One minute you’re battling traffic on LA’s 405 Freeway in your 1990s Honda Civic, the next you’re sitting in a 16th-century farmhouse in the English countryside deciding between goose and braised brisket for dinner. A change of scenery can be a beautiful thing.
I’ve travelled more than 5,000 miles for this farmhouse, now a boutique hotel with six rooms, called Artist Residence Oxfordshire. Since opening its doors, the property has landed on The Times ‘100 best British hotels’ list, been lauded by The Independent for ‘making the countryside a little more louche’ and nabbed a nomination for Best-Dressed Hotel in the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Awards. Word travels fast – across-continents fast.
The final straws on the property’s thatched roof had only been in place a second before friends from London to Los Angeles returned with rave reviews. One pal, a Hollywood casting agent, rhapsodised over the hotel’s attention to detail, ‘right down to the embroidered hair dryer and slipper bags.’ A Brooklyn-based couple – both photographers – messaged me that it’s ‘the quirky country retreat of their dreams’ and they’d move there if only they knew something about raising chickens. Louche, quirky, chickens – I was sold.
Artist Residence Oxfordshire is in a rural village called South Leigh (population: 336), on the edge of the Cotswolds. The place is perhaps most famous for eccentric former local, Gerry Stonhill, who took on Tony Blair’s smoking ban a decade ago and defiantly paid a citation entirely in coppers (more on him later). Though the area feels remote, it’s incredibly easy to access from London. I hop on a train from Paddington, which takes an hour to get to Hanborough. From there it’s a 10-minute cab ride before I pull into the hotel’s gravel drive. A pair of petite penguin statues greet me and I spot a door with an embossed metal sign reading: ‘NO RIFF RAFF’. It appears they’ve been forewarned.
I’ve arrived after dark and I feel disoriented when I enter to find myself in the middle of a cosy restaurant with a fire blazing and a young couple sharing a pint of ale. ‘Excuse me,’ I say to a waitress passing by. ‘I’m looking for the hotel. Which way to the lobby?’ She smiles and tells me to wait a minute, then returns with a red-tasseled key and grabs my bag. ‘Follow me’, she says.
My room is a compact but well-appointed corner space known as the Rabbit Hole. There are vintage tea crates repurposed as side tables, a leather pincushion headboard, a sliding door that leads to the bathroom, decked out in floor-to-ceiling Underground tiles and retro touches, including a rotary-style phone and Roberts radio. Once I’ve gotten the lay of the land, the waitress tells me to help myself to a plate of warm cookies sitting on the windowsill and invites me down to dinner any time before 9:30pm.
My initial confusion over the seemingly missing lobby/check-in desk can be chalked up to the fact that I was expecting a full-fledged hotel. But Artist Residence is a pub with rooms – a concept that’s foreign to American travellers. Of course, we do have bed and breakfasts, but the emphasis is more on pancakes than pints. Instantly, I think of that Semisonic song ‘Closing Time’ and realise it could never have been written by a British band. ‘You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here…’ Turns out, you can.
Hotel, pub with rooms, tomAYto, tomAHto… is it all just hospitality parlance? ‘It’s really an inn’, says Charlie Salisbury, who owns the property along with her husband, Justin, and sister-in-law, Lavender. ‘With only six bedrooms, it’s very bespoke, very boutique. It’s really a country inn with rooms.’
Call it what you will, there’s no denying this place is getting some love. What’s immediately clear is how seamlessly Charlie and her team blend classic and cool, taking tradition and tweaking it in surprising ways. For example, one afternoon I find a couple, locals from the village, sitting at a corner table enjoying glasses of hot mulled wine. Beneath their feet is centuries-old flagstone and around them original mahogany pews. But there also hangs a painting by 21st-century artist Alexander Hall, featuring a pack of paint-splattered Marlboros with the message ‘Smoking Chills’. On an adjacent wall is an installation by felt artist Lucy Sparrow, featuring British pantry staples such as Twiglets, HP Sauce and McVitie’s Digestives, all made of fuzzy fabric. Sparrow is the same artist who crafted an all-felt sex shop in London, complete with plush versions of Playboy.
Charlie herself is a contradiction, in terms of age and expertise. I watch her one afternoon as she tends to the pub’s open hearths, then greets a family stopping in for lunch. Soon after, I spot her outside on a ladder stringing twinkling lights onto a courtyard tree. Her ease with every aspect of the job – owner, interior designer, master hostess – should be reserved for someone who’s spent a lifetime doing this. Yet, Charlie is only 31 years old – and both she and Justin became hoteliers by chance.
In 2008, back when the two were still university students and dating, Justin’s mother was involved in an accident that left her unable to manage her guesthouse in Brighton. Justin took over, asking Charlie to work with him, and the two got to work reinventing the somewhat out-of-date property. In order to differentiate theirs, Justin invited Brighton’s many local artists to decorate the bedrooms in exchange for room and board – and thus, Artist Residence was born.
After getting married, the pair went on to open additional locations in Cornwall and London. The Artist Residence Oxfordshire is their fourth, but by no means final, property. The duo are already at work on a fifth bolthole, a former boot factory set in a Georgian terrace mansion on Portland Square in Bristol (Justin, by the way, is off checking on this location during my visit). The 28-room hotel with a restaurant, bar and event space, will be the brand’s most ambitious yet.
When I ask Charlie what she’d be doing if she weren’t creating boutique hotels, she sits quietly for a few moments, mulling over the question. ‘I suppose maybe a travel specialist’, she finally offers. ‘But I’m really passionate about doing what we do here. I love creating something special.’
If it’s passion that ensures the artwork is interesting and the check-in remains full, it’s also passion that makes those in-room cookies possible. Chef Leon Smith is the kitchen counterpart to Charlie. While she’s giddy describing a hunt for paintings and salvaged pieces (hunted from eBay, the Battersea Antiques Fair and the Affordable Art Fair, FYI), he lights up when describing a stroll through the restaurant’s vegetable patch. For Leon, who schooled at three Michelin-starred restaurants and trained under Tom Aikens, his career has been something of a rebellion. ‘My dad was a chef for 25 years and told me not to do it’, he says. ‘But, of course, when your dad tells you not to do something, that’s the first thing you do.’
Leon is 28 years old and his right arm is covered in tattoos. He lives around the corner and all the chefs he oversees in the inn’s restaurant are also his roommates. At first, I imagine raucous culinary hangouts and Animal House-style dinner parties, but then Leon tells me that he and the guys like to spend their days off foraging. They search for blackberries and rosehips in South Leigh and mushrooms in the woods around Oxfordshire.
The food is classic country pub fare with a twist. Leon says, ‘I’m not trying to make a strawberry look like a tomato; I want people to understand the food but I still think about what they’re eating.’ One of the more atypical dishes on the menu – and the one he’s most excited about at the moment – is a mackerel rillette with whipped cod roe, cucumber, dill pickled in white balsamic, fresh horseradish, truffle and lemon.
Fresh produce is at the centre of what Leon makes – his menu changes daily based on what’s available in the veg patch and the top picks from local suppliers. Additionally, he asks all of his chefs to lend a hand in the garden. ‘People forget how to respect vegetables as much as a piece of meat’, he says. ‘What I really try to teach the guys is if you grow your own vegetables, you have respect from the beginning: from working with the soil to weeding, you see your vegetables grow and you understand how important they are.’
Also important to Artist Residence Oxfordshire: a good drink. After all, the building has long served as a pub, a purpose the locals passionately defended in 2015 when a developer tried to purchase the property. Fearing the pub would be turned into a residential development, the villagers plotted to buy the building themselves. They successfully blocked the developer, and in the end, the Artist Residence group made the purchase, saving the pub and ensuring that patrons would be able to get sloshed in South Leigh for generations to come.
Mickey Knighton, the man who heads up food and beverage for all the Artist Residence properties, is well aware of the history and sense of community. When I sit down one afternoon to sample a signature cocktail or two, he’s quick to point out that the bar itself has been built from repurposed materials from the cottages behind the inn.
Sourcing liquor, beer and wine from the area is as crucial to Mickey as getting local produce is to Leon. You’ll find Cotswolds Dry Gin and beers from North Cotswold Brewery behind the bar. On the menu, ‘Martin’s mint’ is a nod to the pub patron who brings the sprigs with him when he stops in for a pint each night. One of Mickey’s wine suppliers lives just up the road. ‘When we run out of something’, Mickey explains, ‘we just call him up and say, “Rupert, we need another bottle”. And he’ll just bring it over.’
Plus, like any good drinking establishment, the stories are also sourced locally. Everybody’s favourite topic, it seems, is Gerry Stonhill, the aforementioned anti-smoking-ban maverick. Gerry owned the pub in its previous incarnation, the Individual Mason Arms and Cuban Cigar Club, which closed in 2013 when its controversial barkeep retired. In Gerry’s era, the pub didn’t welcome children, mobile phones, vegetarians or media restaurant critics. Back then, the property had a helicopter pad, reputedly used by Bob Geldof, and the menu didn’t include prices. Rural legend has it that if anyone asked for a price, Gerry would snap back that if you have to ask, you’re too poor to afford it. Oh, and that ‘NO RIFF RAFF’ sign? That was Gerry’s.
But riff raff, fear not. The current owners only kept the sign up as a tongue-in-cheek memento of the past. The stories of yesteryear are as much a part of the inn as the exposed beams and Morris & Co wallpaper. In collaboration with the Connor Brothers – a pair of punk artists who’ve supplied some of the pieces in the dining room, including what looks like the cover of a novel that reads, ‘TELL HIM I WAS TOO FUCKING BUSY – OR VICE VERSA’ – the team came up with a fictional character named Mr Hanbury, who serves as the mythical owner of Artist Residence. He’s also a homage to real-life Gerry Stonhill. If that’s not bizarre enough, the Connor Brothers are actually fictional characters created by the artists known as the Connor Brothers. The duo, Mike Snelle and James Golding, use the pseudonym – as well as a tall tale about how they escaped from a California cult that also included the actors River and Joaquin Phoenix – for professional purposes, naturally. If you’re confused, just know that Mr Hanbury is the only fake figure here that really factors into the Artist Residence world.
When I ask Mickey what Mr Hanbury likes to drink, he doesn’t miss a beat. ‘The South Side in South Leigh’, he says. It’s a gin-based cocktail, similar to a mojito, garnished with Martin’s famous mint. ‘Mr Hanbury is a travelling man’, Mickey tells me. He went to the States and discovered this on Chicago’s South Side, then brought it back here to South Leigh.’ Similarly, a cocktail called Mr Hanbury’s Cigar Club, also gin-based but this time mixed with a pale-ale reduction and a mezcal wash, celebrates another hobby of the mythical man. I try both of them and they’re delicious. Mr Hanbury has great taste.
The whole Mr Hanbury thing is just weird enough to work. And maybe it’s this elaborate storytelling that makes other creatives feel at home. During my stay, I catch a man poring over a hefty manuscript while sitting by the hearth two days in a row. At breakfast one morning, between bites of syrup-smothered pancakes, I tell my waitress that I’ve spent all morning writing. ‘Isn’t this a great place to think?’ she says. ‘You know, we recently had people from Pixar here. They were brainstorming’, she whispers, conspiratorially.
Later, as I sit in a gin-fuelled haze staring at a neon sign near the bar that reads ‘WHAT DID I DO LAST NIGHT?’, it dawns on me. The thread that runs through every element of the hotel is a reverence for the past with a commitment to the future. Mickey has new ales to swap in and chef Leon has plans to create foraging courses this winter. Charlie mentions the property will be expanding more bedrooms in the outbuildings, shepherd huts, yurts, a small pool, a café and an event space…
Before I leave, I ask Charlie how she knows when a hotel is a success: ‘I’m not sure you ever do. In this business, you never really see the finished product.’
It seems each member of the Artist Residence is constantly ‘honing their craft’, as they say in Tinseltown. And though I’m sure Mr Hanbury would scoff at that and landlord Gerry would roll his eyes (or worse), it’s true. To redeem myself, I’d have to invite both characters outside for some stogies near the penguins. Easier to keep an eye out for riff raff from there…
Next, grab a seat (or even a bed) at the rest of Britain’s pubs with rooms.