For many Londoners, the most enduring image of the countryside is still Withnail and I. At best, the countryside was something to be endured on the way to a festival. Pretty enough when seen from the comfort of a car, but one splash of mud, rain and horsepoo was enough to make you think of I’s immortal line, ‘We are indeed in the land of the unwell.’
The natural home of the urban sophisticate was a nice members club like Soho House or the Groucho. Somewhere warm, expensive and openly elitist. Somewhere where the loafers won’t get muddy; and the riff raff can’t get in.
Not anymore. The hottest table is no longer at the latest Shoreditch pop-up; it’s in the country, at the kitchen table of your posh friend’s mum’s house. Failing that, there’s Soho Farmhouse, the Soho House group’s new outpost set on a 100 acre estate in Chipping Norton.
It’s the country alright, but not as we know it. Upon your arrival you’ll be ferried to your rustic cabin on a horse drawn milk crate painted in Farrow and Ball. The horse has even been kitted out with a special sack to catch the poo before it splashes onto your Hunter wellies.
This idealised version of a rural idyll, combines all the creature comforts of the city with the cosy charm of the countryside. You can eat from a menu devised by Tom Aiken made from produce grown on the estate. Every cabin comes equipped with a record player. The milk cart which ferried you in also delivers milk to your door every morning, and in the nighttime, a mobile bar can deliver negronis. Activities include boating and horse riding. And the decor, designed by Vicky Charles, has that ,’oh this old thing?’ thrown together charm, just like at your posh friend’s mum’s house.
What we think
This is not the first time that the countryside has been glammed up. Port Eliot is a literary/music/fashion festival where instead of camping, guests stay at a Yurtel, where they can luxuriate in tepees which come equipped with real beds, sheepskin rugs, electricity, mirrors, a lockable front door and complimentary organic toiletries. It costs £1200 for four nights.
This ersatz version of rural life taps into our continuing unease with the unbridled hedonism of late 90s and early noughties bling. In design terms it is epitomised by an obsession with mat texture, whether that be beards, the waxed surface of a Barbour jacket, or furniture made out of reclaimed wood. At Soho Farmhouse there is barely a shiny surface in sight. Even the mirrors look a bit cloudy. This strange, sanitised version of the countryside shows that we all want to escape from reality every once in a while. But not too much.