Valentine Warner on where he is totally at peace
Photographs Chris Heaton
Chef Valentine Warner on how nature is his nurture – and why he can’t wait to escape to the wilds of West Dorset…
A ‘hole-and-corner’ is an old English term meaning a secret place: somewhere you go to escape, to be inspired, to contemplate and create. Where is yours?
Lewesdon Hill, West Dorset. The hill is a steep climb up through giant moss-clad beeches: the kind of trees you’d find in Arthur Rackham illustrations; the whole hillside seems held together by their twist and tangle of huge roots. My favourite tree has a standing point between all the branches near the base that you can climb into and, like my father did before, I’ve hoisted my own little ones into it.
Why is it so special to you?
The wood is totally magical, some find it unnerving. I’m sure I’ve heard the chattering voices of faerie folk up high in the branches and certainly seen strange floating wisps of colour when up there at night. The top of the hill plateaus out into a long, flat grassy area where, under my favourite Scots pine, you can spread a blanket and look out to the twinkling sea.
I am totally at peace here. I visit it nearly every time I go to Dorset. It is a sanctuary, be it sunny, fog-bound or raining. It draws me there. Mushrooming is fantastic, mostly for boletes and amethyst deceivers. I once found a herd of juvenile frogs running through a patch of these purple mushrooms: a vision in miniature I will never forget. My father is buried in Stoke Abbott nearby, and I feel him with me here. WARNING – there are some brilliant rope swings all over the hill. The best ones reach out over a very precipitous drop and I have come a cropper on many a stale old rope here. It seems many have suffered injury too as snapped remnants of rope hang from many branches…
Is it private to you or do you let other people visit?
It’s owned by the National Trust but it is pretty quiet on the whole, as the parking spot is far from obvious. There is a strange fellow who wanders it. He has a huge beard, long hair, smashed glasses that he has taped up and strung – and he appears to be wearing a sack. He spectrally appeared once, but feet away from me and without a noise, while I was being amorous. It was somewhat embarrassing.
Is it important to you to have somewhere to escape from the hustle and bustle of life?
‘Important’ is an understatement. While I love London – any city in fact – for its frenetic pace and frantic ways, I pine for the countryside. Nature is my rebalance.
Is ‘getting back to nature’ an important consideration for you?
Nature is our default setting but we have been trained to wander so far away from it. We have depleted our senses and I find nature awakens mine. Mankind can only exist on earth because of nature and I worry about our haste to destroy it. What I find so odd is that while our houses are so often temples to nature – festooned with foliage-patterned wallpaper, bird cushions, whale teacups etc – we seem so quick to ignore nature in the fast pace of convenience. I wish we could all stop stroking our phones, look up and do everything we can to save our most precious asset.
What elements do you think make a perfect ‘hole-and-corner’?
Somewhere that feels like a den, however public it may be. Somewhere you can’t wait to get to. A special place that has special features within it. It could even be a pencil case! Something where whatever happens in it seems like second nature.
What do you like to listen to when you’re working?
While pouring a cider it may be Aretha Franklin; it could be JJ Cale while chopping the onions; Andrew Weatherall when prepping the fish; Grace Jones as I put out the cheeses; Fever Ray as I cork the wine. I am often distracted by Spotify when I should be handing things in on time!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I’m a great believer in ‘seek and ye shall find’. As Goethe similarly proposed, when one is committed to an idea it will present itself in all manner of things you would otherwise have been blind to. My father, who lived a wonderfully broad and embroidered life, said to me shortly before he died, ‘All you really need to know is that you must always treat a goat farmer the same way you would a king.’ I took this to mean: don’t be snob and your life will be rich as a result.