As you approach the honey coloured stone walls of Barnsley House Hotel, in Gloucestershire, you sweep up a drive that leads to, what was once, an old rectory.
Originally built in 1697, the house went through many transformations until it was bought by the Calcot Health and Leisure group in 2010, but its greatest claim to fame will always be that it was once the home of one of Britain’s most respected garden designers, Rosemary Verey.
The interiors are very different, I am sure, from what they must have been when Rosemary lived here, with her husband David. She gardened here for over 40 years, turning the 11 acres surrounding the property into one of England’s most visited settings.
The Head Gardener at the house is now Richard Gatenby, and as well as being an incredibly gifted plantsman he is also a very good writer. There is an events diary brochure in the reception of the hotel, and in its pages he reminisces what it was like to be interviewed by the great lady herself, whom he calls “mother of all amateur gardeners”.
This is what he wrote:
“Mrs. Verey was, to use many peoples’ observations, “a great encourager”. She imparted knowledge readily, never hiding it like a trade secret. She knew how important it was to encourage people in their pursuit by being generous with her forty years of experience, as others were to her. Barnsley is a distillation of experience, inspiration and personal taste glued together by the joy of gardening.”
And joy is something you will immediately sense here. All of the grounds are very beautiful, but for foodies in particular I do believe that the kitchen garden is an unmissable destination, as a centre of excellence, inspiration and education.
What you will find reassuring and comforting is that the garden is very relaxed, despite its formality and structure. Tall weeds grow, young plants bolt, small seeds scatter, long grass sways. Nature is left to pursue its ecological imperative in an organic and respectful manner, without too much interference. This kitchen garden is not manicured to within an inch of its designer life, it is left to ripen, mature and deliver its purpose: food.
You will see serried ranks of salads, small beans, peas trailing up wigwams and fresh herbs, growing amongst alchemilla mollis, phlox, Welsh poppies, violets, nigella and primulas. The edible the colourful, the climbing and the spreading, all the plants are growing upwards and outwards in salubrious abandonment. You could almost pick and eat your own lunch right here, alfresco, and no Chef would know.
Beyond the kitchen garden walls there is a large field, with long rectangular beds and poly-tunnels: these are the engine rooms of the restaurant, awash with fresh asparagus, tomatoes, spring onions, squashes, rhubarb and brassicas. In the distance is a golden buttercup meadow, with paths mown through it.
Rosemary Verey’s words, written in the Potager Restaurant’s Menu, ring true:
“We all spend time wondering about the future of our gardens. How will they look in years to come? In my own potager, instead of worrying, I try to enjoy the present and look back to William Lawson for inspiration. He wrote that when we walk in our garden in the evening, all our senses should “swim with pleasure”. So, each evening, as I go to cut salad, asparagus, artichokes or cabbages, I find something to enjoy in every corner of this peaceful, bountiful enclosure
You progress through the garden, past painterly dry stone walls, statuary, a Gothic summer house, a Tuscan Doric temple and established herbaceous borders brimming with peonies, roses, salvias, penstemmons, thalictrums and geraniums.
Every section is a pocket of peace, tranquillity and visionary perfection, each vista ending with a focal point, each corner with a “full stop”. Surrounded by ladybirds, hover flies, blackbirds and swallows, you could sit on one of the many wooden or wrought iron benches and look, listen and marvel at the eco-system that flourishes undisturbed all around you.
But lunch awaits. Despite being a plush hotel, the atmosphere inside the house is very casual and comfortable, as if you were staying in an old friend's farmhouse. The colour palette inside resonates with mother nature’s brushstrokes in the garden: iris purple cotton cushions, heather pink velvet sofas, sage green woollen rugs, chestnut brown leather chairs and lichen grey wicker baskets. The atmosphere is warm, friendly and relaxed. There are coffee tables with twig and branch legs, vases filled with wilflowers and a bookshelf lined with gardening books.
Inside the dining room, which was once Rosemary Verey’s drawing room, you will be quite surprised at how minimal, uncluttered and simple the decorations are. Pale French grey panelling rises to tall white ceilings, and long, parchment white table cloths fall to aged oak floorboards. On each table, small hand thrown vases contain single allium heads.
The menu is clearly driven by the garden, and there is even a list of what the gardeners have growing at that very moment that is ripe for the picking.
The amuse bouche of watercress and lentil soup served with warm homemade bread was absolutely outstanding, and we secretly wished we could have ordered a huge bowl of it.
Our “Apple cured sea trout with apple, fennel salad and caviar” and “Wye valley asparagus with poached egg and hollandaise” were miniature perfection, so carefully balanced, seasoned and decorated. Portions and flavours are light and the range of ingredients kept to a minimum on each plate.
We enjoyed a glass of Berry Brothers Rose and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc with our starters, from a varied and interesting wine list, that was arranged in chapters by type. This is a far better way for the non-expert wine drinker to make their selection. It read: “Light and French Whites”, “Aromatic Whites”, “Soft and Elegant Reds”, and our Sicilian waiter (from Trapani, no less) advised us diligently.
The most popular choice throughout this Sunday Lunch dining room was the “Rare roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, vegetables and gravy”, but I ate my way through the “Twice baked cheese soufflé with heirloom tomato salad” feeling that I could have eaten it several times over.
I surmised that the Head Chef must be Italian, and indeed he is. Francesco Volgo has that unmistakeable Italian trait of taking extremely good raw ingredients, plucked straight from the ground, and treating them very simply, to produce fresh, clean, unadulterated flavours.
Both the rhubarb pavlova and the apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream disappeared without trace, with a glass of Chianti and an espresso. We discussed with the restaurant manager, a charming gentleman from southern India, how very satisfying it must be to work in a kitchen where the larder is ten metres across the garden wall and where every day a new wheelbarrow of fresh and different ingredients is delivered to the back door. He says he is new to these parts, and still now gets lost in yet another impossibly pretty lane in the village. His wife works alongside him, as a waitress.
Many things will surprise you on your visit to Barnsley House: the informality of its staff; the intimacy of the spaces; the nod to the past and all its beauty imbued in modernity and all its comforts; the scale and grandeur of Rosemary Verey’s garden design juxtaposed against the blousey, bohemian charm of its present appearance. It is quintessential England, in a gentle, unassuming and delightfully mellow domain where both plot and plate will leave you enchanted.
Telephone: 01285 740000
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