Food is one of my favourite things at the best of times. But I’d just finished an eight-week health kick that involved denying myself sugar and carbs and giving up alcohol when the opportunity came my way to join a food-themed press trip to Devon. Needless to say, I booked my flight from Belfast to Exeter quicker than you could say ‘Devon cream tea’.
The invitation came from Paul and Carolyn Bellinger, who run their catering business, Devon Spotted Pig, from their family farm near a village called Ottery St Mary in the South West of England. They also produce pork, ham and sausages from their free-range herd of rare-breed Oxford Sandy and Black pigs. In addition, Carolyn makes her own pickles, chutneys, preserves and fruit juices, and grows fresh herbs, edible flowers and orchard fruit.
As if all that wouldn’t keep a couple busy enough, they’ve also just thrown open the doors of Wild Oak Barn, a luxurious four-bedroom barn conversion in the grounds of their gorgeous farm. It’s available to book for holiday lets, and by some ineffable stroke of luck (and impeccable timing), I was invited on a press trip to spend three nights in the company of a small group of journalists sampling all that this idyllic holiday house has to offer.
But *cue Marks & Spencer advert voice* this is no ordinary holiday home. Presented to an impeccably high standard and beautifully-furnished throughout by Carolyn, who has an eye for antique chic, it’s the perfect party house for a gathering of friends or relatives with something to celebrate.
As well as four spacious en-suite bedrooms, there’s also a large, open-plan living area (with Sky TV) and a kitchen equipped with literally everything you could need, including several ovens (perfect if you’re catering for a family Christmas), microwave, American-style fridge/freezer, dishwasher, washing machine and tumble dryer.
Folding doors open out onto a garden terrace, which feels for all the world like it’s been transported straight from a garden in Tuscany. There’s a large garden table and plenty of chairs so if the weather is kind you can take the dinner party outside.
Oh, and there’s also a hot tub outside. I know.
When I arrived on a Friday afternoon, the UK was basking in a record-breaking heatwave. Sunshine and hot tubs not being a common theme of my life in Northern Ireland, I almost shed a tear of gratitude as I sank into the hot tub under a cloudless sky. I think I’ll remember forever the exact sense of bliss I felt when Carolyn appeared brandishing a chilled glass of wine for me. My first in eight weeks, remember.
‘Are you trying to kill me with excessive spoiling?’ I spluttered amid the bubbles. ‘Well, you’ve had a hard week,’ she said, soothingly. I hadn’t, particularly, but I made a mental note to adopt this tone with my kids in future – when they eventually fly the nest, I’d like them to forever associate home with exactly the sense of welcome and comfort that Carolyn has so magically created here.
And that’s what’s really remarkable about Wild Oak Barn. It’s not just a beautifully-appointed home in a lovely part of the world; it’s that Paul and Carolyn have managed to create a place of true relaxation with plenty of space for your nearest and dearest, and which doesn’t require you to trek too far off the beaten track. I flew from Belfast to Exeter in just over an hour, and Wild Oak Barn is less than 15 minutes’ drive from the airport.
There’s plenty of space for kids to run around outside in safety, and guests are welcome to wander through the grounds to meet the pigs and other animals who also call the farm home.
There’s also plenty to do locally – including cycling, horse riding and birdwatching. Ottery St Mary has a supermarket, a pub or two, and plenty of shops and restaurants. The Jurassic Coast – a World Heritage Site which stretches 96 miles from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset – is almost literally on your doorstep.
During my stay, we drove to the ancient town of Colyton to experience Seaton Tramway, a delightful miniature electric tram that winds through two nature reserves and three miles of scenic countryside. We got off at Seaton, where we checked out the fabulous visitor centre at Seaton Jurassic, run by Devon Wildlife Trust. We also sampled more of Carolyn’s talents in the shape of the sublime food at Taste of the West @ Seaton Jurassic – a café serving only locally-produced food and drink, and the first of a new franchise that will run throughout the West Country. The homity pie was outrageously delicious, and the mint choc chip ice cream from Purbeck Ice Cream, produced on their farm in the Isle of Purbeck, was outstanding.
If you’re looking for somewhere to gather with friends or family for a few days away to celebrate something special but don’t fancy doing the catering yourself, you can even book Carolyn to take care of it all for you. To demonstrate what she can offer, we were treated to a feast on Saturday night; wow. The champagne was flowing a little too freely for me to be able to tell you exactly what she cooked but Devon Spotted Pig pork was most definitely on the menu and everything was sublime.
The kitchen has been ingeniously designed so that foodie workshops can be held there too – perfect for a group of girls on a hen weekend. We mingled and enjoyed canapés and glasses of bubbly whilst we watched Carolyn preparing our meal. Dinner was served at the dining table in a spacious corner of the open-plan living room, and we all envied the family who have already booked to spend Christmas feasting here. Lucky ducks.
Tempted by the thought of your own slice of foodie heaven in Devon? Assemble some friends and find a reason to celebrate. Make something up if you have to. You won’t be disappointed.