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Taking ownership

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Featured in Feast, issue 39 – September 2019 – Big Interview Feature

Hugh SomerleytonWalking around the walled garden between Fritton Lake and a new 22m heated pool triggers childhood memories for Hugh Somerleyton.

Hugh, otherwise known as Lord Somerleyton, was raised at the family home of nearby Somerleyton Hall, near Lowestoft, the fourth child and only son to William Crossley, 3rd Baron Somerleyton, and his wife Belinda. Hugh has fond memories of running around the gardens at Fritton with his four sisters.

He admits to growing up far from streetwise (‘I knew my way around bush-craft and farming’). He started school in Somerleyton, followed by Beeston Hall School near Cromer, where he was initially homesick but ultimately happy, followed by Eton, where he was not so happy. As for the year he spent at an agricultural college? He hated it. Thankfully, he transferred to Cambridge College of Arts and Technology (now Anglia Ruskin University), to study history.

After graduating with a BA Hons in 1994 he worked for Hat Trick Productions and Savills and also travelled around the Middle East – all-in-all, ‘a very different world to what I was used to.’ Around that time, Wagamama, with its signature seating style, was on the restaurant scene, inspiring Hugh, along with a couple of friends (‘wannabe Arabists on the Edgeware Road’), to launch restaurant business, Dish Dash, in Soho.

His second restaurant venture, with businessman Toby Marchant, would be gourmet chip shop, Hot Chip, which opened in Norwich city centre in 2013 and had a two year tenure.

He then took the concept on the road, to London. ‘The hardest thing I’ve ever done was getting up at 3am, driving to get to the pitch on time before the traffic, having a two/three hour snooze before lunchtime trade and then packing it all up and coming back.’

He describes Dish Dash and Hot Chip as ‘two things that have been creatively mine, which is different from here, where you are evolving a blueprint you’ve been given.’

And it’s quite a blueprint: Somerleyton is a fully working Estate complete with hall, one of the finest Victorian stately homes in the country, 12-acre gardens, The Duke’s Head gastro pub and Fritton Lake, the heart of which is The Fritton Arms. With his father diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Hugh returned to Somerleyton full time in 2009 (that same year he married Lara Bailey). In 2012, when his father died, the blueprint was then handed down to him.

Ten years on from his return, Fritton Lake, formerly a Country Park, is being transformed into an exclusive resort. As part of a thousand acre rewilding reserve, there are a range of places to stay, including two new developments: luxury lakeside retreats at Hill Wood and funky ShedRooms. Hugh was inspired by Soho Farmhouse, the Members’ Club and Hotel in Oxfordshire. Although he points out: ‘We don’t have a global membership.’ It is, however, starting to attract interest from people living in Cambridge, Essex and East London. As for their catering needs: ‘Half want to come here for the odd pint; half want concierge.’

The Fritton Arms serves the local ales and new Head Chef Reece Eden creates the meals from Estate produce, including lamb and beef from the farm, and fresh fruit and vegetables, herbs and edible flowers from the kitchen garden.

‘We are incredibly spoilt, really,’ says Hugh. ‘Obviously we are lucky. We are farmers so we have a lot of our own food. And this includes wild food, too. The challenge is actually getting chefs who don’t see the telephone as their way to get food.’ He adds: ‘Reece is showing real promise.’ The new resort GM, Ashley Hancill, happens to be the former Executive Estate Chef, so ‘he’s also from that stable.’

What about Hugh himself? ‘I can cook a bit – I have a vast expanse of food knowledge.’ He’s inspired by the ‘old fashioned farmhouse cooks’ he grew up around, ‘brilliant cooks in the traditional sense of steak and kidney pie and Victoria sponge cake.’ And he’s ‘slightly obsessed’ with using the whole animal, and not just the primary cut, to make stock and so on; plus he is a ‘big fan of broth’, whatever the season.

This summer the aforementioned swimming pool, which was filling with water the day we met, opened to log cabin owners. ‘I’m absolutely intending to swim with my kids by the weekend,’ says Hugh (his children are John, 9, Christabel, 7 and Margot, 5).

Next summer will be all about the stunning new poolside club house, ‘where membership will really come to life,’ says Hugh. ‘The reality is, you can play tennis for an hour or two but in that clubhouse environment you can spend a lot of time.’

Think large fire pits and brick ovens and you get the idea. Oh, and expect to see Hot Chip around the resort: ‘I’ve still got all the kit,’ says Hugh. ‘It’ll be interesting, resurrecting it here.’

If he has a five-year plan, it’s to attract more owners and more members to the resort. ‘I haven’t any ambitions to do anything outside of here for the moment, for the next two/three years anyway, and we’ve got quite a lot we want to do on the Somerleyton side, in the same time frame, which will keep us busy.’

His father didn’t live to see all the new developments taking place at Fritton, and his mother passed away last December. Hugh says: ‘People go on about that thing of there being no one in front of you and it is interesting, the effect it has on you. I don’t know if it makes you more responsible, really, but it is a new phase.’ 

 


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