I fully expected to love the Pig Hotel near Bath but, oh my goodness, have I fallen for it in a big way. We arrived on a sun-baked evening to this beautiful Grade 11 listed house in a vivid, green, deer-studded setting that is, quite literally, paradisiacal.
From the very first moment the Pig Hotel seduces with its artful combination of whimsy and laid-back indulgence. Two giant iron pigs welcome you at the door, the staff (a whole gangload of them) are uber-friendly as they whizz around in their Converse trainers and the hotel has been designed down to the last detail to make you feel relaxed, pampered and frankly, a little bit cool for being there in the first place. A tour of the house and gardens reveals the painstaking attention which has gone into making the Pig Hotel chain - in the New Forest, Southampton, Bath and, as of last week, Studland Bay - a completely different experience. Luxury country house hotel, yes, but in a pared-down, garden-centric, hip, but not so you'd notice, kind of way. Let's begin with the gargantuan walled kitchen garden which supplies the restaurant, manicured row upon row of good looking veg that goes straight onto your plate. Everything is here from the everyday courgettes and kale to the more bizarre monk's beard. They rear their own pigs too, of course, another central theme to the eating experience, more of which later. It's clear that they've made an effort to convert or restore every conceivable building and outbuilding on the Hunscrete estate from the beautiful Victorian greenhouses to the old apple stores. Here in the garden there are three hideaway rooms - the Hide, a one up, one down, with wood panelled walls, wood burning stove, freestanding bath and unrivalled view over the deer park, is almost ridiculously romantic. Honeymooners, this is your first stop. The garden is also home to two treatment rooms known as the Potting Sheds, offering facials and hot stone massages using Bamford products.
In the main house, via a hallway lined with bright Hunter wellies, you find a drawing room, library and bar, each filled with squashy sofas and well chosen antiques - fringed lamps, gilt mirrors, rows of vintage books. It's shabby chic but updated from its 90s incarnation. The look, by the way, comes courtesy of Judy Hutson, wife of Robin, one of the Pig's owners and the man behind the successful Hotel du Vin chain. A word for the Old Dining Room with its 22 seater oak table and stained plaster walls. Let's just say it's the most atmospheric setting imaginable for a big celebration. The walls, painted to look as though they have age-old patches of damp, show the degree of thought that has gone into the styling of the Pig.
And now to the restaurant, housed in a glass conservatory, with plants on each table along with mismatched cutlery, a bottle of herb-infused olive oil and baskets of home-baked sourdough bread. Again it's clear that so much thought has gone into the design of the restaurant and essentially what they've created is an environment where you can completely relax. The food may be spectacular but it's the antithesis of the 'fine dining' experience.
My starter chosen from the 'Literally Picked This Morning' section of the menu, a salad of goat's cheese, heritage tomatoes, bresola and foraged nettle salsa verde was perfect. Pig, naturally, looms large on the menu so we also tried the crispy pig's cheek with home-made piccalilli which was like a plate of very upmarket crackling. The remainder of the meal including trout with shrimp butter and the famed Bath chap - aka a carniverous blow out and not for the faint hearted (see pic left) as it comes with its teeth in. But don't let that put you off. The staff here are unanimously upbeat and friendly but just a quick word for the sommelier who came back to double check our wine order. Did we really want that particular wine when actually he thought we might prefer a different one that was more like a Chablis and actually a bit cheaper (things sommeliers never say). We wound up in the bar, with an ice cold vin santo (another spot on recommendation) wishing that it wasn't a week night. People of Bristol and Bath, you are so, so lucky to call this your local, if it was me I'd be here morning, noon and night. The morning after we visited I got straight on the phone and cancelled the hotel I had pre-booked for our wedding anniversary. It's twice the price of the Pig Hotel and very lovely in its way but all of sudden it seemed distinctly old fashioned. Roll on September, is all I can say.