Dunkery Beacon Country House
Come and be cosseted at this former hunting lodge – and MI6 safe house – with fine food, fine wine and the whole of Exmoor at your feet
When John and Jane Bradley took over this former Edwardian hunting lodge in 2012, it was an old fangled B&B in need of TLC. With their combined 40 years’ experience in fine dining and hospitality, they transformed it into an eight-bed hotel and restaurant. Since then it has won a clutch of awards and is Editor’s Choice in the 2019 Good Hotel Guide.
The first thing that strikes you are the views. The pink stucco hotel, with its wooden veranda, is tucked away in the village of Wootton Courtenay in the heart of the Exmoor national park. Facing south, it offers a stunning outlook over rolling pastures and ancient woodland and the moorland beyond, towards the high point of Dunkery Beacon. You’d be hard pushed to get there without your own wheels, but the meandering drive from the M5 is picturesque and well worth the effort.
The house is quintessentially English, and has a fascinating history. As a gentleman’s hunting lodge, it had 20 single rooms and the fraternity went out and bagged their own supper. So far, so conventional. The unexpected twist – adding a certain frisson – is that in the 1960s it was reputably a safe house for M16 agents, learning survival techniques on the moor. Jane has entertaining stories of them trying to verify this – and how hotel proprietor Colonel Purvis Smythe’s granddaughter dropped in and confirmed he was a spy. Good to muse over as you lounge on the terrace, soaking up the evening sun and sipping your martini cocktail (shaken not stirred).
Today the hotel has a relaxed vibe, allowing guests to unwind in style. Jane and John provide the personal touch, welcoming guests and unobtrusively attending to every detail, whether it’s the quality of food, comfort and ambience of the rooms or advice on local walks and attractions.
The hotel is set in an acre of mature gardens – abundant with flowers and seating to take in the views.
Décor is traditional with a modern twist. The lounge has a lovely bay window, comfy settees with opulently coloured cushions, orchids on a wooden coffee table with crimson throw and a wood burning stove for cosying up in winter.
The former public bar is now a charming little restaurant, with John’s striking photographic landscapes on the walls, wicker chairs and fresh flowers on the bar. And of course that view.
SCOFF & QUAFF
John is a trained chef and the hotel’s Coleridge restaurant – also open to non residents – has notched up local food awards for its sophisticated and imaginative fare. The seasonally changing à la carte menu has five or six choices for each course and champions Exmoor’s food heroes, smallholders, kitchen table top producers and garden growers. John also grows his own fruit and veg and edible flowers in the garden. So Porlock Bay oysters and vodka cured gravlax of Exmoor salmon sit with Exmoor honey roast breast of Devon duck and devilled Somerset lamb’s kidneys. The veggie mains option might include pea and mint tortelloni with wilted spinach, roast cherry tomatoes and parmesan crisp. Guests should ring ahead with other dietary preferences.
Jane used to work for Berry Bros & Rudd, and the prestigious wine merchants supply most of the extensive wine list. There’s also a chance to sample local bottled beers, ciders, brandy, Pomona and handcrafted Exmoor Wicked Wolf premium gin. Jane personally attends to every table, so you feel wonderfully looked after.
We started with mozzarella and pesto bruschetta with baby leaf salad and balsamic glaze, and sweet, succulent seared south coast scallops with Bury black pudding, crispy tempora seaweed, yuzu and pea puree. For our mains, we chose a chargrilled 8 oz somerset rib eye steak which was cooked to perfection and served with roast cherry tomatoes, flat cap mushrooms and baby roasters, and this crispy skinned fillet of Exmouth sea bass with squid ink linguine, buttered nage of vegetables with samphire and lobster bisque. Everything was perfectly delicious and beautifully presented.
For dessert, mulled poached pear with Dorset Blue Vinny cheesecake & caramelised walnut, and this “N’Eton Tidy” with clotted cream and home grown strawberries. Scrumptious.
John also makes his own bread, ice cream and fig and ginger preserve to accompany the West Country cheese board.
The eight immaculate double bedrooms include three suites, all with stunning views. A ground floor suite caters for people with limited mobility and well-behaved pooches are allowed. All bedrooms are en suite, except for one twin, with its own private shower opposite. Rooms are individually decorated, with Jane and John’s trademark attention to detail. Our suite boasted a fabulously comfortable king-size four-poster bed, separate private lounge with flatscreen TV/DVD and a bathroom spacious enough to accommodate a herd of Exmoor ponies.
Extra touches included chilled local spring water, homemade shortbread, fresh milk and a selection of Exmoor teas and Nespresso coffee maker.
Breakfast is traditional with a choice of five cooked options, cereals and fruit juices, fresh fruit salad, local honey and delicious home made jams.
OUT & ABOUT
Exmoor is a paradise for walkers, horseback riders and mountain bikers, with stunning and varied scenery encompassing glorious moorland, ancient wooded valleys and bubbling brooks, shingle beaches and stunning heritage coastline boasting the highest cliffs in England.
If you would rather just mosey around, the historic village and castle of Dunster, the coastal resort of Minehead and picture perfect villages, such as Selworthy on the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate, are all on the doorstep.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Escaping the hurly burly and unwinding in comfort and style in a delightfully tranquil location with stunning scenery all around. No children under 10, but ideal for a restful break with your partner, girls’ walking weekend or quality time with your mum.
Not for: Those dependent on public transport or wedded to their mobile phones. Most mobile phone networks don’t work in the hotel and the Wi-Fi is weak in some rooms.
The damage: Good value for the quality. Double rooms with breakfast, from £80 in low season and £90 in high (summer weekends and bank holidays). Discounts for group bookings and hiring the whole hotel. Sunday lunch: two courses £19.95; three courses £24.95. Dinner (Wed–Sat, April to Nov; Friday–Sat in Winter): starters from £6.50, mains from £16.00, desserts from £7.00.