In an ancient threshing barn in Bruton, England, UK artist Phyllida Barlow is creating a stir, and it’s still months before she starts her installations for her exhibition. Then again, everything relating to the debut of powerhouse art gallery Hauser & Wirth here in July has the locals aflutter and media grasping for comment. It might help explain why this somewhat sleepy town (population: 2,900) has suddenly been short-listed as one of the best places to live in England (according to the country’s The Sunday Times) and been given the dubious accolade of being a rural Notting Hill.
Bruton has long attracted artists and writers, steeped as the region is in the mythology of King Arthur, Camelot and the Holy Grail. But with its gray stone cottages giving onto mossy medieval alleyways and a skyline defined by the silhouette of a 16th-century watchtower, the town exudes a seductive, if austere, magnetism of its own. “I find its slightly gothic, The Name of the Rose beauty inspiring,” says London-based jewelery designer and Bruton weekender Solange Azagury-Partridge, who designed the Bruton ring she wears every day around a ruby uncovered in the town’s aptly named The Antique Shop (5 High St.; 44-1749/813-264).
Bruton’s first game-changer was restaurateur Catherine Butler, who, with her partner, furniture designer Ahmed Sidki, moved into an old Methodist chapel on High Street in 2000 in a bid to leave the stresses of London behind. By 2006, the two had grown so frustrated at not being able to get a decent loaf of bread or cup of coffee locally that they turned their home into a restaurant. Now At the Chapel (rooms, from $170; High St.; 44-1749/814-070; atthechapel.co.uk) is a community hub with a hotel, a wine shop, a bakery, a cinema, a bookstore and an exhibition space. It gives the decade-old Babington House (rooms, from $350; Babington near Frome; 44-1373/812-266; babingtonhouse.co.uk), the Soho House offshoot located a half hour up the road, a run for its money.
Locals come to At the Chapel to drop in and Londoners come to drop out, cocooning themselves in one of the eight bedrooms with stone-framed windows and contemporary artwork curated by Hauser & Wirth. Here you might bump into Phoebe Philo, a weekending local, buying croissants with her kids, or Nicholas Cage ordering from a menu featuring modern British classics like smoked-haddock fish cake.
The town’s rising popularity has benefited the existing shops on High Street, too, especially Phillips and Skinner (19 High St.; phillipsandskinner.com) for midcentury design, including Ercol and Eames; Quillon House (16 High St.; quillonhouseantiques.com) for antique arms and armor and big game taxidermy; and Michael Lewis Maps and Prints (17 High St.; 44-1749/813-557) for the rare find. The trickle-down effect has led to the opening of artisanal food stores such as the Godminster Farm Shop (Station Rd.; godminster.com), which sells cheddar cheeses from its 100-year-old dairy farm, and nearby coffee connoisseur shop Bean Shot Coffee (The Roastery, Station Rd.; beanshot.co.uk).
Bruton will further flourish with the opening of Hauser & Wirth Somerset (13 High St.; hauserwirthsomerset.com). The gallery, located within the newly restored 18th-century Durslade Farm complex (the backdrop for the film Chocolat) on the northeast edge of town, will be the seventh such enterprise from Manuela and Iwan Wirth, two of the world’s most important art dealers, who have lived near Bruton for the past five years. While architecture firm Luis Laplace and Co. is masterminding the design, Butler will run the on-site restaurant. Piet Oudolf (who designed the London Olympic Park and New York City’s High Line) has created wetlands and a meadow of colorful grasses amid a five-acre estate of rolling sheep hills and small brooklets. With a projected influx of 40,000 to the gallery every year, Bruton will surely never revert back to being an anonymous little town in the West Country backwater.