How to Party At Combe House In Gittisham, East Devon

Celebrating Christmas at Combe House requires a lot of forethought, planning and a sprinkling of fairy dust, as Jane Fitzgerald discovered when she met proprietor Ruth Hunt

But there’s no rest for the team at Combe who throw themselves into preparations for the two-night New Year party and a steady stream of guests until 17 January. On that day, as guests leave through the front door and staff through the back, 23 white vans pull up outside the house and the hotel closes for two weeks of intense refurbishment. “You have to be in good health for this business,” remarks Ruth cheerfully.

Combe House Devon, Gittisham, Honiton, 01404 540400,

How to Party

Celebrating Christmas at Combe House requires a lot of forethought, planning and a sprinkling of fairy dust, as Jane Fitzgerald discovered when she met proprietor Ruth Hunt

Christmas is a special occasion at Combe where each year there is a house party for around 30 guests. People come from across the globe to experience the quintessentially English festivities magicked up by Ruth, Ken and their team.

“It’s all about regular guests coming to share Christmas with the people who work here. Mark, the manager, and his wife, Fiona, Hadleigh and Stuart, the chefs, Barry the barman, and, of course, even Charlie the gardener. We like to feel it’s like a home from home with everything taken care of.”

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“Running a successful house party is 80% in the planning, and 20% in the doing,” says Ruth who has been in hospitality since training in Torquay during the ’70s. “In February we sit down with the team over a bottle of wine and put together the programme, which forms the backbone of our Christmas party, but we keep some flexibility right up to the last minute to suit individual guests.”

The welcome

Every member of Combe’s team goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure the arrival is memorable. “It’s all in the welcome and essential you get the first night right,” continues Ruth. On arrival, guests pass through the village of Gittisham with its cob and thatch cottages and Norman church, then they wind up the drive (the length of which is lit with flares) to the house, which twinkles with fairy lights. Inside the huge pine tree in the Great Hall is exquisitely dressed by florist Meriel Hill and her helpers, while logs crackle on the open fire.

Ruth feels that it was probably the many Christmases spent in the blistering heat of Australia, where she and Ken worked in the hospitality and tourism industry for 16 years, that inspire the quintessentially English character of their festivities. “It was dreams of crisp and cold English Christmases with cosy log fires which we so missed,” she explains.

Christmas Eve

After canap�s and a candlelit dinner at a long table in the Great Hall, guests set out by torchlight to midnight mass in St Michael’s Church at Gittisham. They return to hot chocolate and homemade Christmas shortbread. “It is a challenge hosting guests who have stayed a previous Christmas, ensuring everything lives up to expectations.” Ruth also stresses the importance of dress code, which is DJs or suits on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day evenings. “People like to know what to pack,” she adds.

Christmas Day

Replete from a five-course feast with wines carefully selected by Ken, guests spend the afternoon as they wish. “Part of the skill of hosting a house party is knowing when to stand back,” continues Ruth. “You can only prepare and plan to a degree, the rest needs to be worked out with the moment. This is a bespoke Christmas. We weigh up the atmosphere and work accordingly.”

Boxing Day

Having worked up an appetite with a bracing walk fossil hunting on Charmouth beach, guests gather in the gloaming of the candlelit restored Georgian kitchen for a nostalgic afternoon tea. “If guests don’t start to cry, I get a little upset,” admits Ruth. Later, there’s harp music, the antics of a magician and a creative dinner. The evening ends with a glamorous and fun casino. The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast the guests make their way home.

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