One of the year’s most anticipated hotel openings, the Newt in Somerset has also been one of the most low-key, remaining a mystery to most – until now. Katherine Price discovers the secrets of what’s been going on behind the walls of the estate.
The rumours began in earnest last year. The 17th-century, Grade II*-listed Hadspen House and Emily Estate near Bruton in Somerset, owned by the Hobhouse family since 1785, had been sold to South African billionaire Koos Bekker five years prior for £13m. Bekker, the owner of Babylonstoren, a world-renowned preserved Cape Dutch farm estate in the Drakenstein valley, had big plans for the estate, including a new hotel.
Details were scarce, barring a planning application to South Somerset District Council. The property would have a similar ethos to Babylonstoren, with a focus on the extensive, historic gardens. Instead of wine, it would produce its own cyder [spelled ‘cyder’ due to the traditional press methods used on the estate]. Andrew Foulkes, who previously oversaw the Abbey hotel in Bath, was appointed general manager.
A ‘brief overview’ became available once the gardens had opened in May, but while many new hotels drip-feed information ahead of an opening to build anticipation, the first full press release didn’t drop until a week after the hotel opened on 29 August.
Even Foulkes acknowledges the secrecy surrounding the Newt has been something akin to Willy Wonka’s factory in Roald Dahl’s well-loved children’s books. “Instead of big gates we had yellow walls,” he laughs. So why the secrecy?
“Our owners are not people that want to be in the limelight,” he says. “Some of the vision they had wasn’t easy to describe and a lot of decisions hadn’t been made. We also felt there was a real need to let the local communities know much more in advance than the world’s media.
“The lack of media has also created a different type of buzz. There wasn’t that pressure of opening and being full; if anything, it was ‘let’s rev up the engine slowly and give our teams the chance to adapt’.”
Despite this, the estate saw up to 700 visitors a day during the summer, and on a rainy Thursday afternoon in September when The Caterer was on-site there was a half-hour waiting list for lunch at the café.
Some may also consider it odd that the property has been named after the great crested variety of newts which were discovered on the property and, being a European-protected species, could have scuppered the plans altogether. “Our owners have a great sense of humour,” says Foulkes.
Now the cat’s out of the bag and the extensive estate is open to all, including a fine dining restaurant and a 23-bedroom hotel (with 13 rooms in the Georgian manor house and 10 equine-inspired rooms in the Stable Yard buildings), as well as a spa, Garden Café, cyder press, farm shop, bakery, butchery and cheese room.
And that’s not including the grounds: formal and productive gardens, woodlands, a deer park, orchards, meadows and, at the core, a walled garden with 460 apple trees of 267 varieties.
“It was really emphasised, and rightly so, that the gardens are the primary business,” says Foulkes. “At the beginning I thought, ‘ugh, the gardens?’ But after being here, working with the team and now seeing the guest reaction, I realised my biggest USP as the general manager of the hotel is the gardens.”
While the exterior of the hotel was in fairly good condition when Foulkes came on board in March 2018, he says the inside was “like a bag of nails”. Now the property is a luxurious country house with contemporary touches, designed by co-owner Karen Roos, Bekker’s wife and former editor of Elle Decoration South Africa. Documents on Companies House suggest around £80m has been spent renovating the property and developing the grounds, although Foulkes won’t be drawn on a figure.
“Astute people will see what level we’re at and the attention to detail,” he says. “If people want to put a value to that, let them go for that. None of us talk about it; we know how fortunate we are that we can aspire to be the best and we have the resources.”
However, Foulkes does confirm the owners are expecting a return on their investment, and comments on how all areas are treated commercially, with the on-site businesses treated as suppliers: “It’s all very professionally done; we don’t just rock up and grab a loaf of bread. It’s got to be like that, because each outlet is a business in its own right with targets… We are here to make money.”
He will say around 80% of hotel guests are domestic and many have been to Babylonstoren, although he is targeting around 30%-40% international guests by the end of next year, particularly from the US and Asia – “but at the end of the day, if our hotel’s full up, we’re not too fussy [where guests come from]”.
And the project isn’t finished yet – as well as the Story of Gardening ‘museum’, an agricultural training college and an ice-cream parlour, a secondary hotel is expected to open next year which would be open to residents only. The as-yet-unnamed site on the other side of the A371, currently known as Shatwell Farm, will include a further 17 bedrooms, restaurant, bar and pool.
“I feel very humble that I got selected for the role. Not many people get to do such a project,” says Foulkes. “I clocked very swiftly that it could be a good career move to come here.”
Staff seem to agree. Garden Café manager and local Danny Emney had been waiting for an opportunity to come up at the property for four and a half years. “I’d already set my sights that I would be working here in one capacity or another,” he says.
“Round here particularly, a lot of people have been waiting for this as long as I have.”
Foulkes says his biggest recruitment criteria from the owners was to look locally: Castle Cary, Bruton or Wincanton; Somerset if necessary; south-west at a push. It’s an interesting recruitment tactic for an industry that struggles to attract British nationals, and many would say can’t be too picky, but he says most staff have some connection to the area. The Newt has also engaged with King’s Bruton, a nearby independent school, to run a HIT Training apprenticeship scheme.
As a result, some of the team have never worked in hospitality before but perhaps came from customer service or carer roles. While this means training has been crucial, the heads of departments also say this has brought in fresh perspectives and ideas that will make the Newt stand out – which has been encouraged from the very top. Foulkes says Bekker and Roos will ask for opinions and staff feel able to make their own decisions and shape the vision for the estate. They’re hands-on owners who have their own residence on the estate and can regularly be spotted walking in the woodlands.
Front of house manager Chris Bancroft (son of 2016 Hotelier of the Year and Northcote managing director Craig Bancroft) says this approach means they don’t do things just “because that’s how everyone else does it” and describes the opportunity to design the hotel welcome from scratch as “empowering”.
“You usually arrive to standards and over time you incrementally change things,” explains Bancroft, who joined the Newt from Lucknam Park in Wiltshire. As business is continuing to rapidly expand, staff development is key and promotion opportunities are not just visible, but encouraged.
“We’re always forcing them up,” jokes F&B manager Ben Bulger. “There’s room to grow in this business,” he adds more seriously. The former commercial manager of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage in Devon oversees the F&B outlets outside of the hotel. Members of staff are encouraged to spend time across different areas of the business.
“I want our kitchen guys to be as keen on gardening as they are on cooking,” says Bulger, while Emney hopes to do a stint in the hotel. Front of house staff at the hotel can offer garden tours as well as the garden team.
Prior to opening, visits were made by staff to properties such as Heckfield Place, Chewton Glen and Lime Wood in Hampshire, as well as Ollie Dabbous’ Hide in London and, of course, Babylonstoren for inspiration.
In such a rural location, the easy route could arguably have been to bring in a big-name chef, but Bulger says this was something they decided against early on: “We wanted people that came with the right attitude and we can give skills.”
“They came, but there was always something that didn’t quite connect,” seconds Foulkes, who reveals even Ben Abercrombie, head chef of the hotel’s 70-cover Botanical Rooms fine-dining restaurant, had to undergo psychometric testing as part of the application process. They didn’t just want someone who could cook well, but someone who bought into the ethos, was a good fit and could manage people. “He’s got to be part of the bigger project,” says Foulkes.
Every member of staff also had to meet the owners before they were taken on. Even though this rigorous application process meant one role went unfilled for 13 months, he said the ultimate priority was finding the right person.
Food for thought
Abercrombie, from nearby East Coker, previously worked as a sous chef for Hix Restaurants and was head chef at the Apex City of Bath hotel.
His menu features lightly grilled red mullet with Devon brown crab and kohlrabi, and saltbaked celeriac with wild mushrooms and miso.
“I know that everybody jumps on that bandwagon of ‘ingredient-led’, but it definitely is,” he says. “We don’t want to cook with our egos, we want to cook with great ingredients.”
He goes so far as to write his menus in the garden: “Sometimes it’s important to take a step outside the kitchen.”
“I don’t have to go out and see the farm – I can see it from here,” beams Alan Stewart, head chef of the Garden Café overlooking the grounds. “I’ve spent years in basement kitchens in London and now look at my view.”
Stewart has returned to the UK after working as a private chef in France, having trained at Chez Bruce in London and worked as head chef at Kensington’s Launceston Place under Tristan Welch. The chefs are unified by a passion for seasonal produce and working closely with the gardeners and every plate of food served at the Newt features at least one ingredient grown on the estate.
Although the Garden Café menu is restaurant rather than café-focused, it is more informal than the Botanical Rooms, with vegetable-led dishes such as roasted winter squash with Sharpham Park spelt, cave-aged Cheddar and sunflower seed pesto; and grilled estate mushrooms with celeriac, braised beef, pickled walnut and black kale.
Stewart says seeing the hard work that goes into growing the ingredients in the garden helps them respect the produce and the people who grow it even more.
“We really think, ‘how can we get the most out of the effort the gardening team have put into growing this amazing thing?’” he says.
For instance, when cooking cauliflower they purée the stalks and ferment the leaves like sauerkraut, while dehydrated beetroot skins are blended with the butter.
Master baker Karen Pretorius’ approach to this ethos is to use the apple waste from the cyder-making in the sourdough mother, which gives it a regularly changing flavour, depending on the variety of apples. She and her four-strong team at the bakery, which is open to the public, produce approximately 60 apple-skin sourdough loaves a day – 2,500 across the whole of August – to sell in the farm shop and supply the kitchens.
“We have this incredible apple heritage, the cyder making, the Romans who trampled the hills of Somerset hundreds of years ago; there are so many aspects of history you can grab onto and use in your cooking and baking,” she says.
Bulger estimates about 40% of produce used in the kitchens is coming from the gardens and hopes to ramp this up to 75%-85%, but does not expect it will happen overnight.
“This is just the very start of a long project,” he explains. “We’ve just planted that seed, now we’ve got to spend probably the best part of the next 10 years growing that, to be self-sufficient, to retain staff and feed their knowledge.”
The Garden Café menu
- Carrot soup with walnut cream and carrot leaf oil £6.50
- Pickled apple with Brown and Forrest smoked mackerel, apple-fermented sourdough, horseradish and winter leaves £8
- Roasted winter squash with Sharpham Park spelt, cave-aged Cheddar and sunflower seed pesto £12.50
- Jerusalem artichoke baked with shallots, damson, Ticklemore goats’ cheese and roast hazelnut £11
- Baked apple with hazelnut, prune, cider brandy and buffalo milk custard £6
- Pear poached in Yarlington mill cider with honey and sunflower seed cake £6
Contact and details
The Newt in Somerset, Bruton, Somerset BA7 7NG 01963 577777
- Opened 29 August
- Bedrooms 23
- Owners Koos Bekker and Karen Roos
- General manager Andrew Foulkes
- Starting room rate £255 in low season; £345 in high season
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