You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a film-set if you found yourself in the Somerset village of Montacute. Not because of the Tudor hamstone cottages, Dickensian coaching inns, or even the horse and carriage tied up outside the 11th Century church. No, the reason it all seems so familiar is because it is familiar. This small hamlet near Yeovil has appeared in costume dramas all over the world. Montacute is a firm favourite with film directors, and has hosted some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Damien Lewis and Johnny Depp to Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman.
The reason a sleepy little village has acquired such cinematic gravitas is because of its National Trust property, Montacute House, one of the finest surviving Elizabethan mansions in the country. The house appeared in the BBC drama Wolf Hall as Henry IIV’s Greenwich Palace, and before that it was the country home of the Palmers in Sense and Sensibility and Johnny Depp’s ‘den of iniquity’ in the Libertine.
I’m here to do the new Wolf Hall tour at Montacute House, and as I check into the Kings Arms, a 17th Century inn just a stone’s throw away, I enquire after its celebrity status. No, the cast of Wolf Hall didn’t stay here, the owner Katherine Lush tells me, but the director did, as did the much applauded costume designers, who worked all night and returned to their beds exhausted in the daytime.
The holiday season has only just begun, but already Katherine and Steve are taking bookings for the summer because of the popularity of Wolf Hall, which is currently being aired in the US. I can understand the appeal of the Kings Arm to overseas visitors. It’s hard not to collapse onto one of those cosy chesterfield sofas, surrounded by oak-panelling and antique furnishings. There are lamps and cushions everywhere, and the ambience is warm, inviting and quintessentially English.
But collapse I don’t, having a stately home and an Iron Age hill fort to explore before the day is out. At Montacute House I’m shown around by Dickon Allen, the effervescent guide who gave the same tour to Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance. I feel honoured. Dickon shows me where the jousting scene took place, and the ha-ha where Cromwell supposedly arrived by boat on the River Thames (it’s actually just a lawn and clever editing). He has stories of seeing the Tudor-dressed cast on their iPhones and tablets, and the how all the candelabras had to be lit to achieve authentic night scenes. Like many of the staff at Montacute, Dickon was there for the filming, and loved being a part of it.
Montacute house is built of hamstone, a unique and protected limestone that was also used to build the village. The quarry sits on an Iron Age fort, and the area, Ham Hill, is where I take an evening stroll. It’s so peaceful, I can hardly imagine it as the site of a massacre almost 2,000 years ago, the evidence of which was only found recently in an archaeological dig.
By the time I return to the Kings Arms, I’ve worked up a huge appetite and look forward to dining in the hotel restaurant. Being one of only two pubs in the village, The Kings Arms also has to look after its local clientele, too, and combines the task of being a bar, hotel and gastro-pub in one. It’s obviously working, as by early evening when the sun and beer garden have parted ways, the bar steadily fills up with locals, and the restaurant is lively with the chatter of smartly dressed families.
The Kings Arms offers everything you could wish for in a rustic country retreat, and the village of Montacute is a dream for anyone who loves period dramas. If you fancy a visit this summer, though, book now before Hollywood beats you to it!
Eating and drinking
The restaurant at the Kings Arms is fully booked, so we eat late, and as I tuck into my starter of king prawns poached in coconut milk, coriander and chilli, I understand why it’s so popular. The menu is reasonably priced, and the food is delicious.
The choice of mains is typical of a gastro-pub. For example, the meat options are chicken, steak or lamb. However, the accompaniments are what make the meals special. I order the West Country chicken, and it comes with black pudding and sprout bubble and squeak, topped with a creamy Madeira sauce. It’s a great combination of texture and flavour, with a pleasing zing from the crispy leeks.
The food is locally sourced and presented with flair. Despite being desperately full, I’m enjoying it so much I finish with the chocolate brownie, before dragging myself upstairs to the four-poster bed.
Unsurprisingly, the next morning I’m still quite full, so order the smoked salmon on toast, and look enviously at those around me tucking into full English breakfasts. I know I won’t be able to manage the National Trust walk I have planned if I succumb! I needn’t have worried, the salmon tastes great and is a refreshing start to yet another blissful day in the country.