Forget the Waitrose Effect. Private members’ club outpost Babington House has revolutionised a pocket of rural England, reports Alan Page from Somerset, throwing up chocolate box villages that now sport mojito bars and bleeding-edge art galleries for a very well-to-do rubber-heeled brigade.
As 150,000 well-heeled festival-goers descended on Worthy Farm earlier this year, a few miles down the road a far smaller group of even better-heeled punters were turning into the long drive up to Babington House.
This luxurious Somerset outpost of the Soho House Group is a rather quieter but no less vital contributor to life in this corner of the county.
Indeed, this private members club, hotel and spa has arguably done much more for the local economy than the Glastonbury Festival.
When the first media-types made the long hike from Notting Hill to the newly opened Babington a decade or two ago, the surrounding area was still “undiscovered” by weekenders and, in property terms, an under-valued gem.
Small villages such as Mells, Batcombe, Pitcombe, Witham Friary and Brewham, as well as towns like Bruton and Frome, were in decline. Agricultural jobs were disappearing. Local industries such as printing were closing. Even the many Mendip quarries weren’t exactly booming. And the once bustling industrial hub of Shepton Mallett was turning into a ghost town.
Soon, however, a steady stream of Babington converts wearing brand new Hunter wellies were knocking on the doors of local estate agents. All of them looking to buy something “authentic”. Something to do up, somewhere to splash the Farrow & Ball (as well as the cash).
Even now, years later, estate agent details for a certain type of property will include not just the distances to a local pub, station, village store and school… but how many miles it is to Babington!
And no, they never tell you how far the house is from Mr Eavis’s farm.
Ironically perhaps, some of these incomers haven’t even kept up their Babington membership since buying a weekend place or moving here full time.
They no longer need its protective, familiar, metropolitan environment. They’ve created their own. And it’s centred on Bruton. A small town previously best known for its boarding schools and an Elizabethan auditor called Sexey(!), but now lauded by the likes of Vogue magazine as the place to be.
The most recent addition to Bruton’s growing fashion credentials is the Hauser & Wirth gallery – created by the couple recently voted the most powerful people in the art world! It’s a sort of mini Saatchi Gallery based in a lovingly converted old farm, with a garden designed by the creator of New York’s High-Line.
On any Friday or Saturday night you’ll find the gallery’s Roth Bar six deep with youthful 4×4 driving weekenders. Look more closely and their number will include a smattering of minor celebrities, fashion designers, architects, impresarios, actors, film & TV directors and the occasional school parent slumming it before picking up little Toby from school.
It’s quite unlike any other “scene” you’re likely to come across this deep into rural England. In the courtyard a seriously good DJ operates from a converted horsebox. There’s an outdoor mojito bar that looks like a village fete stall. And the diners packing out the restaurant wouldn’t look out of place at Club 55 in St Tropez (although their wardrobe might look a little different on the beach).
In reverse, it would be as if a bunch of young farmers, all with broad Somerset accents, had taken over the Electric on Portobello Road. Permanently.
Glasto has almost certainly had some long term impact on the local economy. In the town of Glastonbury itself you can get kitted out like an old hippie, learn how to get in touch with your spiritual side or buy a whole library of books on ley lines. But it’s only since the arrival of the Soho House outpost that the area really took off.
House prices have risen steeply. Brilliant little hotel/restaurants like The Talbot Inn in Mells have opened up. Frome has created one of the most innovative independent retailer streets and monthly markets in Britain. The building trades have never been so busy. Online businesses are popping up everywhere. And there’s a real sense of creative reinvention across this whole part of north east Somerset.
An expensive private members club can’t, of course, take the credit for all of this. But it can maybe take more than Mr Eavis’s rather middle-aged mega-rave down the road.
Indeed, perhaps the opening of a place like Babington is now as clear a sign of rural revival as the opening of a Waitrose is of urban gentrification.
Image of Bruton by Nigel Freeman (CC by SA 2.0)