Helen Browning's organic food empire stretches to a farm, restaurant and a lovely country pub with beautifully-done rooms. Country Life paid a visit.
Helen Browning must be a very busy lady. You might have seen her name emblazoned on packets of sausages and bacon in Sainsbury’s or on Ocado. She might also ring a bell thanks to her role as CEO of the Soil Association.
But beyond running a 1,500-acre pork and dairy farm and the UK’s highest-profile organic food campaign, she has also put her name to restaurant and a lovely country inn. The latter is Helen Browning’s Royal Oak, situated in the village of Bishopstone in the rolling Wiltshire countryside a few miles from Swindon.
We’re simply in awe of the energy it must take to keep all those plates spinning. But then again, when you’re responsible for several hundred dairy cattle and almost 2,500 pigs, a pub with 12 lovely rooms probably doesn’t sound like much extra to worry about – especially with a great team behind you, as Helen has in her partner Tim (who runs the Royal Oak) and the rest of the staff. It probably helps that the mission statement emblazoned on the pub’s literature couldn’t be much clearer: pigs, pies, pints and pillows.
No matter where you are within Helen’s empire, however, the lovely thing is that it all seems connected as one big whole. Stay at the Royal Oak, for example, and as well as enjoying a lovely night away you’ll also be offered a guided tour of the pig enclosures and the dairy farm (see the ‘Don’t Miss’ section below).
We stayed in a dog-friendly family room known as ‘Kate’s Folly’, in honour of a friend of Helen’s who once worked with her growing fruit on the farm (all the rooms have similarly personal names). It was huge (even with four of us staying it didn’t feel crowded) and had lots of lovely touches. The idea of creating a feature wall plastered with a huge photograph of the farm was great; and the attention to detail was great to see (the superb shower; the swish Dyson hairdryer, the decadent bath in the room). Austere farmhouse accommodation this is not.
The accommodation isn’t just about the room, however – across the courtyard there is also a living room called ‘The Wallow’ where gusts can kick back on a sofa, make some tea or coffee, pick up a magazine and pop something on the old-school vinyl record player (via which Tim’s enormous vinyl collection is enjoying a second lease of life). The upstairs of the pub itself has a similar corner, incidentally, for when it’s not hosting a private party or being used for overspill from below.
Food and drink
As you’d expect of a working farm full of pigs and cattle, pork and beef feature heavily on the Royal Oak’s menu – and they know exactly what to do with them. The slow-roast pork belly was declared ‘the best meal I’ve had in years’ by my other half; so much so that she quickly reneged on our agreement to swap dishes half-way through. I wasn’t complaining: my burger was full of flavour, moist and perfectly-cooked.
Desserts also ticked the comfort-food boxes in style, particularly the sticky toffee pudding – light, soft and tasty, while the ice cream (particularly the chocolate) was fabulous.
Breakfast is also well worth a special mention, with a lovely range of cereals, breads and fruit to warm you up for a top-notch Full English featuring the thick-cut bacon and spiced sausages you’d expect.
What to do
Walking is high up on the list. The ancient Ridgeway – a path across the country which dates back to the Neolithic era – dissects the farm, and one of the team will happily drop you off and pick you up to save you the trek to the path itself.
If you’re jumping in the car, the beautiful town of Marlborough – famous for the College – is a picturesque and interesting little place full of unusual shops, well worth a stop-off. We also headed five minutes further up the road to Avebury, site of an ancient stone circle that’s believed to be the largest in the world. Unlike Stonehenge, you can walk right up to the stones; also unlike Stonehenge, Avebury’s stones are still in their natural shape, rather than carved and balanced.
Even more fun was Avebury Manor, on the same site and run by the National Trust, where a grand 16th century house was given an unusual makeover back in 2011 when it starred in a BBC documentary series.
Each room was themed to a different century, authentically recreated – but its newness means that, for once, you can actually touch and feel as well as just look. Play with the pots and pans in the Victorian kitchen; sit and relax on the sofa in the 1930s living room; and climb between the sheets of a 17th century-style four-poster bed in the room where Queen Anne once stayed. Kids and adults alike loved it.
- The farm tour is free, fun and fascinating. Tim, Helen’s partner, takes guests out in the Land Rover where you’ll get to wander among the pigs – and, depending on the season, maybe even see the calves as well. It’s organised on an ad hoc basis at the moment, but Tim is planning to formalise a schedule soon to make sure nobody misses out. Our kids were thrilled from the moment they hopped into the, ahem, ‘well-used’ red Land Rover.
- The vinyl record players. There’s one in The Wallow, and also another upstairs in the pub’s relaxation space/function room/dance floor. The staff have gathered together all their old records (we found everything form Sinatra to Pink Floyd). I’d forgotten how the ritual of putting a record on somehow made the start of a song seem that much more special.
- If you’re in this neck of the woods in June, you could witness the spectacle of pig racing through the streets of Bishopstone. It’s been running for five years, and this summer attracted some 800 people and raised £2,500 for charity.
One night staying in Kate’s Folly costs from £130 on a B&B basis for two, or £170 if there are four staying in the room (two in a large double bed, the other two on a sofa bed); other rooms start from £85. The menu is seasonal and changes constantly depending on what’s about, but main courses are generally in the £12-£20 bracket, while starters and desserts are both around £7.
More details about the Royal Oak, the farm and the rooms are at helenbrowningsorganic.co.uk/royal-oak
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