Lee Westcott, former chef at London’s Typing Room, has turned away from the capital’s bright lights in favour of sustainable living and the fine produce grown at the Netherwood Estate.
The historic Netherwood Estate stretches across 1,200 undulant acres of unspoilt countryside on the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border. It is here that chef Lee Westcott has discovered a new affinity with the seasons, as he takes inspiration from produce yielded by the rugged landscape around him.
Peta Darnley, managing partner of the family estate, is collaborating with Westcott to produce a restaurant that is inspired and largely sourced by the estate. The land incorporates a working mixed farm of livestock and crops, orchards of traditional cider apples, a medieval deer park and endless foraging opportunities among the woodlands, lakes and open spaces.
Westcott has arrived in the countryside after 12 years in London and Hong Kong, working with the likes of Tom Aikens and Jason Atherton before opening the Typing Room in the Town Hall hotel in London’s Bethnal Green, which he closed in June last year to pursue other projects.
It was while at the Typing Room that he met Darnley, who, impressed by Westcott’s debut restaurant, asked for his advice on the estate’s plans. The chef says: “Peta invited me to come and stay. I was only going to look over their kitchen design and what they planned to do, but when I came, I fell in love with the place and said if we’re both serious about this we can jump into it.”
Darnley describes the visit as a “meeting of minds”, as the two discussed what could be done with the produce from the estate, supplemented by other local farmers. She explains that anything that can be grown in Britain is grown in Herefordshire. One of the country’s best asparagus farms is just down the road, soft fruit is grown across the county and, of course, Herefordshire beef has been long been lauded. The only stumbling block is seafood, which the restaurant will source from the Cornish coast and the north-west coast of Scotland.
A complete transformation
Seven months after his first visit, Pensons is almost ready to open. Dilapidated farm buildings have been transformed into a bright, open restaurant of brick, wood and stone that highlights the history of the estate, from the wooden manger, which hangs above diners’ heads, to the artefacts dug from the land, featured on the walls like pieces of art.
For Westcott, much of this time has been spent getting to know the land, the produce it yields and the people who work it, from gardeners to farmers and gamekeepers. He explains that his move has given him a much greater insight into seasonality – one that’s not reliant on market reports. He’s also been planning a kitchen garden, which will sit alongside the restaurant providing vegetables, herbs and soft fruits.
He explains: “As a chef, it’s all about the seasons, but here that’s elevated to another level. I’m in it, I’m among it. Don’t get me wrong, in London you can go walking in Victoria Park, you notice the seasons, but it’s different here. I drive past and see the blossom coming out, and that’s only going to enhance my ability to write menus.
“I’ll have weekly meetings with the gamekeeper and the gardener and they may say, ‘I’ve got four kilos of these beautiful turnips and they’re at their peak,’ and I can come and have a look and have them for the next morning. It’s not about being self-sufficient, it’s just about growing sustainably and having some fun with it.”
The produce sourced from the estate is diverse, ranging from honey and rose hips to beef, lamb, game and deer. The rape crop has been cold-pressed to produce oil, and Darnley and Westcott are looking into producing flour from the wheat. The large kitchen garden will supplement what is already produced and the chef has a list of things he wants to try and grow, explaining that the first year will be “a learning process”.
Situated alongside the restaurant, the garden will use manure from the farm as well as compost made from waste from the restaurant to grow the next crops. Westcott adds: “It’s great for the environment and great for the product. It’s a real true cycle.”
Westcott stresses that he’s not arrived to play at being a farmer – there are experts rearing the livestock and managing the land – but to develop a greater understanding of food production and how it has had an impact on his development of dishes and menus.
The chef explains: “I think as chefs in London we take for granted what we can get. We are so blessed in the UK; this little island is surrounded by beautiful fish and inland we grow the most amazing vegetables, rear amazing animals and, being here, I’m actually part of that. I don’t just get a piece of meat or a vegetable given to me, I get to see the process – it’s made me think I don’t need to do as much to it. You respect the ingredient a little bit more because you know how much work, dedication, effort and passion has gone into it.
“We’ve got these rose hips and I see my young chefs treating them with more care because they’re out there picking them with me or they have seen how much effort has gone in. That’s a massive thing for me and why I’ve ended up doing this project.
“I’m really excited that when you sit down, you could have a pheasant dish with a quince jelly that I’ve made from fruit on the estate and a sauce made with the animal’s carcass and the rapeseed oil and vegetables from the farm.”
The special ingredient
The restaurant will be offering a £75 six-course tasting menu, a three-course evening à la carte menu for £50 and a lunch menu at £27 for two courses and £32 for three. At the Typing Room, Westcott was applauded for his elevation of humble vegetables and this is something he says will be carried through to his new venture.
He explains: “I’ll be cooking with meat, but I’ve always found vegetables slightly more diverse and a bit more of a challenge. There’s more to be done than people imagine – protein doesn’t have to be the star of the show.
“It is a real, true concept with real soul to it. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise; I wouldn’t have left London for something I didn’t truly believe in and I truly believe in this because it’s all there and you can see it, feel it, taste it.”
It’s not just the food that is sourced locally. Napkins and the fabric used for chairs have been made by a weaver who has his studio on the estate, while knives have been made by a local metal-worker and a light fixture by an ironmonger. The light fixture will be decorated with willow lampshades made with wood from the estate and woven by a local basket-maker.
Darnley explains: “It’s all about trying to showcase the best the area has to offer. It’s not just about the food; it’s about lots of other things as well. “There’s been a continuum of life here for thousands of years; you feel a responsibility to that and we want to do the very best we can for the place and everyone associated with it. It’s the sort of estate that would have been essential to people’s lives for hundreds of years, but with developments in farming and mechanisation, that’s changed.
“We’re repurposing the estate and finding new ways to bring life to it and provide employment – not just direct employment, but ways it can be central to people’s lives – if not directly, then by basing their businesses here. We’re involving other people and building up that sense of community.”
The restaurant sits half an hour from Worcester and Hereford and two hours by train from London, with an additional half-hour drive to the estate. This is not the estate’s first foray into hospitality: it runs two successful guest houses (see panel) and both Darnley and Westcott are looking to make the restaurant a destination.
Darnley says: “Lee’s reputation and the quality of the food will be the initial thing that draws people here. It’s been really exciting and gratifying to have had so many people sign up via the website after we announced he was coming.”
Westcott adds: “We’re going to do courses – you can stay the whole weekend, do a course, have lunch or dinner in the restaurant and get breakfast. The scope to do things is incredible, so that will draw people here as well.”
As well as the beautiful surroundings, the pair are planning to expand the number of courses run at the estate – including some run by the chefs into subjects such as butchery and foraging. A separate building adjacent to the restaurant will also be used as a conference space or venue and there are plans to include a chef’s table.
Westcott adds: “We are a destination restaurant, but we also want to appeal to the locals. We will be fine dining, but not in a pretentious way. The standards of service, standards of food and the quality of dishes are all there, but without being pretentious – it will be very relaxed.”
Both stress that first and foremost, Pensons is a business and a business that has to work, but it’s come about through and is inspired by the shared passion Westcott and Darnley have for the produce that is coming from the estate.
Westcott says: “It’s special – it’s not just the restaurant, we have the whole estate – 1,200 acres. It’s a playground and it’s never-ending fun.”
Covers 32 plus 14-cover private dining room
Sample dishes Jerusalem artichoke, cod and truffle; beef tongue, turnip, chestnut and watercress; lamb, turnip, potato and onion; beetroot, chocolate and blackberry
Drinks Short wine and cocktail lists will be curated to correspond with the seasons and dishes offered
Opening date 24 January 2019
Restaurant manager Andrew Phillips
There are two guest houses on the Netherwood Estate, the Hyde and the Freeth.
The Hyde is a Grade II*-listed medieval hall house. It can sleep 20 people and is available for exclusive use at weekends or by the room on a bed-and-breakfast basis mid-week. The estate won awards for the restoration of the building and those staying can enjoy the garden, large terrace, tennis court, hot tub and the largest private steam railway in the country.
The Freeth is a Grade II-listed former hunting lodge that sleeps 18 and is available for exclusive use. It has a garden designed by Robert Myers that includes a south-facing terrace and a private indoor swimming pool.
Darnley said that further down the line, if the opportunity presented itself, accommodation on the estate could be expanded but, in the meantime, the estate will work with other local operators to help their guests create the perfect break.
About the Netherwood Estate
Netherwood is an ancient estate that straddles the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border, equidistant between Bromyard and Tenbury Wells.
It features in the Domesday Book and, in the medieval period, was owned by the Mortimers who, at that point, were the most powerful family in England. Mortimer Edward IV would be crowned King in 1461, during the turbulent years of the War of the Roses.
The Mortimers established a notable deer park on the estate, which in Tudor times became home to the Earls of Essex, one of whom – Robert Devereux – was a favourite at the court of Elizabeth I, before a failed bid to raise a revolt against the government saw him tried and executed for treason. Today the estate remains unspoilt with plans afoot to reinstate the deer park.
Areas of land are used for a mixture of arable – wheat, oats and oilseed rape – as well as livestock. Diversifying the land for the future has also seen enterprises such as large, luxury holiday lets established, as well as a textile weaving mill and, of course, Pensons restaurant.