Margot Henderson: ‘I’ve always had fantasies about opening a pub in the countryside’
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Think of a country village pub and most people know what it’s supposed to be,” says former gallerist and investor Max Wigram. “Low ceilings, wooden bar, open fire.” It’s a vision of cosiness once epitomised by his local, The Three Horseshoes in Batcombe, Somerset, a part of the country he’s been coming to with his wife, designer Phoebe Philo, and family for 25 years. “The pub was falling to pieces. But you could get a pint of local beer and pork pies with amazing chutney. I loved it.”
Despite having no particular wish to own a pub, Wigram told the former landlord that if he was ever thinking about selling, he should call him. Better that than The Three Horseshoes, which sits between a 15th-century church and acres of meadows and woodland, be redeveloped as flats. Then came the pandemic. Wigram got the call. And for the past two-and-a-half years, he’s been restoring the inn as a luxurious pub with rooms, due to open in March.
Biggest among its attractions will be the food, which is being overseen by chef Margot Henderson of London’s acclaimed Rochelle Canteen. “I love eating Margot’s food,” says Wigram of why he wanted the indomitable New Zealand-born chef onboard. “And I’ve eaten quite a lot. We go back.” Thirty-five years back, to be precise. The two met when Henderson was working at 192 in Notting Hill. (That was before she moved to First Floor Restaurant, The Quality Chop House and The Eagle in Clerkenwell, met her husband Fergus, they opened the French House dining room and two years later in 1994, he left to start St John.) Wigram lived around the corner and was a 192 regular.
When Wigram approached Henderson about joining The Three Horseshoes, she was looking for a new project; her catering firm Arnold & Henderson, which she runs with Melanie Arnold and whose clients include Paul Smith, Keira Knightley and the gallerist Sadie Coles, was scaling back. “I’ve always had fantasies about opening a pub in the countryside,” she admits. “But pubs are difficult. They’re often falling to bits. You think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this.’ So when somebody like Max takes that work on, it’s reassuring.” It also helped that Henderson had been coming to this part of Somerset for years and felt a connection. That the area was already a foodie destination, via visitors to Bruton, made it a bigger draw. “It’s the most exciting area,” she continues of the local produce. “Everyone’s got a Tamworth or a bed of asparagus they want to sell.”
A preview lunch at the pub kicks off with Wilding cider from Westfield Farm in north Somerset, which Wigram notes approvingly “smells truly delicious”. To follow is charcuterie (and later cheese) from Westcombe Dairy, bread from Landrace Bakery and salad leaves from Charles Dowding’s no-dig garden in Homeacres, which are tossed in an “almost drinkable” (and very lovely) dressing that Henderson and head chef Nye Smith (formerly of Rochelle Canteen and Moro) have only just perfected. “I love strong dressings,” Henderson says, “but I’m thinking something gentler, more family here.” This one contains Dijon mustard, buttermilk, cider and white-wine vinegar, lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.
The pub is partly a construction site when I visit. But I already get a sense of the transformation under way. The main room, which used to be a separate bar and gloomy parlour, has been opened up into a light-filled space with a wood-burning stove in the middle. The original inglenook fireplace at the far end is still intact, while the green carpets and concrete floor have been ripped up to reveal the original flagstones.
Upstairs, five spacious bedrooms designed with Frances Penn (who also collaborates with her father David Mlinaric) are being installed. Meanwhile the English country garden designed by Libby Russell – a Batcombe resident of 23 years – promises a mix of roses, wildflowers and herbs with an expansive lawn that frames the pub’s staggering views of the neighbouring church tower and stone walls.
The changing menus are a work in progress. But it’s fun to hear Henderson mulling over the possibilities. “I actually think boiled eggs would be nice. Potted meats. Toasted sandwiches,” she says of the bar snacks. “Kippers for lunch,” she beams. “Lots of beautiful beef. Vibrant watercress soup. Pork chops. Tarte tatin. Oh, that’s a bit French, isn’t it? Well, caramelised apple tart.
“We were just talking about pies,” she continues, so I ask what constitutes the perfect pie. “Well, it’s about braising, obviously. Say it was guinea fowl – a lot of things like trotters help for unctuousness. And the thickness of the pastry – with suet you don’t want it too thin because then it’s just a crisp lid. We were discussing having a bone in the middle to bring the lid up. And to make it specific to the Three Horseshoes, maybe three horseshoes on top. Oooh, we’ve gone too far now!” she roars with laughter.
It’s the perfect cue for today’s main event: a pot of Margot’s beef-shin stew with buttery mash and purple sprouting broccoli, and a bottle of Clos La Coutale 2020 Cahors from The Cellarhand in Bruton. It’s the kind of hearty, boozy meal that beckons you to the pub even on the glummest day.
With building work almost done, Wigram allows himself a moment of sentimentality. His father, property developer Antony Wigram, owned a couple of pubs in London. “Dad and I used to go to antique shops and buy pictures for the pubs,” he recalls. Lately, he’s been doing the same here, picking out still lifes (“pictures of boiled eggs, lemons, garlic”) and portraits. “I can’t wait to bring my father,” he says.
He isn’t the only one. The residents of Batcombe are apparently itching to get in after months of making do with drinks in the village hall and the occasional food van. “I can’t wait to see the bar,” chimes in Henderson of the soon-to-be-extended counter. “And to have a gin and tonic,” she adds. Let’s call that cook’s treat.