Andrea Watson travels to Somerset, where she enjoys the timeless quality of life so enjoyed by John Steinbeck
“The countryside is turning as lush as a plum… There’s a quality here that I haven’t known for very long. The 20th century seems very remote.” So wrote John Steinbeck in 1959 when he was living in Somerset and researching his book on King Arthur. Later, in an interview, he said that he had been happier here than in any other place in the world. He meant Somerset in general, but in particular he was referring to a cottage that he had rented near Bruton where he lived for six months.
The cottage, barely changed, is now home to Caroline Kitchener and Luke Haughton, but you can still enjoy the timeless quality that Steinbeck found here as they run a B&B of an unusual character; you stay in hand-built replica shepherds’ huts.
“People love the romantic and traditional character of a shepherd’s hut. They take you back to a simple rural way of life such as Thomas Hardy would have known,” says Caroline. “They are small, so you can’t have a lot of stuff in them and you can escape the 21st century.”
Caroline and Luke, a carpenter, had downsized from a large farmhouse and originally decided to buy a shepherd’s hut as a spare bedroom. “We had it made to our specification, but were a bit disappointed at the quality. In the end I did it up and sold it on, and it made me think we could do better.
“Luke always uses the best materials he can find from local and sustainable sources. Quality of materials and workmanship make all the difference. Through his business we made three huts to show three different styles, different cladding and interiors, and we sold them all. Then I made another for an agricultural show and for a year it was a spare bedroom, but then we moved to this idyllic house near Bruton which was overwhelmingly special.”
With its romantic cottage garden and rural views across folding hills, herds and stone cottages, it was the perfect place to run their Shed and Breakfast. Guests have a collection of three huts to themselves: a dayroom; bedroom and shower hut plus garden area with barbecue. The cost is £250 for two people for two nights, which includes a rip-roaring full English breakfast prepared by Luke and served in the garden or day hut. Well-behaved dogs are welcome and since you ask, there’s WiFi.
There are no restrictions on the use of the huts during the day, but most people will want to explore the delightful local area, starting with the town of Bruton itself. Three years ago, Britain’s premier art dealer Hauser & Wirth, run by Iwan Wirth and Manuela Hauser, chose Bruton as the location for a new private art gallery.
They bought a collection of 17th century farm buildings on the edge of the town. It was already home to a bunch of celebrity actors and musicians, but the arrival of the most important contemporary art dealer in Europe nevertheless sent ripples through the community as word got around. Within months, attendance levels had beaten all expectations, with hoards of Londoners (looking for all the world like living advertisements from the pages of Country Life magazine) finding that Somerset had become the new Cotswolds.
The gallery also has an excellent café/restaurant and a modern garden designed by Piet Udolf. There are also lots of crowd-pleasing talks, workshops and residencies.
You might not particularly like the art, but it does not always stay for long. Paul McCarthy’s brutalist bronze at the entrance has thankfully been replaced by a more elegant piece, and this constant flux is interesting.
Among other places that are just over the border in Wiltshire, yet in easy reach of the Haughton’s home, are the National Trust’s magnificent Stourhead Estate with its Palladian mansion and 2,650 acres of grounds, and Longleat Safari Park. Cheddar, Wells and Glastonbury are all a short drive up the road, and Bath is not far either. I have to confess, however, that the furthest I have ventured when staying here is Glastonbury (the Tor can be seen from the cottage).
After a 3 hour-plus drive from London on the M3 and A303 (always blocked as you pass Stonehenge) the thought of queuing in a car to see lions or gorges, or even just burning more fuel to reach Bath, seems at odds with the purpose of a weekend in Somerset. Best settle for less, enjoy the magnetism of Steinbeck’s special place, take in a little art, walk, read, daydream and generally escape the 21st century.