The hotel register at The Hunters Inn on Exmoor has to be seen to be believed: signatures of Harold Wilson (address: 10 Downing Street, SW1), the Cartier family and Anna Pavlova feature in the vast books of fountain penned signatures of the great and the good from the last century.
The Swiss chalet style lodge was rebuilt in 1906 (the previous building that went back to the 19th century burnt down) to create a country retreat where the smart London set could don their tweeds and enjoy country pursuits in this magical place which would have been exceedingly difficult to reach from London back then.
It feels no less isolated today with the long approach through lanes that take you deep into the dramatic Heddon Valley – though in reality it’s just 25 minutes drive from Barnstaple. And when you finally arrive it’s like stepping into a long-forgotten dream; peacocks roam the grounds and chaps sit out drinking ale as if in a modern day ‘after the harvest’ Hardy-esque scene, which is fitting as Hardy mentioned the inn in Wessex Tales.
As you’d hope, the bucolic nature of the setting is reflected on the menu, which is written to please those returning from a solid day’s walking with dishes like chargrilled Exmoor sirloin with chips, roasted mushrooms, tomatoes and fabulous homemade onion rings, and slow roasted belly pork with caraway crackling and cider cream sauce. And what belly pork!
Falling apart, it’s unctuous, and topped with possibly the best crackling known to man and served with the sort of cider sauce that you’d lick off the plate if no one was looking. They can’t take it off the menu, according to proprietor David Orton, so they’ve given it a twist with the caraway seeds and a sweet apple mash to ring the changes in line with the developments (huge picture windows, raising the mature garden from the dead, bringing the bedrooms into the 21st century) that he’s put in place since buying the hotel a couple of years ago to save it from being turned into flats.
Bringing Jen Hill-Wickham (ex Damien Hirst’s No. 11 The Quay) a few months ago to manage front of house and add the finishing touches is more progress in the regeneration of this historic hidden gem. It’s a magical place that deserves the attention and to be visited – and not just for the belly pork.