The Pig at Combe is a restaurant in a country house hotel in a valley in Devon. I actually went to the Combe when it was only a country house hotel but, unlike Martha Gellhorn looking around a hotel function room in Spain and realising it had been an operating theatre in the Civil War, I did not recognise it. I spent three hours eating there, and I missed it until I looked it up and realised I spent a slightly haunted night here 15 years ago, after covering something Jane Austen-related nearby. That is an occupational hazard of the female newspaper feature writer, and that cold blue-and-white wall-paper will be dead now too. It was swallowed by a suave pig.
There are multiple Pigs; it is a growing brand in country house hotels. There is a Pig on the Beach at Studland, a Pig in Brockenhurst, a Pig near Bath and a Pig in the Wall at Southampton. It is, I fancy, a faint homage to a Cowshed Spa, where you can buy beauty products called Knackered Cow and Horny Cow if you can be bothered to be that self-loathing and whimsical while in possession of a slightly softer bottom, which I can’t.
It was not always a country house hotel, of course; there was a whole culture before they existed, so I can only be thankful that detective fiction didn’t exist either, for where would it have lived? It was, and is, a house. It looks Tudor from a distance, and Victorian close up, and, like all the most interesting country houses, it is both, with plenty in between. Dead men didn’t buy cars, if rich. They built wings.
Its owners were an ancient family, who have been planting trees since before Martin Luther got angry. Francis Fulford told me that estates last longer down here — his, at Great Fulford, has been owned by his family since King Richard’s time. There are apparently fewer temptations to ruin in Devon than, say, Berkshire. It is more grand than beautiful, but as soon as I see a vast fire in the grate in the hallway that is now a cocktail bar — and it was a warm day, too — I am glad that I came to the Pig.
The best way to describe the Pig is that it is like Babington House in Somerset — Soho House in the country — but marginally less hateful. There are smooth grey rooms with purple velvet sofas, it is true, and lines of pink Hunter wellies to borrow under sweeping staircases. They are arranged in height, as if for toddlers. There are many Range Rovers outside. But somehow, being in Devon, not Somerset, it feels far less like London in the countryside than the countryside being a bit like London. It is an important distinction, for it means that there are no 50-year-old millennials seeking adult-only ball pits and fantasising about riding unicycles round the park. Ideally, they would fall off.
It is richly, and beautifully decorated: the dining rooms look like mad, spindly gardens that have walked into the house, and the tables are occupied by large families, and even babies of the suave, but not the most suave kind. I did not for instance see a baby wearing cashmere neutrals, which is a fashionable country house hotel trope.
It is the last warm Sunday of the year, so we eat outside, plainly, prettily — more prettily than in a pub — and very well: roast pork for him, roast beef for me, and spaghetti for the child. Of course, you should not really serve Yorkshire pudding with roast pork and crackling, but he is happy, and what else matters?
So I would return to the Pig. Or any Pig. Perhaps next time I would recognise it.