A lingering and peaceful afternoon spent drinking tea and savouring sweet treats stretched out before us. My delightful mother and I were to have several hours unwinding and chatting, whilst enjoying a traditional afternoon tea at an exquisite location in Devon. Combe House is located in the picturesque village of Gittisham, described by Prince Charles as the ‘ideal English village’. The village seems like a film set, full of tiny thatched cottages, a meandering brook, and a 14th century church. From the centre of the village one turns up the drive leading to the Grade I Elizabethan house which is set in an incredible 3,500 acre estate. It is almost too good to be true.
The day was beautiful and the sun shone as we swept up the long drive to the house. Pheasants seemed strategically placed for artistic effect, the Arab horses were frolicking to the right of the house, and at the entrance to the gravelled parking area, Maverick, the 11 year old Burmese cat, raised his head in greeting. The 450 year old country house is set in park and woodland near the south coast of Devon. It is undeniably gorgeous with warm coloured masonry, steep gables and mullioned windows.
My mother and I entered into the hall, and it was just what we’d hoped for in such a manor house. A high ceiling and dark wood panelling, flag stone floors, an open fire, huge sofas and impressive family portraits in oils. We were greeted warmly by Marie and guided through to the dining rooms – of which there are two – a green handed painted mural room and the pink dining room. We were seated in the pink room in the bay window overlooking the lawns and countryside beyond.
Pots of Earl Grey tea were brought, and we started to nibble daintily on the finger sandwiches like a pair of mice from the Brambly Hedge books: smoked salmon and cream cheese, ham and tomato, and classic cucumber. To align ourselves with the Duchess of Bedford we had skipped lunch, and this turned out to have been a wise idea. We each chose a Bloomberry Juice, not a brand I was familiar with. A local family run business based in Clyst Hydon produce juice free from added sugar or any preservatives. It was seriously delicious, fresh and sharp as though we had just squeezed it… I had the apple, blueberry and lavender and my mother sampled the pomegranate and hibiscus. It’s not only the juices that are locally sourced; all suppliers are carefully chosen to be local and, ideally, organic. The eggs are laid on site, and a local dairy supplies the milk and cream, and natural yoghurt is produced at Combe House.
The cake stand appeared looking decorative and beautifully arranged. Fruit scones, chocolate cookies, shortbread, chocolate eclairs, lemon and yoghurt cake, fruit boats and chocolate fudge cake, along with homemade strawberry jam and clotted cream. We took our time and, over several pots of tea and lots of conversation, we sampled the wares that had been baked that morning. My mother is an excellent cook and proclaimed the scones to be the best she’d tasted – sous chef Stuart Brown clearly has a secret ingredient.
The house is privately owned by Ken and Ruth Hunt, and there is a strong sense of how much the property is treasured and loved. Whilst sipping our third or fourth cup of tea, Ruth popped in to say hello and greeted us most warmly. We later encountered Ken outside who invited us to explore the gardens. Their natural charm and sense of hospitality has clearly shaped the feeling of the property, and I’m sure that is why many guests return again and again. It is a relaxing, informal, and romantic setting with charming staff.
I couldn’t fault the afternoon tea. Our window location allowed the spring sunshine to stream in, and we were bathed in warm afternoon light. We chatted away, catching up on the months that had passed whilst I’d been abroad. We were left to talk in complete peace, and thoroughly enjoyed the tranquil pink dining room. After we’d eaten all we could, we walked around the restored Victorian kitchen gardens. They are beautifully quaint with a real sense of forgotten England about them. If we’d had more time, we could have explored the woodlands and orchards, and maybe made use of the croquet lawn. I hope to return to Combe House to spend more time at the property, and in the area exploring my childhood haunts, such as the antique shops in Honiton, the seaside town of Sidmouth, and the now rather trendy Topsham.
We left with a small doggy bag of delicious cakes and jams which my father appreciated no end!
Devon EX14 3AD