The Farmers Arms, Woolsery
So, what attracted you to the millionaires' pub in Woolsery...where do I start?
Take one derelict 16th century pub, two millionaire owners, a three-year renovation and what do you get? Something seriously spesh, that’s what. If you haven’t clocked The Farmers Arms in Woolfardisworthy yet, get clocking; it opened last autumn and already Sunday lunches are booked out for weeks in advance. It’s that good.
With all the rave reviews from locals I couldn’t get there fast enough, once I’d worked out how to find it that is. The locals shorten the village’s name to Woolsery and so it turns out does the sat-nav.
Not quite middle of nowhere, but almost. The Farmers Arms is in the centre of the village, just 1000 strong, along with the post office and a fish and chip shop. It shut down a few years back, leaving a hole in the roof with a tree growing out and an even bigger hole in the village where its heart should be.
The locals tried and failed to save it, and that’s when Bebo millionaires Michael and Xochi Birch – who sold their social network for a cool £550m in 2008 – stepped in from across the pond to buy it. Michael has links with the village as his grandmother was born above the village shop. They also bought the chippie, the shop and and the run-down Georgian manor opposite which is literally under wraps for renovation. There’s a very promising 17-room spa hotel coming in 2022 (if it’s anything like the pub I’d bagsy your room now).
Think 16th century pub chic, it’s the local’s pub and a real crowd pleaser; so much so a man sitting on one of the comfy leather stools at the bar practically fell off in his eagerness to praise the place. It oozes good taste, comfort and quality, with much craftsmanship in the pegged oak beams, sleek wooden bar and feel-good lighting. It’s nice to know a Devon architect and lots of local craftsmen had a hand in its creation.
The modern art is a real head-turner. Two stuffed bull’s heads hang either side of the curtained opening to the private dining room and a huge hologram of David Bowie beckons you to dance with him. Take a gander down that well under the table by the fire as you enter, it’s covered in glass so there’s no risk of falling in after one of their tasty Devon gin cocktails.
Up the oak steps to the loos – labeled Devon-style with ‘Bays’ and ‘Maids’ – is a games room with darts, a poker table and a guitar donated by one of the villagers, where the Young Farmers come for meetings and the youth like to chill with a pint.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Word is the Sunday sharing lunches are top-notch but Mr Muddy and I came for a weekday dinner sans the youth so dined in The Shippon, aka the new posh area, a glass-topped barn-like addition, with high-backed tweedy seats and a first class railway-carriage vibe. The place was packed for a week night; a mix of families, older couples and snappy young instagrammer types and as you’d expect lots of local, seasonal fare on the daily-changing menu.
First to the table was a slice of sourdough bread and a palate cleanser of warm meaty broth served in a rustic handmade bowl designed for cupping in two hands and drinking down, medieval style.
Starters was a choice of duck liver, venison and hand-dived scallop and a veggie option. I honed in on a snow-white egg topped with a feathery foam on a nest of caramelised onions so stunning I dropped my camera-phone in it, while Mr M munched on a beautiful turnip-topped mackerel.
Confusingly for half-wits incapable of holding onto their own phones, some dishes are listed in reverse, so veg sides headline above the meat or fish. I’m guessing this is to highlight the intriguing ingredients, including pepper dulse (a small red seaweed) and sea buckthorn berries foraged by the chefs from the beach at nearby Bucks Mill, but vegetarians might want to be vigilant when ordering, especially after a glass of wine *or two*.
For mains, Mr M had a succulent hogget (meat from a 1-2 year-old sheep) with a hedgerow harvest of garlicky ransomes, nettles and cleavers while I opted for halibut over a mash of seaweed, Knightor vermouth from Cornwall and soft, melty leeks that, according to the well-briefed restaurant manager Harry had been charred over the pub fire that afternoon.
For dessert we went experimental with a soft, light parfait – mine flavoured with tangy buckthorn berries and marigold leaves, and Mr M’s a zingy blood orange dish with sherbet meringue which came with a triangle of fruit leather and sweet crisp. It was topped off with a petit four, like a miniature doughnut that popped with a creamy lemon and basil flavour.
I’d take my young teens here but I would probably veer younger Mudlets to the kids’ menu in the bar or the Sunday sharing menu; unless they are young gourmands it would be wasted on them. It’s not an anything-goes-place but that said, the staff are all terribly good-humoured and helpful and there is a tiny walled garden and arbour to toddle about in.
OUT AND ABOUT
Just three miles from the North Devon coast you’re right off the beaten M5 track here, on narrow lanes that wind along with trees combed over by the wind at 45-degree angles. The jagged ship-wrecker cliffs at Hartland Quay and the car-free cobbles of the old fishing village at Clovelly, both under five miles away. Should you have littlies in tow, you can feed the flock and ride the county’s biggest rollercoaster at The Big Sheep just outside Bideford less than nine miles away.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Sunday lunches with the family; couples; girls’ nights out; fine dining and pub grub; foodies looking for an adventure; anyone looking for Michelin-style food without the fanfare.
Not for: people who like plain and simple food. Non-drivers: the 319 bus stops just five times a day and the nearest train station is Barnstaple 18 miles away.
The damage: If this was London you could probably double it. Restaurant starters from £10; mains from £18 and desserts from £8, while the pub options start at £5 for starter, mains £11.50 and £5 for dessert. Kids menu £5.50. Sunday lunch adults £25/kids £12.50.
The Farmers Arms, Woolsery, Bideford EX39 5QS. Tel: 01237 439 328