A slice of Devon
A convivial family stay at a converted medieval farmhouse in England
NESTLED in the cleavage of the Blackdown Hills in Devon, Rock Mill Estate is an enchanting converted farmhouse that harks back to medieval times. Guests at this exquisite English hideaway have the run of the trilevel building and its 7ha of landscaped grounds, ponds and bubbling springs.
Twelve of my family have converged on the small village of Membury, in England’s West Country, for a special birthday celebration and Rock Mill fits the bill. It was used as a bakery in the 1400s and later a flour mill, but is mentioned as early as 1086 in the Domesday Book. Now a heritage-listed building, it has been painstakingly restored and adapted into a five-bedroom luxury retreat.
The estate belonged to Colonel Edward ‘‘Tug’’ Wilson, a British soldier who founded the Abu Dhabi defence force after striking up a friendship with the then president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan alNahyan. Wilson bought Rock Mill in 1969, craving the sound of running water after years serving in the desert. He converted the dilapidated property into a trout farm, which operated until his death in 2009.
Wilson’s son Charles inherited the estate and embarked on a 21/ year renovation. The stone masonry, thatched roof, vaulted ceilings and exposed oak beams are in keeping with the building’s heritage. There is even a replica waterwheel on the cobbled forecourt outside what was once the mill, and a small stream meanders through the wine cellar. Charles’s wife, Robyn, is Austra- lian — they met on the Gold Coast 10 years ago while he was buying horses for the Abu Dhabi royal stables. The family divides its time between the UAE, Australia and Rock Mill, where Robyn, a trained chef, has left her culinary mark. The kitchen is equipped with all the essentials and superior appliances.
For the birthday celebration, we hire a private chef to
CATHERINE BEST prepare a sumptuous feast. Flames flicker in the inglenook fireplace, babies sleep soundly upstairs and our iPod playlist conjures a merry atmosphere.
One morning we stroll into the centre of Membury, along a narrow road lined with charming cottages and past the village church, which dates from the 12th century. The village centre consists of a single post office cum general store, which also doubles as a tiny hotel and serves meals in an adjoining dining room, lest the village be the only one in England without a pub.
The drink of choice in this part of the world is cider, and apple orchards once dotted much of the countryside. Legend has it the locals used to be paid with bottles of the brew in lieu of wages when money was tight.
The weekend vices necessitate lots of walking and the estate and surrounding hills are ripe for exploration. It’s a mild autumn afternoon when we muster the energy, and the auburn leaves dance in the sunlight. Great green tendrils hang from weeping willows by the in-ground swimming pool. The pool is empty, but everywhere else there is water. It meanders through rock channels, under footbridges and across the manicured lawns before spilling into a succession of ponds. Finally it cascades into a lake at the bottom of the estate, where a handful of very contented trout frolic.
Rock Mill Estate, which scored a mention in the Domesday Book, is now open to paying guests