Abbots Court is framed as a rural getaway where one can set the stresses of day to day living to one side and enjoy the simpler, finer things in life. Yet for Jez and Niki Barfoot, the husband and wife team behind this venture, it is also a labour of love, and the realisation of their longheld dream to become self sufficient through their own smallholding.
The pair started out in the hospitality game back in 2012, when they set up their highly successful restaurant, The Tickled Pig, in nearby Wimborne. Their menu of homegrown and locally-sourced ingredients, carefully designed around the seasons, proved a winning formula, and they were able to create a subsidiary catering business – Tickled Pig Events.
To open a hotel – though it has to be said that Abbots Court feels rather more like staying in a much-loved and lived-in home – was always the end-goal, Niki tells me, but it was just a matter of finding the right property.
Situated as it is in five acres of its own woodland and meadow, in a peaceful village between Bournemouth and Dorchester, it is easy to see why Jez and Niki chose this rambling Victorian farmhouse as the site for their venture, yet realising their vision was not entirely without its difficulties.
Owned by the Drax Estate, the property was originally the farmhouse for the neighbouring dairy farm and had been rented for a number of years, before being left empty and gradually falling into a state of disrepair. When Jez and Niki happened upon it, both the house and garden were vastly overgrown with sycamore and in need of significant renovation.
In under a year the pair have achieved an incredible amount; clearing the debris from the house and garden, re-decorating, re-wiring and re-plumbing, as well as reconfiguring the space to accommodate seven guest rooms and en-suite bathrooms.
Creating a functional layout – in accordance with health and safety regulations – while preserving the integrity of the house, was one of the most challenging elements of the restoration, Niki tells me.
“It was a bit like a puzzle, working out the configurations of the rooms and how they slotted together,” she says. “We realised that we couldn’t accommodate the seven guest rooms we had planned upstairs, so what was originally intended as a snug on the ground floor is now the seventh guest room. It works perfectly actually as a more accessible room for less able guests, and has really wonderful views over the garden.”
Named after the couple’s favourite rare breed pigs – the couple own a small herd of rare breed Oxford Sandy and Blacks themselves! – the guest rooms are all unique in style and personality. There is a real mid-century feel to many of the rooms, with their quirky blend of period and more contemporary furnishings, and despite being newly refurbished, they feel lived-in and loved. Indeed, much of the furniture is from the couple’s own collection, including pieces handed down through the generations.
Saddleback is the largest of the guest rooms, boasting wonderful views from its dual aspect windows. A beautiful tiled fireplace is set off perfectly with Farrow & Ball’s decadent ‘Renaissance’ wallpaper, which brings warmth to the room with its gold tones and enchanting pictoral print bursting with sunflowers, birds and botanical detailing.
The highlight is a spacious bathroom, however, with a shower and a stunning roll top bath in the middle of the room from which you can enjoy the rolling countryside.
The second largest room is Tamworth. Calm and welcoming, the room profits from equally wonderful views across the garden to the beautiful copper beech tree which strikes a proud form in the centre of the grounds. The blue-toned Farrow & Ball wallpaper here echoes the fields of barley visble in the distance.
Featuring a bright colour palette, Oxford creates a nostalgic, comforting feel upon entering. A double bedroom, complete with en-suite, leads through to a small but perfectly-formed twin room – ideal for families. With its lively décor, pastoral-themed wallpaper, assortment of artwork and artfully-selected accessories, the room brings the Bloomsbury set to mind.
By contrast, Berkshire features a more traditional, country house feel – anchored by the soft blue grey tones of Farrow & Ball’s ‘Pigeon’ shade. This same country styling is echoed in the house’s smallest and cosiest room, Duroc, which also benefits from lovely evening light.
Despite the relatively extensive work carried out, the farmhouse thankfully retains many of its original features – including its wooden flooring, shutters, doors, coving, glasswork and all bar one of its fireplaces.
The property’s inherent connection with the surrounding landscape, too, has been preserved. This relationship was integral to Niki’s vision for the house, both in terms of the strong F&B focus of Abbots Court, and in terms of its interior, which is awash with natural colour tones, pastoral motifs and artwork.
When we enter the property, the impressive entrance hall sets the tone perfectly with its original tiled flooring and a wonderful sweeping staircase that floods the space with light by day.
To the right of the main entrance is a cosy lounge, complete with a comfortable chesterfield sofa, elegant fireplace, colourful soft furnishings, assorted rugs and a table and chairs. The sash windows provide glorious views over the verdant gardens, while by night – as when we arrive – a welcoming fire crackles in the hearth.
To the left of the entrance hall is an elegant 14-cover dining room, where guests can enjoy a small but artfully crafted dinner menu, as well as a traditional breakfast cooked by Jez in the big country kitchen.
The space has been painted in Farrow & Ball’s sumptuous and appropriately-named ‘Eating Room Red’ shade. The acclaimed paint and wallpaper manufacturer, which is headquartered in nearby Wimborne Minster, sponsored the refurbishment and worked closely with the couple to select harmonious designs in keeping with the property’s character and rural location.
So well-selected was this shade, in fact, that upon completing the painting, the couple were thrilled to uncover the original fireplace tiles in an almost identical red!
After dinner, guests can retire to the bar where talented in-house sommelier and restaurant manager, Helen Winnett, is on hand to prepare their tipple of choice. Farrow & Ball’s deep Inchrya Blue shade creates a dark, intimate feel here, while the copper-topped bar, cosy armchairs and twinkling fairylights bring warmth.
Though Niki and Jez plan to add smaller elements to the interior of the house as time goes by, the real project now will be to develop the surrounding land. At the heart of this will be a walled kitchen garden, which was discovered to Jez’s delight while they were clearing away the undergrowth.
Unfortunately, one of the walls was damaged beyond repair, so Jez came up with the idea of building a living wall, formed from logs of sycamore, in its stead. This not only creates a really interesting textural structure within the garden, but will also attract plenty of wildlife as time goes by.
Now that the couple’s pigs have cleared the walled garden of weeds, it is primed for planting, and will eventually allow the couple to grow herbs, fruit and vegetables for their menu.
“Our guests will be able to enjoy food picked fresh from the garden as our chefs prepare each meal using locally-sourced, seasonal food,” explains Jez, who was a MasterChef semi-finalist himself. “Our rare breed pigs will have a new home in the woodland behind the farmhouse and we hope to be curing and air drying home-reared charcuterie in the cellar in the near future.”
If this existing offering wasn’t enough, the couple have capacity for 12 weddings a year, and plan to develop the meadow as a site for bell tents and shepherd’s huts. If you live in the area, there are also plans in store for some foodie-themed events, too!
Niki and Jez most certainly have their work cut out, but I get the feeling their hectic schedule is far more than just a job, but is a real passion project fuelled by their desire to bring the pleasures of great food and drink, the beautiful British countryside, and a simpler, more wholesome way of living, to others.