The Farmers Arms, Woolsery
This month’s tale is a fascinating one. The action centres around a small, sleepy village not far from the wild sea that swirls around the Hartland Peninsula and involves a San Francisco-based couple with a deep-rooted love of Devon, good hospitality and traditional craftsmanship.
Born in Cambridgeshire and California respectively, Michael and Xochi Birch first met as Physics students at Imperial College London in the late nineties. Once back in the States and just as Facebook was starting to take shape, the computer-programming couple launched Bebo – another of the pioneering social networking websites that helped define mid-noughties tech. Three years later, at the height of the dot-com boom, they sold to AOL for a small fortune.
Meanwhile, just over 5,000 miles away, the village of Woolsery was in serious decline. The hotel had closed and then the pub. The local shop was still open but in a state of disrepair. In a twist of fate, Michael’s mother’s family had lived in Woolsery since 1700 – his grandmother was in fact born above the shop. Michael himself had spent every summer holiday visiting and two months after meeting Xochi he started showing her the area. With one of their sons subsequently named Devon (the force is strong here) by 2014 they had bought the dilapidated pub, the fish and chip shop and the Manor hotel opposite and were soon on a mission to bring back the old community spirit and help preserve the village.
Today you’ll find a traditional thatched pub, sensitively reimagined with a modern twist, all brought to life by extremely skilled craftsmen. Emily (the couple’s right-hand lady) has superbly project-managed the whole thing. The customer journey, and it is a journey, begins in the oldest part of the building with the sparsely furnished but cosy Farmer’s Bar – perfect for a Tarka session. Then comes the Public Bar, a more colourful space with a big open-fire centrepiece, natural flagstones and comfortable seating. Next you reach the airy restaurant, full of texture with its massive exposed beams and playful taxidermy on the wall. Beyond is the ‘Shippon’ with its richly coloured fabrics, contemporary art and huge sense of space that opens onto a lovely outside terraced area. You could easily spend a day here.
Ian Webber, former Head Chef of Michelin starred Gidleigh Park, has his pick from the pub’s adjoining 90-acre farm. The land specialises in heritage rare breeds ranging from Ruby Red beef, Large Black pigs and Grey Faced Dartmoor lamb through to ducks and chickens. Then there’s the 16-acre Agroforest programme which will comprise biodiverse orchards, kitchen garden with honey production and pasture for crops. Across the different menus each dish demands your attention and nothing is wasted. The beer offering is just as sustainable with a firm commitment to sourcing and stocking Devon beers and ciders.
Michael and Xochi are a couple that have always been ahead of the curve – put simply, they find work stimulating. Their gorgeous reimagining of this North Devon local displays huge ambition for the future – it’s a completely new proposition and one that should be admired for its bold statement, commitment to creating local jobs and the wider implications for the long-term prosperity of Michael’s ancestral village. With a handpicked team of industry professionals in charge of the customer experience, The Farmers Arms delivers a mind-blowing experience at every turn. Long live the pub!
The Farmers Arms, Woolsery, Devon. EX39 5QP.
Tel: 01237 439328