One minute you’re battling traffic on LA’s 405 Freeway – wondering whether, due to overexposure, your own flesh might bind to the upholstery in your 1990s Honda Civic – and the next you’re sitting in a 16th-century farmhouse in the English countryside; your legs blissfully free to slide from side to side on the wooden bench and your trickiest decision a dead heat between goose and braised brisket for supper. A change of scenery can be a beautiful thing.
I’ve travelled more than 5,000 miles for this farmhouse, now a boutique hotel with five rooms, called Artist Residence Oxfordshire. Since opening its doors last May, the property has already landed on the Times ‘100 best British hotels’ list, been lauded by the Independent for ‘making the countryside a little more louche’, and nabbed a nomination for Best-Dressed Hotel in the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Awards 2018. And word travels fast – as in, across-continents fast.
The final straws on the property’s refurbished thatched roof haven’t even been in place for a year and already friends hailing from London to Los Angeles have visited and returned with rave reviews. One pal, a Hollywood casting agent, rhapsodizes over the hotel’s attention to detail, ‘right down to the embroidered hair dryer and slipper bags.’ A Brooklyn-based couple – both photographers – message me that it’s ‘the quirky country retreat of their dreams’, and they swear they’d move there if only they knew something about raising chickens. Louche, quirky… chickens – these are words that will inspire me to book a trip every time.
Artist Residence Oxfordshire is in a rural English village called South Leigh, just on the edge of the Cotswolds, with a population of 336. The place is perhaps most famous for an eccentric former local named Gerry Stonhill, who took on Tony Blair’s smoking ban a decade ago and defiantly paid a citation entirely in coppers (more on him later). Though the area feels remote (as one of the hotel’s employees later tells me about someone who had claimed to be passing by, ‘I knew that wasn’t true; nobody is ever just passing through here’), it’s incredibly easy to access from London. I hop on a train at Paddington Station, which takes about an hour to get to Hanborough. From there it’s only a 10-minute cab ride before I pull into the hotel’s gravel drive. A pair of petite penguin statues greet me and I spot a door with a metal plate reading, ‘NO RIFF RAFF’. It appears they’ve been forewarned.
I’ve arrived after dark and I feel disoriented when I enter to find myself in the middle of a cosy restaurant with a fire blazing and a young couple sharing a pint of ale. ‘Excuse me,’ I say to a waitress passing by. ‘I’m looking for the hotel. Which way to the lobby?’ She smiles warmly and tells me to wait just a minute. She then returns with a red-tasseled key and grabs my bag. ‘Follow me’, she says.
She takes me to my room, which is a compact but well-appointed corner space known as the Rabbit Hole. There are vintage tea crates repurposed as side tables, a leather pincushion headboard, a refurbished sliding fire-escape door that leads to the bathroom, floor-to-ceiling subway tiles in the shower and retro touches, including a rotary-style phone and Roberts radio. Once I’ve gotten the lay of the land, the waitress tells me to help myself to a plate of warm snickerdoodles sitting on the windowsill, and invites me down to dinner any time before 9:30pm.
My initial confusion over the seemingly missing lobby/check-in desk can be chalked up to the fact that I was expecting a full-fledged hotel, but Artist Residence is a pub with rooms – a concept that’s relatively foreign to American travellers like me. Of course we do have bed & breakfasts in the States, but the emphasis there is more on pancakes in the am and less on pints in the pm. Instantly I think of that Semisonic song ‘Closing Time’ and realise it could never have been written by a British band. ‘You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here…’ Sure you can.
Hotel, pub with rooms, tomAYto, tomAHto… is it all just hospitality parlance? ‘It’s really an inn’, says Charlie Salisbury, who owns the property along with her husband, Justin, and sister-in-law, Lavender. ‘With only five bedrooms, it’s very bespoke, very boutique. It’s really an inn – a country inn – with rooms.’
Call it what you will – a bar with beds, an eatery with extra space – there’s no denying the place is getting some love. What’s immediately clear is how seamlessly Charlie and her team blend classic and cool, taking tradition and tweaking it in surprising ways. For example, one afternoon I find an elderly couple, locals from the village, sitting at a corner table enjoying glasses of hot mulled wine. Beneath their feet is flagstone flooring dating back centuries, and around them original mahogany pews. Above them hangs a painting by 21st-century artist Alexander Hall that features a pack of paint-splattered Marlboros with the message ‘Smoking Chills’. On an adjacent wall is an installation by felt artist Lucy Sparrow, featuring British pantry staples such as Twiglets, HP Sauce and McVitie’s Digestives, all made of fuzzy fabric. Sparrow is the same artist who recreated an entire New York City bodega made of felt inside The Standard, High Line, and before that crafted an all-felt sex shop in London, complete with plush versions of Playboy and cloth condoms.
Charlie herself is something of a contradiction, at least in terms of age and utter expertise. I watch her one afternoon as she tends to the pub’s open hearths, then greets a family stopping in for lunch. Soon after, I spot her outside on a ladder stringing twinkling lights onto a courtyard tree. Her ease with every aspect of the job – owner, interior designer, master hostess – should be reserved for someone who’s spent a lifetime doing this. Yet, Charlie is only 31 years old – and both she and Justin became hoteliers by happenstance.
In 2008, back when the two were still university students and dating, Justin’s mother was involved in an accident that left her unable to manage her guesthouse in Brighton. Justin took over, asking Charlie to work with him, and the two got to work reinventing the property. In order to differentiate theirs from others in the area, Justin invited local artists to decorate the bedrooms in exchange for room and board; and thus Artist Residence was born. After getting married, the pair went on to open additional locations in Cornwall and London. The Artist Residence Oxfordshire is their fourth but by no means final property. The duo is already at work on a fifth bolthole, a former boot factory set in a Georgian terrace mansion on Portland Square in Bristol (Justin, by the way, is off checking on this location during my visit to Oxfordshire). The 28-room hotel (it seems alright to refer to this one as a fully fledged hotel), with a restaurant, bar and event space, will be the brand’s most ambitious project yet. It’s due to open in late 2018.
When I ask Charlie what she’d be doing if she weren’t creating boutique hotels, she sits quietly for a few moments, genuinely mulling over the question. ‘I suppose maybe a travel specialist’, she finally offers. But I can tell I’ve foisted an alternate career path on her. ‘No, not really’, she corrects herself. I’m really passionate about doing what we do. I love creating something special.’
If it’s passion that ensures the artwork is interesting and the check-in log full, it’s also passion that makes those in-room snickerdoodles possible. Chef Leon Smith is the kitchen counterpart to Charlie. While she’s practically giddy when describing a hunt for paintings and salvaged pieces (she often looks to eBay, the Battersea Antiques Fair and the Affordable Art Fair), he lights up when describing a stroll through the restaurant’s vegetable patch. For Leon, who has experience at three Michelin-starred restaurants and training with Tom Aikens under his belt, his career has been something of a rebellion. ‘My dad was a chef for 25 years and told me not to do it’, he says. ‘But of course when your dad tells you not to do something, that’s the first thing you go and do.’
Leon is 28 years old and his right arm is covered in tattoos. He lives around the corner and all the chefs he oversees in the inn’s restaurant (officially called Mr Hanbury’s Mason Arms) are also his roommates. At first, I imagine raucous culinary hangouts, Animal House-style dinner parties, but then Leon tells me that he and the guys like to spend their days off foraging and I realise I’ve misjudged the group. They search for blackberries and rosehips in South Leigh, and mushrooms in the woods around Oxfordshire (although Leon sadly can’t eat his fungal finds, as he’s allergic).
The food is classic country pub fare with a twist here and there. Leon says, ‘I’m not trying to make a strawberry look like a tomato; I want people to understand the food but I still want them to think about what they’re eating.’ One of the more atypical dishes on the menu, and the one he’s most excited about at the moment, is a mackerel rillette with whipped cod roe, cucumber, whipped dill pickled in white balsamic, fresh horseradish, truffle and lemon.
Fresh produce is at the centre of what Leon makes – his menu changes daily based on what’s available in the hotel’s veg patch and the top picks from local suppliers. Additionally, he asks all of his chefs to lend a hand in the garden. ‘People forget how to respect vegetables as much as a piece of meat’, he says. ‘What I really try to teach the guys is that if you grow your own vegetables, you have that respect from the beginning; from working with the soil to weeding, you see your vegetables grow and you start to understand how important they are.’
Also important to Artist Residence Oxfordshire: a good drink. After all, the building has long served as a pub, a purpose the locals passionately defended in 2015 when a developer tried to purchase the property. Fearing the pub would be turned into a residential development, the villagers plotted to buy the building themselves. They successfully blocked the developer, and in the end, the Artist Residence group made the purchase, saving the pub and ensuring that patrons would be able to get a pint (or properly sloshed) in South Leigh for generations to come.
Mickey Knighton, the man who heads up food and beverage for all the Artist Residence properties, is well aware of the history and sense of community behind the pub. When I sit down one afternoon to sample a signature cocktail or two, he’s quick to point out that the bar itself has been built from repurposed materials from the cottages behind the inn.
Sourcing liquor, beer and wine from the area is as crucial to Mickey as getting local produce is to Leon. You’ll find Cotswolds Dry Gin and beers from North Cotswold Brewery behind the bar. On the menu, ‘Martin’s mint’ is a nod to the pub patron who brings the sprigs with him when he stops in for a pint each night. One of Mickey’s wine suppliers lives just up the road. ‘When we run out of something’, Mickey explains, ‘we just call him up and say, “Rupert, we need another bottle”. And he’ll just bring it over.’
Plus, like any good drinking establishment, the stories are also sourced locally. Everybody’s favourite topic, it seems, is Gerry Stonhill, the anti-smoking-ban maverick mentioned earlier. Gerry owned the pub in its previous incarnation, the Individual Mason Arms and Cuban Cigar Club, which closed in 2013 when its controversial barkeep retired. In Gerry’s era, the pub didn’t welcome children, mobile phones, vegetarians or media restaurant critics. Back then, the property had a helicopter pad, reputedly used by Bob Geldof, and the menu didn’t include prices. Rural legend has it that if anyone asked for a price, Gerry would snap that if you have to ask, you’re too poor to afford it. Oh, and that ‘NO RIFF RAFF’ sign? Yeah, that was Gerry’s.
But riff raff, fear not. The Salisburys only kept the sign up as a tongue-in-cheek memento of the past. The stories of yesteryear are as much a part of the inn as the exposed beams and Morris & Co wallpaper. In collaboration with the Connor Brothers – a pair of artists who’ve supplied some of the pieces hanging in the dining room, including what looks like the cover of a pulp fiction novel that says, ‘TELL HIM I WAS TOO FUCKING BUSY – OR VICE VERSA’ – the team came up with a fictional character named Mr Hanbury, who serves as the mythical owner of Artist Residence. He’s also an homage to real-life Gerry Stonhill. If that’s not bizarre enough, the Connor Brothers are actually fictional characters created by the artists known as the Connor Brothers. The duo, Mike Snelle and James Golding, use the pseudonym – as well as a tall tale about how they escaped from a California cult that also included the actors River and Joaquin Phoenix – for professional purposes, naturally. If you’re confused, just know that Mr Hanbury is the only fake figure here that really factors into the Artist Residence world.
When I ask Mickey what Mr Hanbury likes to drink, he doesn’t miss a beat. ‘The South Side in South Leigh’, he says. It’s a gin-based cocktail, similar to a mojito, garnished with Martin’s famous mint. ‘Mr Hanbury is a travelling man’, Mickey tells me. He went to the States and discovered this on Chicago’s South Side, then brought it back here to South Leigh.’ Similarly, a cocktail called Mr Hanbury’s Cigar Club, also gin-based but this time mixed with a pale ale reduction and a mescal wash, celebrates another hobby of the mythical man. I try both of them and they’re delicious. The first is light and refreshing with a zingy aftertaste, thanks to a black peppercorn tincture, and the second is decadent and slightly smoky. Mr Hanbury has great taste.
The whole Mr Hanbury thing is just weird enough to work. And maybe it’s this elaborate storytelling that makes other creatives feel at home. During my stay, I catch a man poring over a hefty manuscript while sitting by the hearth two days in a row. At breakfast one morning, between bites of syrup-smothered pancakes, I tell my waitress that I’ve spent all morning writing. ‘Isn’t this a great place to think?’ she says. ‘You know, we recently had people from Pixar here. They were brainstorming’, she adds conspiratorially.
Later, as I sit in a gin-fuelled haze staring at a neon sign near the bar that reads WHAT DID I DO LAST NIGHT? (I blame Mr Hanbury for everything), it dawns on me. Here’s the thread that runs through every element of the hotel: a reverence for the past with a commitment to evolving. Mickey has new ales to swap in, and Chef Leon has plans to take foraging courses this winter. Charlie mentions that the property will be expanding this year to include 10 additional bedrooms in the outbuildings, shepherd huts, yurts, a small pool, café and event space –projects that will affect the whole team.
Before I leave, I ask Charlie how she knows when a hotel is a success and she says, ‘I’m not sure you ever do. In this business, you never really see a finished product.’
To use a phrase that’s even more LA-centric than starting a piece by describing the 405 Freeway, each member of the Artist Residence is honing their craft. And although I have a feeling the fictional Mr Hanbury would scoff at that and the real Mr Stonhill would roll his eyes (or worse), it’s true. To redeem myself for using such a cliché, I suppose I’d have to invite both characters out front for some stogies near the penguins. Easier to keep an eye out for riff raff from there, anyway.
Videography by Ben Stevens
Featured image by Louis Sheridan
Note: Since our visit, Artist Residence Oxfordshire has opened a sixth bedroom – the Barn Suite with terrace and log burner. A seventh room is set to open in the coming weeks.