenhurst, in the heart of the New Forest. There are many components that came together to create its success: the hotel’s kitchen garden, which provides abundant, fresh produce for a menu which is simple in execution and packed with flavour; the laid-back, cosy environment, where traditional hotel rules are replaced by an inclusive, anything-goes attitude; and an engaging team, which at Combe is led by general manager Fiona Moores and head chef Dan Gavriilidis.
And then there is the shabby chic design, which has had a far-reaching and quite extraordinary impact upon the wider hotel sector. Many an operator has openly referenced the Pig as the key design inspiration behind their own hotel.
Along with fellow director David Elton, Robin Hutson is the well-known and frequently profiled creative force behind the Pig, but his wife, Judy, plays an equally central role in the look of the brand – something which occasionally overwhelms her: “I’m very flattered that so many people are inspired by what we do – many guests treat it like a museum and take pictures all the time – but it also flabbergasts me,” she says. “I sometimes think, what have we created? After all, what Rob and I do is really just an extension of our own home. I don’t take praise easily and hate being the centre of attention. I just get on and do it.”
The fact that Judy, who grew up in Wolverhampton and met her future husband in a bar in Crete, does it at all is somewhat serendipitous.
At the time that Robin, together with Gerard Basset, was creating the first Hotel du Vin in Winchester, she was working as an occupational therapist but feeling disillusioned.
“Rob suggested I got involved with the new hotel, and at the start I was very much the layman, working alongside the interior designer, Lisa Crewe-Reid, and trompe l’oeil artist Christopher Boulter,” she says.
From there, Judy went on to design the bedrooms at the second Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells in Kent and then the subsequent properties in the brand until Robin and Basset sold the business in 2004.
Several independent interior design projects then followed, including the Peat Spade Inn in Longstock, Hampshire, and hotel Crillon le Brave in Provence, France.
The total cost of opening the Pig at Combe has been £10.5m, which has included the acquisition of the lease from the 3,500-acre Combe Estate, an extension of the lease to 80 years and the refurbishment.
“I love the challenge of working to a budget,” says Judy. “If I see an expensive piece of furniture or fabric I like, I will very often look for something similar, but cheaper Work on what was previously known as Combe House hotel, which had been operated by Ken and Ruth Hunt since 1998, started in October 2015. In every interior design project she has undertaken, Judy has taken inspiration from the building and the immediate locality. While the look is not overly proscribed – she wants it to feel like a well-loved home that has evolved over time, rather than feel ‘designed’– there are distinctive touch-points, such as the wooden floors, mismatched chairs and faded fabrics throughout.
The Devon hotel is the first in the group where Judy has not created the interior with a fictional character in mind. In Brockenhurst, Great Aunt Maud, who lived in knitted cardigans and was surrounded by dogs, inspired the original hotel. She was followed by her sisters, Great Aunt Cecily and Great Aunt Dora, each with their different idiosyncrasies, which helped Judy select the fabrics and furnishings for the Bath and Beach properties respectively.
“At Combe I thought I would work around a character called Great Uncle Julien, but I then discarded him,” says Judy. With or without a character, the design of the Pig at Combe is just as much of a hit as the earlier properties. The key difference is that this is a grander building with larger rooms to fill. “I wanted it to be slightly different and have an element of surprise,” she says.
Judy’s starting point for the design of each room was the curtain fabric, and that generally reflects or has some connection to the view from the window. “Many friends tell me that they start with the colour of the walls, but I think that is a much harder way to decorate a room,” she says.
The fabrics are from a variety of designers and, unsurprisingly, given the rural location of all the hotels, often feature botanical prints.
“One company’s fabric may work in one hotel and not another – it often depends on the view,” she says. The paint throughout is from Paint & Paper Library and Little Greene, chosen for their “nice, chalky palette”.
The look of the Pig at Combe began to come together in September 2015 with a visit to Decorex International, the annual interior design exhibition at Syon Park, west London. “It is a great way to meet small, independent designers. Many don’t have a showroom, so there is no other way I would find them. I do use wellknown designers, such as Designers Guild and Zoffany, but I also like to work with new designers, such as Sarah Hardaker.”
For instance, Decorex led Judy to Scottish designers Timorous Beasties, and a wallpaper produced by the company is used in the drawing room. Judy also visits trade fair Maison & Objets in Paris, every January and September, for ideas and leads. “It is particularly good for mirrors and ornaments,” she says.
The eclectic collection of furniture, dominated by generously proportioned and squishy sofas, has become a recognisable feature of all the Pigs, and Robin and Judy continually collect pieces from antique shops. Between projects, everything is stored at Clayhill, the head office of Home Grown Hotels and sister hotel Lime Wood, near Lyndhurt, Hampshire.
Broken pieces are repaired, while others are reimagined into something new. “We stop off at places as we travel between the hotels, and for Combe, we bought antique and bric a brac from odd shops in and around Honiton and in Somerset. And we always keep a big stack of vintage crockery, cups, platters and cutlery, so we’ve always got replacements.”
Bedrooms at Combe are split between the main building – a traditional Elizabethan E-shaped property, centred around two wings – and various outbuildings. Most are larger than the bedrooms in the other Pig hotels, with many having the feel of a suite, with the addition of sofas and coffee tables. “I’ve had to fill the space, but not too much, I still wanted to them to have a sense of airiness,” says Judy.
But before Judy could decide on what fabrics and furnishings to use, some of the larger bedrooms – particularly in the attic space, where a new bedroom was created – required the input of Robin, working with Ian Venn of PWP Architects to decide on the configuration of the spaces. “Rob has an amazing vision in deciding on the layout of a room and where the bed should go for maximum impact,” she says.
For instance, the Attic room – a long, narrow space – had a false wall added to divide it up and against which the bed was positioned to provide the best view out the window. Wardrobes were created in the eaves, while some walls were left as bare brick and others were clad in tongue and groove panelling.
A new addition to the bedrooms at Combe is the throws on the beds. “I’ve not used them before, but the size of the rooms here can take the extra punch of colour,” says Judy.
Even more colour is provided by lampshades made from vintage saris, the cushions, and velvet chairs and sofas. Individual touches include antique cupboards adapted to take fridges and the necessary larder facilities, and antique-style mirrors which double up as televisions. Sisal carpet is used in bedrooms located over public areas, and others feature oak floors and oriental rugs.
For the outbuildings, which include a former stables, Judy had a different starting point for her design – wool blankets from Yorkshire, used as throws. Cushions here have been made in complementary vintage fabrics by Sunbeam Jackie, which also supplied the parasols in the garden.
The extensive space in both the Hayloft and Horsebox has allowed the addition of kitchen areas created from reclaimed wood, built around a cream Smeg fridge. The Horsebox, in particular, is a creative triumph, with the original horse stalls to partition separate areas of the suite.
The public areas
Guests arriving at the Pig at Combe will quickly discover that this is a hotel that encourages you to have a good time. Thanks to Robin’s vision, the dark-panelled Great Hall – previously a refined entrance space and sitting room, has been re-imagined as a vibrant bar.
A sofa featuring a red floral fabric from Andrew Martin has informed the colouring of the bar front, while coloured vintage glasses in the windows add warmth during the day as the sun pours through. Quirky touches abound, from the giant pig above the fireplace to the whimsical trompe l’oeil paintings on the upper section of the walls.
This is a hotel with plenty of space for guests to relax. Alongside the bar, there is also a library and a drawing room, where great slabs of Victoria sandwich, filled with home-made jam and clotted cream, are served in place of a refined afternoon tea.
“All of these spaces are large, so I’ve had to think carefully about groupings of chairs to be able to accommodate as many guests as possible, without feeling overcrowded,” says Judy.
Original features have been restored, including the carved fireplace and door frames by Thomas Chippendale Jnr, while many items of furniture and some artwork and chandeliers have been retained from the estate.
The Grade I-listed status of the building prevented the Hutsons from adding a conservatory restaurant, something that has become a trademark for the Pig, so instead, two separate rooms, which previously operated as a lounge and function room, were opened up and turned into a restaurant that has the feel of a garden room.
It is perhaps here more than anywhere, that the “millions of touch-points” that Robin so often refers to as being essential to the Pig’s success are apparent. The previously high-polished and dark-stained panelling have been stripped back and lightened, while the furniture, glasses and cutlery reflect the countless hours the couple have spent hunting through antique stores. A collection of bugs and butterflies brought together over many years have finally found a home here.
One new buy is oak leaf chandeliers and wall lights from Richard Taylor.
Realising the potential of unused spaces is undoubtedly one of Robin’s key strengths, and he has employed it to maximum use in the creation of the Folly from a building in the grounds, which was once used for storing lawnmowers. A wood-fired oven has been installed, alongside long wooden tables, benches and chairs – both inside and outside – to provide an additional all-day eating space.
It is also used as private dining space along with the Georgian dining room inside the main building. Apart from the addition of windows, the installation of oversized lampshades sourced from Maison & Objets and minimal painting,
little has been done here in terms of design.
The place buzzes and is a great success. “We call it ‘derelict chic’,” laughs Judy.
Future plans With demand so high for bedrooms, the addition of three extra keys from the conversion of a Devon thatched longhouse in the grounds early in 2017 will be a welcome addition. Each unit will have two bedrooms and a small kitchen and will be aimed at groups.
More Pigs will follow. It has just been announced that Tom Ross, previously operations director at the Pig near Bath and the Pig at Combe, has been appointed group operations director of Home Grown Hotels to free up Robin to work on new sites with Judy. Await news of where the next Pig will surface – Sussex and Kent are high on the list of possible locations.
Richard Taylor Designs