Escaping from the urban thrum, Melissa Blease finds solace in a secluded country house hotel in Freshford and talks to the head chef, Jamie Forman, about what makes Homewood’s offering so special
It’s a typically autumnal late Friday afternoon in Bath: ominous storm clouds are gathering overhead, a gaggle of tourists are following the wrong umbrella into a tiny sandwich shop instead of the big restaurant next door and a broken-down bus is blocking one of the main cross-town intersections, bringing the rush hour traffic to a total standstill. “Don’t worry, you’re heading for Homewood,” says my cheerfully optimistic taxi driver; “we’ll be leaving all this behind any moment now.”
While he was wrong about the ‘any moment now’ prediction, he was certainly right about eventually leaving the big city thrum behind. Within moments of being freed from the snarl-up by an efficient traffic cop, we hit the A36 proper… and relaxed. It wasn’t long before leafy lanes, honey coloured cutesy cottages and cusp-of-harvest fields bathed in deep golden sunlight kicked all memories of urban mayhem to the kerb. And just 10 minutes later we were slowly cruising up a driveway that seemed to be taking us into some kind of magical fairyland. There’s a sculptured, graffitied horse grazing on the manicured lawn. There’s a topiary giraffe standing by a beautifully lit tree. We’re pulling up at a main entrance bathed in soft pink neon light – yes, the magic starts here.
The story of Homewood
Hoteliers Ian and Christa Taylor have a big reputation for their wonderful ways with hotels in need of some serious TLC. In Bath alone, they’re the duo responsible for transforming The Abbey Hotel from fusty boarding house to urbane eat/drink/sleep city centre oasis. They thoroughly revitalised the dead zone that was The County Hotel and flew The Bird – now arguably one of Bath’s most characterful merrymaking/sleepover zones – in instead. They turned Great Pulteney Street into one of Bath’s most fashionable thoroughfares again, courtesy of a hugely imaginative revamp of a collection of former Georgian townhouses now thriving as one under the uniquely elegant No. 15 Great Pulteney brand.
Having sold The Abbey Hotel last year and recently passing No.15 on to new owners, Homewood – acquired by Ian and Christa, also known as The Kaleidoscope Collection, in 2018 – could be described as the couple’s biggest challenge to date: a grand pastoral pile built to user-friendly scale, Georgian in essence but featuring plenty of delightfully idiosyncratic Victorian-era ‘updates’ on foundations that boast 13th-century origins.
Okay, we’ve established that we’re in country house hotel zone here. But while such a phrase can summon up visions of posh frocks, snooty waiters and panic-attack inducing prices, there be no such dragons lurking around the artfully stylish corners at Homewood. For sure, there’s a subtle aura of glamorous elegance imbued into the property’s fabric and it’s already highly regarded as a magical wedding venue, but it’s equally accessible to those in search of an uplifting experience on a ‘just because we want to go somewhere lovely’ whim too. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Homewood’s new owners could be described as head chef Jamie Forman’s old friends.
“I worked for Ian before, when he and Christa had the Cotswold House Hotel in Chipping Camden,” he tells me, over coffee in the hotel’s smartly quirky reception lounge. Indeed, Jamie brings a rather illustrious CV to his new kitchen home. He was head chef at Adrian Campbell-Howard’s Dial House hotel in Bourton-on-the-Water, before the name Campbell-Howard became synonymous with the Society Café coffee shops. He’s enjoyed a stint as executive chef for the New Forest Hotels portfolio too, and a major hob role at Holbrook House in Wincanton… but hang on; the man sitting in front of me only looks about 19. “I’m 42!” Jamie laughs. “I’d like to give Nivea for Men the credit, but even when I was 18 I still looked about 10 years old, which wasn’t great. Back in the day, as a first-time head chef, it worked in my favour in some respects. But it can get a little bit difficult looking like one of the boys when you’re trying to be the boss; it’s harder to take the reins, especially if you’ve got a calm personality!”
Calm: it’s an ageless look, you see. And taking to the reins at Homewood, however demanding, must be quite a calming experience for a chef used to overseeing a large brigade: “There are only four of us in the kitchen here,” says Jamie. “I like it that way; it’s more personal having a small team, and it keeps me at grass roots level.”
Looking at the future
While the Taylors have said that they expect their transformation of Homewood to take two years to fully complete (there are all manner of exciting plans in the pipeline across the whole site) and Jamie has only headed up the kitchen brigade for five months, he’s already established solid ethos foundations on the grass roots he’s tending so lovingly.
“In terms of our food offering, my key words are locally sourced, seasonally-led and high-quality product-driven,” he says, with a quiet air of authority that lends gravitas to a statement that’s in danger of becoming careworn. “I don’t have a signature dish as such, as that’s a bit of a dated concept these days. But basically, I don’t put anything on the menu that I wouldn’t want to eat myself. We’re in talks with the best local producers in the area, and we’ll use products from the best of the bunch. I’m not into swipes, or foams, or suspensions – my kitchen will simply be respectful of the ingredients, and let them sing for themselves. We have a vision to create our own farm-to-fork menus – the land around the hotel lends itself perfectly to that, and I want us to grow our own vegetables to utilise the space we have in a beautiful and useful way. I’d like to do our own honey, and grow some borage around the hives, and then we can all have borage honey for breakfast – that sort of thing; just lovely stuff. But I have loads of ideas going on in my mind every day.”
But where did the inspiration for Jamie’s cheffing career begin? “My mum was a really good cook who always cooked really well for the whole family, so I guess she started me off,” he says. “And then, as an apprentice and a commis chef in late 80s/early 90s, Gary Rhodes was a massive role model; he still is, because he’s an absolutely fantastic guy who can be credited for so much. I was looking at one of his books just last night – his recipes have never dated, they’re still contemporary, and they’re simple, but always focused on good-quality produce. I’m a Jamie Oliver fan too; despite the hiccups that have gone on in his business life lately, his food ethos is solid, and his recipes always work. And I love Yotam Ottolenghi for the same reasons. But overall, I’d say Gary is my go-to guy.”
Rhodes: OBE, TV presenter, multiple restaurant owner, author of some 18+ cookery books… and recipient of multiple Michelin stars. Meanwhile, the kitchen that’s recently become Jamie’s gastro-playground was itself, many moons ago, dusted with Michelin stardust. How important are accolades to the Homewood kitchen’s contemporary head boy? “Oh, I think every chef would love to earn a Michelin star,” he says. “But these are really early days. I’d love to see us rated in all the guides, and going for rosettes, and that kind of thing. But I don’t believe that anybody should cook for awards – we cook for people. While it’s good to be recognised for doing a good job, acclaim has to be earned by hard work and dedication. If we work towards it and go in the right direction, it’ll come. We’re a rising project but we’re already at a really nice level. I can’t help saying that I’m very excited about the future.”
Homewood, Abbey Lane, Freshford, Bath BA2 7TB.
Tel: 01225 723731; homewoodbath.co.uk