Forde Abbey and the River Cottage Food Fair

When you live in Cornwall, it can sometimes be difficult to see the appeal of going elsewhere for a British holiday. Usually what motivates us is the opportunity to see something or take part in something that we can’t in our home county. In this instance, we traveled to the Dorset/Devon/Somerset border for the River Cottage Food Fair.

We’re huge fans of Airbnb and picked a magical thatched cottage that we knew the children would love. We don’t tend to see thatched buildings often in Cornwall, which made the arrival in the hamlet of Hewood, home for the next few days, all the more special. Located at the end of a lane, set among rolling hills, Hewood is a collection 17th Century cottages, almost all of which are thatched. With no passing cars, the only sounds to be heard were the sheep bleating, cockerel crowing and the local thatcher working on a roof. If you were looking for a place to slow down and step back in time, this is it!

Our idyllic Airbnb cottage
The lane to Hewood near Chard
Our cottage, dated 1655
Well stocked kitchen, perfect for family cooking
Low beams and wobbly ceilings
Roses outside the kitchen window
Our little garden complete with apple tree
The hamlet of Hewood with its 17th Century thatched cottages

Whilst we were primarily visiting the area to attend the food fair at River Cottage HQ, we allowed some time to explore the area. We know the Jurassic Coast pretty well so headed to Forde Abbey, a stones throw from our cottage.

Forde Abbey is a rare find. Usually when visiting great estates, it’s the opportunity to see inside the house that draws you in. There’s no doubting the beauty of the house at Forde Abbey, however, the garden is every bit the house’s equal. Thirty acres of sumptuous flower gardens, vegetable gardens, woodlands, immaculate lawns, buzzing wild grass meadows, bog garden and a number of ponds and lakes, one of which is home to the highest fountain in England. Beside the Gardener’s Display as you enter the garden, it’s noted that the garden is attended to by just six gardeners which seems incredible. Head gardener Joshua Sparkes leads the team and is a real credit to Forde Abbey.

The abbey is a private home and estate and entry fees are on par with similar National Trust properties. We found the staff really welcoming and friendly and the gardens not over crowded. Seeing us arrive with our back-packs and push chair, we were invited to picnic where ever we fancied in the estate. There was a trail for the children and a tea room where we bought coffee and ice creams!

It was the second day of the two day River Cottage Food Fair that we chose to attend. Sunday’s programme gave us the opportunity to listen to a conversation between Kate Humble and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and watch wood fire cooking demos by Samin Nosrat and Gill Meller. Tickets are purchased in advance, which means the fair never gets too crowded.

This was our first visit to River Cottage HQ and of course the first thing we did was rush to the iconic house with its veg garden where the gardeners were talking visitors through the seasonal planting. There were plenty of these free activities to take part in. John Wright, forager extraordinaire was sharing his knowledge on group walks around the farm. There were bird of prey demonstrations, meet the animals sessions, and opportunities to have a go at traditional skills like archery and pottery. Emilia, aged 7, absolutely loved who we called ‘the bubble man’. There were plenty of kids activities including crafts and donkey rides.

The iconic River Cottage HQ
The fair in such a lovely setting
Plenty of south west food and drink suppliers showing their produce
Emilia and all the children loved the bubble man!
Meeting the Gloucester Old Spot pigs
Lots of free activities to try

I have to admit, listening to the talks and demos was not the easiest with the children. We managed to get seats half way back the small marquee which housed the stage for Kate Humble’s chat with Hugh F-W. By the time they started, the crowds were 5 deep standing all the way around the exterior of the open sided tent. We managed to keep both the children quiet by feeding them their pack lunch but it was a little stressful, especially with a one year old. Ideally one of us would have watched the talk, the other had the children, but we both wanted to be there.

Watching Samin Nosrat and Gill Meller was easier with the children. Samin is known for her best selling cook book and Netflix series Sat, Fat, Acid, Heat. Gill was a chef with Hugh at River Cottage apearing in many of the later River Cottage TV series and is now the author of numerous excellent cook books.

They were both cooking in the ‘Fire Pit’ stage. This was an intimate open air stage with several wood fires. We could sit on our picnic blanket right beside the ‘stage’. The children had their toys and colouring and we were close enough to feel the warmth of the fire, smell the food, and feel like we were having a very personal cookery lesson from two foodie experts.

Kate Humble talking with Hugh F-W about her new book and adventures in her career
Gill Meller
Samin Nosrat cooking chicken over a ‘hole in the ground’ style fire pit with Gill Meller assisting

If you decide to visit one of the River Cottage events, stay in the area for a few days and explore. Reading through our cottage’s guest book it seemed most people tended to head to the coast to look for fossels, but I can’t recommend enough heading in-land too. Don’t miss Forde Abbey and if time allows head over the border into Somerset to see Barrington Court and Montacute House, both idyllic, quintessentially English houses managed by the National Trust.

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