Robin Hutson's latest project is one to watch - a country house hotel that is fun, rustic and laid-back. Janet Harmer checked out the back-to-nature credentials of the Pig.
The opening of a hotel often reflects something of the social history of the times. Back in the mid-19th century, the opening of the Great Western Royal hotel (now the Hilton London Paddington) marked the launch of a spate of outstanding railway hotels up and down the country to accommodate the growing number of rail travellers.
A century later, in the 1940s and 50s, properties like Sharrow Bay and Gravetye Manor provided a means of escape from the austerity of the post-war years, with their generous welcome, exquisite food and fabulous gardens. In more recent years, an increasing emphasis on design has reflected the desire to provide an exceptional lifestyle experience - whether it be the flamboyance of Blakes or the more minimalist lines of the Halkin, both in London.
Now at the Pig, in the heart of the New Forest, near Brockenhurst, Hampshire, Robin Hutson has created a hotel which is very much of the moment. He has done it before with Hotel du Vin, when he launched - with Gerard Basset - a keenly priced and stylish midmarket brand for the town and city with a novel focus on wine. And now he has done it again with the Pig, which opened last month and where he has tuned into the desire for fresh local produce.
The half-acre walled garden at the 26-bedroom hotel is the focal point of the property, which has inspired every other element of the business, including the menus, the interior design and even the cocktail list.
A kitchen garden in the grounds of a country house hotel is by no means new - Gravetye Manor introduced one in the 1950s and Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons has gone on to create the exemplar of hotel kitchen gardens with its selection of 70 herbs and 90 vegetables. But what is ground-breaking is the way that the Pig has incorporated the land into the interior to create a hotel that is rustic, laid-back and unpretentious, yet has all the components of a luxury country house hotel, including good-quality linens on the beds, powerful showers in the bathroom and a menu inspired by the bountiful harvest on the doorstep.
Pricing is keen, too, with "snug" rooms starting at £125 ("comfy" are from £145 and "spacious" start at £165).
"I wanted the Pig to fill the gap between five-star, expensive country house hotels and the current three-star sector, which tends to be traditional and often lacklustre," says Hutson, who intends to use the New Forest property as a blueprint for a group of hotels in rural locations close to cities across the South of England.
With its thrown-together style, the Pig looks like it has evolved over time, yet was created over a period of five months from what was formerly the Whitley Ridge hotel. The £3m development costs have been shared between Hutson, marketing director David Elton, finance director Mike Rice and the banks.
Ownership of the Pig has been transferred to Home Grown Hotels from the Lime Wood Group, the company owned by chemical multimillionaire Jim Ratcliffe, which launched the nearby Lime Wood country house hotel in 2009 under Hutson's guidance.
The triumvirate of head chef James Golding, kitchen gardener Mike Kleyn and master forager Garry Eveleigh are the key people who daily translate the philosophy of the Pig from garden to plate. They work closely to produce a menu that sings with the freshness of produce gathered either from the garden or, ideally, from within 15 miles of the hotel.
An eclectic selection of piggy bits, at £3.50, provides a suitable start to the menu, with saddleback scratchings and apple sauce, pot of pressed brawn and brock eggs (ham hock and quail's eggs) among the choices.
Then, alongside starters and main courses, is a section entitled "literally picked this morning", which showcases highlights of the day's garden produce. Among them is a dish that has so far proved to be the menu's biggest seller: crispy garden tempura (featuring courgette flowers, multi-coloured carrots, strawberry spinach and red onions) served with lemon verbena and caper mayonnaise, garnished with flowers (£6.50/£13).
Eveleigh arrives at the Pig at around 8am most mornings with a selection of the bounty he has foraged. Currently this may include sloes, crab apples, wild plums, hawberries, blackberries and seaweed collected from the Hampshire coastline five miles to the south. In the autumn, he will be delivering up to 20 types of wild mushroom from the New Forest, including chanterelles and cèpes.
"I change three or four dishes on the menu every day, depending on what Garry has foraged or Mike has ready in the garden," says Golding, who previously worked at Le Caprice in London and Soho House in New York. "It's such an inspiring way to work. Today we've picked some lovely celery to make a celery and apple soup, and candy beetroot, which we've confited with coriander seeds and star anise for a carpaccio which we'll serve with some mackerel and shallot salsa."
Kleyn, previously head gardener at Babington House in Somerset, is planning to plant chillies and aubergines, among other vegetables, in the newly erected greenhouse, which will help sustain the Pig during the winter months.
A home-made smoker in the grounds is used for salmon, kippers and haddock, while a wood-fired oven in the courtyard bakes flatbread for customers to nibble on alongside alfresco drinks.
THE INTERIOR DESIGN
Judy Hutson, Robin's wife, has been inspired by the kitchen garden, livestock and forest to create an interior that she calls "rustic chic." Her intention was for the Pig to look homely and somewhere you would happily kick off your shoes as you sink back into a sofa.
"I didn't want it to appear over-designed, but rather somewhere that developed organically over time," she explains.
Hence, Hutson re-covered existing sofas and chairs from Whitley Ridge for the drawing room, library and bar, while sourcing a collection of mismatched dining chairs for the restaurant from antique and bric-a-brac shops. A mix of different styles of glasses and cutlery add to the eclectic nature of the Pig.
When it came to fabrics, anything shiny or overly pretty was eschewed in flavour of natural, faded colours, with a predominance of calming greens.
Reclaimed wooden flooring from railway carriages, found via a Belgian company, has been laid in the bedrooms and all the public areas except the restaurant, with plenty of rugs to soften the look. Unusual bedside lights have been specially commissioned, using the floorboards as a base.
Floral fabrics from Osborne & Little and Colefax and Fowler have been used at the windows of the 16 bedrooms in the main house, while materials by Emily Bond reflecting the pigs and chickens outside appear in the 10 bedrooms in the stable yard.
It is the restaurant, though, which perhaps has created the biggest impact among the initial guests and customers who have been thronging to the Pig. With its colourful Belgian tiles, inspired by Soho House's High Road House & Brasserie in Chiswick, and preponderance of seed trays and terracotta pots full of herbs, you could easily be sitting in a rather posh greenhouse. It is the ideal setting for the kitchen garden-inspired menu.
The Pig menu - sample dishes
£7.50/£15 â- Tatchbury Farm black pudding, duck egg, nasturtiums and Colman's mustard dressing, £6/£12 â- New Forest wood pigeon salad, pickled quail's eggs and spiced red wine sauce, £7.50/£15 â- Lyme Bay diver scallops, peas, broad beans and smoked pork loin, £9/£18 â- Wild plum and apple crumble, £7 â- Chilled New Forest strawberry soup and clotted cream
The marketing plan
Like everything else about the Pig, its marketing philosophy is intended to reflect the "home-grown" ethos of the hotel. Hence, the decision was taken from the outset to avoid using an agency to design a structured approach to the marketing material. Instead, the marketing efforts have been undertaken by Hutson, Elton and Jen Weatherley, the hotel's sales, marketing and brand manager.
"We have adopted an approach both in terms of product and marketing that is very lifestyle-driven and very ‘now', echoing the demand for a less designed look," says Elton.
Through trial and error and constant brainstorming sessions around the key markets and people who would be attracted to the business, the in-house team came up with a marketing deign that is fun, quirky and with a lightness of touch.
All elements of the marketing material - the name, logo, brochure, website design and content, menus, colour palette and fonts - have been decided internally, avoiding expensive fees from consultants. The result is material that exudes a feeling of a hotel that doesn't take itself too seriously and is focused on enjoyment and generosity.
The Pig's brochure is the antithesis of a typical hotel one, being a single sheet of recyled thick paper with a collage of photos on both sides. There is no promotional blurb, but instead simple anecdotal captions describing experiences at the hotel, alongside the address and website details.
"I hope we have achieved a look and image that inspires curiosity, interest and action resulting in bookings," says Elton. "Certainly, feedback thus far from the mailings and contact we have had with potential customers is that it does seem to resonate well."
Marketing the Pig way
â- Emphasis on the genuine, heartfelt and quantifiable points of difference, rather than a simple marketing concept. The Pig has focused on the kitchen garden and its setting within the New Forest to reflect a sense of place and a rustic lifestyle.
â- Informal approach to the use of materials, images and words in the marketing literature - both online and in print - with snapshots of different elements of the Pig accompanied by quirky captions reflecting the artisanal nature of the business.
â- A fun approach, with attitude, intends to position the Pig a mile away from the pomp and precision of many country house hotels.
â- Inspired by the Spotted Pig restaurant in New York, the name of the Pig was agreed on after variations such as Wild Pig and Fat Pig were rejected. It sounds like a pub, which is a good thing as it reflects informality.
â- Introductory information sent out via 600 traditional letters and 30,000 e-mails (from the databases of Lime Wood and Whitley Ridge) followed by glowing articles in The Sunday Times and The Guardian have secured restaurant reservations into November and bedroom bookings for the next three weeks.
Pig design features
â- Lived-in, homely look created by buying antique and second-hand furniture
â- Natural fabrics inspired by nature, in gentle, muted colours. Suppliers include Andrew Martin (www.andrewmartin.co.uk), Colefax and Fowler (www.colefax.com), Emily Bond (www.emilybond.co.uk), Osborne & Little (www.osborneandlittle.co.uk) and Zoffany (www.zoffany.com)
â- The design is by no means themed, but elements of fun have been created by specially commissioned papier mÁ¢ché pig heads. A bronze resin pig sculpture also greets guests on the main lawn
â- Soft paint tones from the Paint & Paper Library (www.paintlibrary.co.uk)
â- Glasses and cutlery from Hungerford Arcade (www.hungerfordarcade.co.uk), a group of antique dealers in Hungerford, Berkshire
â- The Sprout Out collection of toiletries from Gilchrist & Soames was chosen, as the natural ingredients and fragrances reflect the kitchen garden (www.gilchristsoames.com)
10 hotels that broke the mould
1948 Sharrow Bay, Ullswater, Cumbria
The first country house hotel, where Francis Coulson and Brian Sack's uninhibited generosity for afternoon tea became renowned.
1958 Gravetye Manor, near East Grinstead, West Sussex
Peter Herbert set about creating one of the most celebrated country house hotels and restored William Robinson's great garden to include a prodigious kitchen garden.
1971 Miller Howe, Windermere, Cumbria
A theatrical experience was laid on by founder John Tovey in the set meal times and flamboyant presentation of dishes.
1977 Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon
Paul and Kay Henderson created a hotel that was special for its remoteness, fabulous food and serious wines by the glass. Now owned by Andrew and Christina Brownsword.
1978 Blakes, London
Occupying a row of Victorian house in South Kensington, Anouska Hempel's hotel, with its dramatic and exotic interior, introduced a design focus from which all boutique hotels have evolved.
1985 Travelodge, Barton-under-Needwood, Staffordshire
Owned by Trusthouse Forte, this was the first branded budget hotel to launch in the UK. The current owner, Dubai International Capital, has 475 properties.
1989 Woolley Grange, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire
Opened by Nigel Chapman, the hotel was the founding property of Luxury Family Hotels (launched with Nicholas Dickinson in 1994). It was the first country house hotel to offer a discerning environment for all the family. Now on the market after recent owner Von Essen Hotels went into administration.
1991 The Halkin, London
The capital's first contemporary designed hotel, in Belgravia, with minimalist Italian-style lines, came from Singaporean hotelier Christina Ong.
1994 Malmaison, Edinburgh
Founded by Ken McCulloch, the hotel offered five-star style in an urban environment at three-star prices. Currently owned by the MWB Group, today there are now 12 Malmaison hotels.
1994 Hotel du Vin, Winchester, Hampshire
Robin Hutson's first independent success was the launch pad for a group of six hotels which he and Gerard Basset sold in 2004 to the MWB Group for £66m. The group now numbers 15 hotels.
With thanks to hotel consultant Peter Birniewww.peterbirnie.com