Coppice Retreat, Dorset – Review
By Angie Aspinall
Coppice Retreat in Dorset does what is says on the tin: it’s a retreat in a coppice. But, more than that, it provides a secret hideaway from the stresses and strains of everyday life, surrounded by nature and beautiful countryside in the quiet hamlet of Higher Coombe.
With River Cottage HQ an hour and a half away and free range eggs available down any country lane, this is a great place for a foodie getaway. And, although the kitchen at Coppice Retreat fits neatly on to just one wall, it is so cleverly designed and equipped with all the essentials, it allows for some proper home-cooking. There are John Lewis mugs and an Alessi cafetiere and the best knives we’ve ever encountered in a self-catering property. So you can really get stuck into some luxury cooking. Or, if that’s not your thing, the oven is also a microwave so you can treat yourself to some convenience food. Well, you are on holiday, after all!
The studio is light and airy, with oodles of natural light from the double glaze windows (from The Green Building Store). French doors open onto a small veranda, which overlooks a private garden. In summer, you can dine alfresco on the decking and enjoy a spot of bird-watching. We stay in autumn, so it is a bit too chilly for outdoor dining but thanks to the environmentally-friendly insulation, we are nice and toasty indoors. We still enjoy the bird-watching literally on our doorstep: we just do it through the windows.
“Quality ingredients in the welcome pack”
For discerning travellers looking for eco-conscious hosts, you can rest assured that Gabriella and Neil adhere to their personal principles in this conversion and in the way they run their holiday accommodation. In addition to the provision of environmentally friendly cleaning products, the studio boasts greater eco-credentials. It is well insulated and there is energy efficient light. Electricity is generated via PV panels and much of the hot water used is heated by solar tubes. Our hosts demonstrate an awareness of the neighbouring wildlife, which comes as standard in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. They are able to suggest interesting local walks right from their doorstep.
An added touch of luxury, which is very much in keeping with Gabriela’s style, is the provision of locally produced organic soaps by Enchanted Plants. We are so impressed with the toiletries that we pay a visit to the shop in Shaftesbury. But guests don’t even have to do that, as Gabriela will sell you gift bags at the studio.
Another lovely touch is the quality of the ingredients in the welcome pack: organic bread made by the local vicar’s wife and sold at the delightful Semley Village Stores, organic milk and butter and mini jars of jam. We happen upon Semley Village Stores by chance and think it is uber-chic with its heritage colours and extensive array of local, fair trade and organic produce.
“A contender for most dog-friendly place in Britain”
We are charmed when tables are set up for us to breakfast outside (so we could sit with our dog). Even more so when a packet of decaf tea is opened just for me when it had, moments earlier, been sitting on the shelf as part of the shop’s stock. It is only later that we discover the shop is a community initiative run by volunteers, which not only impresses us further, but makes us want to move to Semley!
If, like us, you want to be sure your holiday has minimal negative impact on the environment, you’ll be pleased to know that the hosts provide recycling facilities on site. Even the dog poo goes into a wormery for making compost for the garden. Whilst not advertised as ‘dog-friendly accommodation’, the owners are happy to discuss requests to accommodate one small, well-behaved dog (with well-behaved owners) and they are perfect hosts to us and our small Westie, Tilly.
Speaking of ‘dog-friendly’: Shaftesbury must be a contender for most dog-friendly place in Britain. Not only did the Mitre Inn let us take Tilly into the bar area while we had a delicious lunch and a game of Scrabble, but every shop we go in to is dog-friendly too. And the water bowls and dog treats aren’t restricted to the pet shop: we find ladies clothes shop, Mistral, to be exceptionally friendly and welcoming. As well as whiling away a day, enjoying the kaleidoscopic colours of Stourhead Gardens in autumn, we also enjoy a trip to the seaside to enjoy some unseasonably excellent warm, sunny weather.
“The dish tantalises my taste buds”
In Lyme Regis, we ‘divide and conquer’, with the male contingent from our party going fossil-hunting (and fulfilling a life-long ambition) while me and Tilly chase seagulls on the beach and eat chips in the sunshine (her the former, me the latter).
The last planned stop on our whistle-stop tour of Dorset, Wiltshire and a tiny bit of Devon is River Cottage. Do we save the best until last? Well, I’m delighted to say that we have. But, before going to River Cottage HQ for a private tour and photo shoot, we are off to sample the delights of the River Cottage Canteen at Axminster. We are greeted by Tim, who shows us to a table in the lovely light and airy back room behind the deli. Yes, the bit you see on the telly. The menu changes daily and is on environmentally-friendly blackboards (no paper menus) with another blackboard listing the provenance of the main ingredients: Mussels from Exmouth, fish from Lyme Bay, that kind of thing. Uber-local ingredients in fact.
I start with an aperitif, whilst we savour the delicious home-made bread, and anticipate our mouth-watering starters. Mine is the delicious, warming roast squash, apple and sage soup. My husband’s is the scrumpy battered cauliflower with herb mayonnaise. I choose the Red Gurnard for my main course. It comes served on a bed of fennel, leek, spinach and new potatoes dressed in lemon butter. The aroma greeting me as the dish is served tantalises my tastebuds in to getting ready for action. They are not disappointed. The white flaky fish fillets are cooked and seasoned to perfection.
“Take in the stunning vistas”
This is the sort of food which is well worth over an hour’s drive to enjoy. My main course is accompanied by some lively, refreshing River Cottage elderflower wine. It tastes of summer and brings a smile to my face. I am fortunate enough to be able to also try the Exmouth mussels. They are large and juicy and cooked with diced apples in white wine: heavenly! There is a great choice of tempting desserts using seasonal produce. I plump for the roast plum with walnut crumble and lemon cream and I am not disappointed. The poached pear with thyme shortbread also got a ‘thumbs up’ from us. Plus, the cinnamon ice cream which accompanies it is just sublime.
Whilst we could happily wile away the rest of the afternoon soaking up the atmosphere and drinking tea and coffee, alas, on this occasion, we have no time as we are due at River Cottage HQ for a grand tour. The setting for River Cottage could not be more idyllic. It nestles in the gently rolling countryside, with stunning views in all directions. As we make our way down the track, we meet Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s sheep. We sigh deeply as we take in the stunning vista.
Just as we arrive at the cottage, we see Hugh leaving. We later learn that he is there to prepare for the filming of the latest Channel 4 ‘Mash up’. None of the chaos that usually goes along with filming (and film crews) seems evident. Our tour, which incorporates the gardens, the cookery school, function room and animal enclosures (including a spot of duck-sexing), culminates in a visit to the kitchen and dining room. Here, we can photograph the crew and the now famous kitchen.
“Cooking school has everything you need”
In February, there was a devastating fire at River Cottage. The barn, which houses the function room and cookery school, was destroyed. Happily, this did not deter the team from delivering their courses and hosting beautiful weddings. After we survey the remains of the barn (now encased in scaffolding) we are treated to a tour of the marquees. They now host the newly separated function/cookery school areas.
Unsurprisingly, given the stunning view from the marquee, at least one ‘happy couple’ has requested the marquee for their ‘big day’ in favour of the Barn. I have to say, I don’t blame them one bit. On a sunny day, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather celebrate someone’s nuptials. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to attend River Cottage’s cookery school, you can see it now on the Channel 4 series Three Good Things. There you will get a really good idea of the space. Despite its temporary nature, the school has everything you need. I for one can’t wait to return and enrol on a course.
“A most remarkable holiday”
And, that was meant to be the last of our holiday experiences. However, the glorious sunshine which greets us on our last morning tempts us to delay our journey home. Instead, we head for Pythouse Kitchen Garden in Wiltshire. We are so glad we do! What a treasure of a place. A romantic walled-garden oozing with late flowering blooms. We meander up and down the rows of veggies. Then we explore the shop and enjoy an early lunch at the café. We opt to sit outside and soak up what are possibly the last decent rays of sunshine of the year. What a fabulous way to end a most remarkable holiday – and one which we would whole-heartedly recommend.