What does the word “collective” suggest to you? Could it be a commune, maybe, or a community-wide version of The Good Life? Perhaps it conjures a nightmarish Stalinist proposal for a new approach to farming? To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I neared the village of Woolsery in North Devon. Had I even arrived? The signs were ambiguous. There was a Woolfardisworthy but also a Woolsery – which it turned out were the same place (owing, it seems, to a quirk of pronunciation from the 17th century). The strangeness had begun.
And it did not end there. For the last hour, I had been driving through the miles of open fields and tiny crumbling hamlets typical of North Devon – little huddles of cottages, a church, sometimes a small country pub or decrepit village shop struggling to stay open, but usually neither. Moments into Woolsery, however, and there was a perceptible shift.
Suddenly there was a smart, perfectly manicured little pub (the sort which serves craft cocktails); an upmarket village shop with a post office; a gourmet fish and chip shop; and a meticulous Georgian villa (the Gothickally named Wulfheard Manor). There was an adjoining 150-acre organic farm, too, and a clean-cut portfolio of historic cottages intended to host visitors.
Here, in the wilds of Devon, was a little pocket of almost Stepford-like perfection; like a sort of immaculate toy town, or a film set. Nowhere was there a crooked slate tile, a drooping beam, a crumbling chimney breast. I wasn’t, at first, quite sure what to make of it all.
But when you learn that all of the above – now rebranded The Collective at Woolsery – is owned by a social-media multi-millionaire from California’s Silicon Valley, things start to make a bit more sense.
Far from a brash businessman looking for a pet project, Michael Birch – who, with his wife Xochi, founded mega-successful social-networking website Bebo in 2005 – has a deep-seated connection to Woolsery. In fact, his has been something of a circular journey: his great-grandparents built the original village shop, and his grandmother was born above it. Many of his family still live in the village and it’s a place that for him, even from his base in distant San Francisco, remains full of happy childhood memories.
“The original motivation was The Farmers Arms pub,” he explains. “It had been vacant for a number of years and there was a plan to turn it into flats. For me, the pub is the heart of the village and it was unthinkable for Woolsery not to have the pub I’d known all my life. Xochi and I were in a position to help, so it all started there. There was no plan for the Collective from the outset, it just snowballed as other buildings in the village were offered to us in various states of disrepair.”
They’re certainly not in disrepair now. The Old Smithy, where I stayed, was filled with neat little touches (exposed beams and brickwork, two wood-burning stoves – one, rather delightfully, in the bedroom) alongside every possible modern convenience. There’s a turndown service when you order breakfast, which is delivered next morning in a wicker hamper. And it’s not like any hotel breakfast you’ve experienced before: mine was centred around nettles, served as a fritter with spiced fermented vegetables, nuts and seeds, plus a side order of sweet clover and vanilla yoghurt.
The farm-to-fork concept is certainly nothing new – but rarely has it been taken so seriously as it is here. Not content for its food merely to be “organic”, The Collective grows its fare in a way that mimics nature. The edible forest, for instance, adopts the natural growing environment with intensely planted root crops, ground covers (like herbs), fruiting bushes, vines, low canopy fruit trees and high canopy nut trees that fix the nitrogen that feeds the soil.
Visitors are welcome and, no doubt, surprised, because this doesn’t look like any normal farm. The crops (they have animals, too – the Collective might be environmentally friendly, but they’re not vegetarian) grow all together, alongside an abundance of flowers (used in cooking, drinks and cordials), and plenty of foraging.
This might all be starting to sound a bit like The Village in The Prisoner, but – perhaps most oddly of all – the overall result is quite the opposite. Far from Stepford-like, Woolsery is a happy, thriving little place, one humming with a sense of purpose and community, which managed to avoid the exodus of locals unable to find work experienced by so many of its neighbours.
Woolsarians are genuinely cheerful and welcoming (no rictus-grin “Be seeing you’s” here), chatting to visitors and guiding them through the warren of tiny lanes when they inevitably get lost. Local gardens are thrown open to the public every year; there’s a tiny primary school; the village hall runs local arts and crafts shows; and there’s an annual Street Fayre. Miss Marple would feel quite at home.
According to the Birches, the village was always thriving, and they’re keen to point out that The Collective certainly didn’t “save” Woolsery. Nevertheless, it’s certainly helped keep it that way. Local producers (vegetables, cakes, honey) have an outlet in the Collective’s beautifully refurbished village shop and post office – fast-disappearing essential amenities in the villages of the South West. And, with the Collective’s accommodation only able to host 20 people at a time, there’s little chance of Woolsery being overrun by tourists. It is, you might say, the perfect balance.
And if, on a rural retreat in immaculate Woolsery, you begin to long for a little natural chaos, it’s easily found. North Devon is a wild, windswept landscape, perfect for bracing winter walks. The coastline – just a few miles from Woolsery – is as dramatic as can be, with sand dunes, waterfalls and coastal cliffs.
At Hartland Point, you take a rollercoaster drive down to the sea where the spectacularly contorted rock layers have served as a suitable backdrop for smugglers and wreckers, both real and fictional (they last appeared in the 2020 film Rebecca). The wildlife positively teems. There are rock pools full of crabs, wading birds scuttle along the shoreline, porpoises and grey seals swim by the coast, murmurations of starlings fill the sky and wild orchids flourish in the surrounding fields.
By contrast, after a day out in the wilds, Woolsery feels positively cosy, its neatness and attention to detail a welcome comfort. This is, perhaps, an experiment which shouldn’t work – and yet, it does. I can certainly imagine other struggling villages following suit: they might start by checking the parish records for Silicon Valley-based philanthropists.
Anna Selby was a guest of the Woolsery Collective (01237 431 238), which has rooms from £275 per night, suites from £325, and cottages from £450.