Thatch Meets Chelsea Harbour
Through the keyhole into the extraordinary Coombe Thatched Cottage.
If we are bold enough to stray just a mile or two from the M5 on our journey through Devon, we might give ourselves a little adventure. Instead of thrashing motorway tarmac we can instead pootle along one of Devon's green lanes, catching glimpses across valleys of spirals of smoke from autumn bonfires, evidence of work being executed at a more leisurely pace. We might even find ourselves in the village of Gittisham, near Honiton, where the long arm of history reaches back to the Norman Conquest and beyond.
Once in this idyllic setting we itch to investigate further. Past an ancient church and a cluster of thatched cottages, a winding drive leads us to the award-winning Combe House Hotel & Restaurant, a Grade I Listed Elizabethan manor at the heart of the 3,500-acre Combe Estate. And, close by, secluded and yet with easy access, is Combe Thatched Cottage, complete with private walled garden. This is where we shall stay.
The 14th-century cottage
Ruth and Ken Hunt, present owner-managers of Combe House, have recently restored the 14th-century cottage and, whilst retaining many of its original features, have enhanced and embellished it with comfortable contemporary furnishings. Ken project-managed the renovation and Ruth co-ordinated with interior designer Meriel Hill on the cottage's interior.
"We wanted to retain the integrity of this simple, rustic building," says Ruth, "but we realised that those staying here would also expect a high standard of luxury." The result of the collaboration between the three of them might therefore be described as 'thatch meets Chelsea Harbour'.
Appropriately, the focal point of the cottage's sitting room is a wood-burning stove, an obvious choice because there is a plentiful supply of wood from the estate. But here rusticity ends. There are, of course, beams galore, but to relieve them of a certain 'heaviness' they, and the walls, have been given coats of white limewash or distemper. Similarly, specially constructed shutters have been painted in Venetian White dead flat oil paint, and the alcove cupboards have been painted in Bone, also dead flat oil paint. The ambience is therefore light, airy and welcoming, even on the dullest of days.
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Upon the sisal flooring stand a pair of matching sofas upholstered in cream linen, with stone-coloured wool throws and bright turquoise silk cushions, ideally placed for a cosy conversation or quiet read by the fire. In a corner, a circular table is surrounded by four, elegant, striped button-backed dining chairs, and an alcove contains a smart black telephone with dial - one of the 300 series originally produced in 1936 by the English Telephone Company - on which you can phone through your dinner reservation to the hotel.
The renovation of the kitchen included the installation of a large cream-coloured Aga and a butler's sink. A shade of cool blue has been chosen for the cupboard doors, whilst there are splashes of accent colour in the seasonal flowers and a shocking-pink table mat on the breakfast bar. 21st-century Conran glassware and crockery coexist happily with an antique wood cutlery box and an enamel bread bin. Beyond the kitchen, a lobby is ready to receive doggy companions and those damp Barbours and muddy Hunters, and it is where you will also find deck chairs and a croquet set for sunnier days.
Under the eaves a large bedroom overlooks the walled garden. Neutral colours again - white limewash, and shutters painted in Ochre dead flat oil paint - are accented with deep-wine-coloured velvet cushions, lampshades and fresh flowers. Located in the central part of a French-style armoire is a flat-screen TV, with plenty of space on either side for clothes.
The bathroom, with its sloping floor (the building is around 600 years old) is a sybarite's dream, with its deep Thomas Crapper copper tub, and there's a spacious stone-clad shower with soft white towels, robes and slippers.
A stay at Combe Thatched Cottage might only be for two or three nights, but during that time we are masters and mistresses of all we survey.
The allure of Combe
The allure of Combe, both in the main house and in the cottage, is a combination of heritage and a welcoming lived-in feel. Whether you are sleeping under the thatched roof or in one of the splendid suites in Combe House, you cannot fail but notice the care which has been taken to create truly romantic rooms, each with its own individual character. Some have sweeping views of the surrounding Devon countryside, others have quirky murals (created by the previous owner) and mullioned, ivy-clad windows.
For guests staying at Combe House who seek something that little bit different, there is a bathroom in the garden! This delightful, quirky bathroom uses rainwater (which is heated by a wood-burning stove, with wood from the estate, of course) to fill a Victorian roll-top bath. What could be more romantic than your own candlelit bathroom in a garden, accessed by a secluded pathway and only yards from the hotel?
Now in their tenth year at Combe, Ruth and Ken Hunt are to be congratulated for having completed many areas of restoration, which have included not only Combe Thatched Cottage but also the Georgian Kitchen (complete with estate bell in its own bell house); the Linen Suite; the Kitchen Garden and the Greenhouses. Restoration now continues with the Stable block (staff accommodation), with plans for other refurbishments including six acres of arboretum, which hide many unique species of shrubs and trees.
Whenever you choose to visit Combe, in the depths of winter or the height of summer, whether for morning coffee or for a celebratory dinner, a brief stay or a fortnight's rest and relaxation, you are assured of a warm welcome. This historical treasure offers a truly unique experience, and Gittisham has even received the accolade of being described by HRH Prince Charles as "the ideal English village".
Meriel Hill, 01404 851041. Meriel is not only the hotel's florist but also a talented designer who has had much experience restoring old buildings, bringing them up to date for modern living whilst retaining their integrity.
Aga: Garton King, Exeter 01392 360170
Copper Bath & Fittings: Thomas Crapper, Stratford-on-Avon 01789 450522
Sofa and dining chairs: David Seyfried Ltd, Chelsea Harbour, London 0207 8233848
Paint: Rose of Jericho, Dorset 01935 83676 and Farrow & Ball 01202 850260
Combe House, Gittisham, Honiton, Nr Exeter, EX14 3AD, 01404 540400 or visit www.thishotel.com