Bruton was a handsome blur on your way through the West Country until the arrival of an art gallery put this historic town on the map. Since then, it’s become a magnet for London day-trippers looking for a short countryside break in bucolic Somerset.
Agricultural Somerset is a county full of pretty villages ensconced in rolling countryside, so what is it about Bruton, in particular, that has everyone suddenly knowing its name? Well, the credit for putting this small farming town of nearly 3,000 people on the tourism map has to go to the family Wirth, owners of Hauser & Wirth art galleries, who, after looking for a weekend bolthole away from London, decided that it was also the perfect spot for an international class gallery and art centre.
Since it’s opening in 2014, the gallery has acted as a magnet for day-tripper and art lovers taking the train in from the capital and elsewhere. But it’d be myopic not to note that the appeal of historic Bruton reaches back further in time – just in a quieter, more Somerset-conventional fashion.
With a name derived from ‘vigorously flowing river’ – most apt considering the regular river flooding that used to occur prior to a barrage built in the late-80’s – Bruton has a history that stretches back to the 7th Century. Its ancient stone buildings and narrow streets wind around the five-hundred-year-old King’s Bruton private school, and you can’t help but envy its students who build memories hopping across the River Brue stepping stones, and racing up the hill crowned with the magnificent medieval dovecote (perfect for a picnic).
The school’s art department, isolated as it is in this gorgeous stretch of country, is also probably grateful to Hauser & Wirth for slashing the mileage of school outings, and it’s here that any visitor to the area – art-minded or otherwise – should probably begin their visit. The gallery is not only a beautiful conversion of a Grade II-listed farmhouse, but it also sits within 100 acres of countryside, including a stunning 1.5 acre perennial meadow, designed by landscape designer Piet Oudolf.
It all makes for a perfect, laid-back weekend break, a rare blend of country idyll and cultural sophistication. Beyond Hauser & Wirth, the eclectic high street is worth exploring, as are the country lanes and walks into the surrounding hills. Just be sure to carry stocks of cider and Somerset cheddar in case you take an accidental detour…
If Hauser & Wirth is Bruton’s new sensory centre, then At The Chapel – a bakery, restaurant, wine shop and hotel – is its heart. Housed within a Grade-II listed former chapel on the high street, you can choose from eight comfortable, minimalist rooms hung with artworks on loan from the gallery. Come morning, you might awake to the smell of the in-house bakery’s croissants hanging from your door handle.
Centrally located, the odd sounding Blue Ball (named after a former pub in the area) is a cosy B&B that ticks all the right ‘quaint country-break’ boxes. Within the 16th century coaching inn that, despite a full refurbishment, has managed to maintain its character, you’ll find a choice of five en-suites starting from £70 per night. Free wifi is available in all rooms (except the Double Superior Ensuite), and the cooked Full English come morning is expertly done by friendly hosts, Ben and Nichola.
Restaurants, Bars & Cafes
On-site at Hauser & Wirth, the Roth Bar & Grill vies with the art for being the gallery’s main draw, and its DJ nights have helped established the restaurant’s bar as an island of lively nightlife amid the sleepy countryside weekends. Expect local produce (with some harvested from the slightly surreal on-site Kitchen Garden), with the menu offering seasonal deliciousness such as merguez sausages, superfood salads, and Tomahawk steaks with béarnaise sauce to share.
With its Swiss Army Knife presence on the High Street, it’d be wrong not to include At the Chapel in the eating as well as the sleeping directory for this guide. You can pick up the essentials for a memorable picnic from their on-site artisan bakery and wine store (the latter has an unusual and relatively inexpensive selection of organic and biodynamic small producers), or stop in the restaurant for ‘a relaxed Mediterranean approach to British food’.
Before Bruton’s cosmopolitan makeover, it was – and, to an extent, remains – a typically friendly and cosy Somerset village. The Sun Inn on the High Street is a friendly place to connect with the authentic Bruton, never mind a fine place for a pint. Outside of the traditional allure, The Sun also throws a googly with its food menu – the typical pub fare is available, but atypical is the aromatically magnificent Persian cuisine. Perfect to pair with some warm English bitter… perhaps.
Somerset-based Bean Shot Coffee is an award-winning chain of two small coffee bars, one of which is found near Bruton’s Godminster cheese shop. It’s also a roastery – as the smell will attest when you go in – but this is a bright and cheerful place to get a cup of some of the finest flat white that the county has to offer.
Definitely the most unique restaurant you’ll find in Bruton – let alone in Somerset – is Matt’s Kitchen. Essentially the front room of Matt Watson’s terraced house, the self-taught chef serves an eclectic, ever-changing menu with Thai, Italian, and French influences. Think starters like crispy chicken fritters with Thai green curry sauce, and lamb mechoui on spelt barley pilau with anchovy crumbs for a main. Don’t forget to bring your own booze and a sense of adventure.
If you’ve fallen more for Somerset’s hippy-ish vibe than the arch design that’s moved in on the wings of Hauser & Wirth, then you might find your perfect souvenir in Made in Bruton. Essentially an arts collective storefront representing talent from the surrounding area, Made in Bruton stocks a variety of arts and crafts including colourful pottery, textiles, and jewellery; or, to put it another way, the art in Bruton that you can afford to take home.
Caro is the perfect shopping accompaniment to the Hauser & Wirth Bruton makeover – a Scandi design shop run by another relocated Londoner. It’s no surprise then that the shop is stocked with trendy brands like Aesop and HAY, and, if you’re really taken with the experience, you can even hire the owner to deck out your entire house. Caro also offers a B&B – the double en-suite is a study in calm Nordic design (what else?), and the included breakfast is redeemable at At the Chapel.
If you’re in a hire car, a short drive along rambling lanes will take you to the nearby Westcombe Dairy Farm Shop attached to the cheesemaker’s traditional and, paradoxically, state-of-the-art creamery. Westcombe are one of the leading cheddar producers in Somerset, so be sure to pick up a wedge or round of their multi award-winning unpasteurised product for sale, and some of the outstanding craft brews from the Wild Beer Co. that has a brewery on the Westcombe Dairy site.
Another noted local cheesemaker is Godminster. Its wax-wrapped cheeses make for excellent gifts, and they even do a delicious heart-shaped brie for the more romantic cheese-fancier. Like many cheesemakers these days, they’ve also diversified into booze, and rather than jumping on the craft gin boom, Godminster are all about the vodka. There’s elderflower and blackcurrant variations available, but the real miracle is the horseradish vodka that packs a powerful bite. Perfect for introducing some rocket fuel into the picnic hamper.
Founded by the Selfish Mother blogger-turned-clothes designer Molly Gunn, The FMLY Store is, as the name suggests, a family-friendly boutique that looks more Brooklyn than Burton. The main draw are the popular sweatshirts with slogans coined by Gunn, while any of the #GoodTees range raise funds for the shop’s favourite charities. As a mother of three, Gunn has shaped the store to allow it to be a place “where children can run feral and no one bats an eyelid”, so be prepared (or better yet, take your own feral creature to add to the pack).