How tiny Aughton became the Michelin-star capital of Britain

Aughton offers three Michelin-starred restaurants within 10 minutes’ walk of each other
Aughton offers three Michelin-starred restaurants within 10 minutes’ walk of each other - Alamy Stock Photo

In early November a stream of visitors from the States, Norway, Sweden. France and the Far East descended on a quiet Lancashire village. All in one week. By any standards, Aughton – 11 miles north of Liverpool, 16 miles west of Wigan – is a leafy and well-kept village but, let’s be frank, it’s no dynamic tourist attraction: no museums, historic sites, sporting arenas, designer shops.

To a discerning food-lover, however, distance is no object, no matter how improbable the destination. Aughton (population 8,000) offers three Michelin-starred restaurants (four stars in total) within 10 minutes’ walk of each other. As with much in life, timing and happenstance led to this unlikely situation.

Moor Hall gained a Michelin star within months of its 2017 opening
Moor Hall gained a Michelin star within months of its 2017 opening - Moor Hall

“We’d been looking at pubs, and High Streets and happened to find this property [up for sale],” recalls chef Mark Birchall. “And fell in love straight away.” The object of Birchall’s adoration was Moor Hall, a 16th-century manor house on the edge of Aughton with grounds crying out “kitchen garden!” and a dilapidated barn crying out “save me!”. Two years and skip-loads of money later Moor Hall’s restaurant-with-rooms opened in 2017, gaining a star within months, and a second star the following year. The Barn followed, awarded a star in 2022.

Ridiculously talented, and ridiculously self-effacing, Lancashire-born Birchall had been working at Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume (then two, now three stars) where he met his food-loving future business partners. “We began talking about the lack of restaurants in Lancashire, and started on our venture.”

Chef Mark Birchall is the man behind Moor Hall
Chef Mark Birchall is the man behind Moor Hall - Mark Bristol

In his quiet manner, Birchall points out the village’s advantages: accessibility (15 minutes to the M6, 35 minutes to Liverpool); fertile farmland – “Royal Oak farm [two miles] is the best organic grower in the UK”; and quietly affluent population. Historically, the village attracted wealthy Liverpool merchants who wanted to live close to, but not in, the city. Judging by the number of electronic gates, CCTV cameras and high hedges, the trend continues.

As Moor Hall was taking off, coincidentally, chef Tim Allen (formerly of Flitch of Bacon, Essex, and Launceston Place, South Kensington; both Michelin-starred) was looking to set up his own restaurant. He’d never heard of Aughton – and was looking everywhere from Cornwall to Scotland – but saw its potential, not least because of Mark.

Sō-lō restaurant gained a star in 2023, 17 months after opening
Sō-lō restaurant gained a star in 2023, 17 months after opening - Patricia Niland

“Someone said to me, ‘you’ve either got very big balls, or you’re daft!’” he grins. “It’s hard to be in the shadow of a business at the level of Mark. It’s got its challenges, but” he shrugs, “we have our market and he has his.”

Gaining a star in 2023, 17 months after opening, Allen’s Sō-lō restaurant (opposite a primary school, next to the doctors’ surgery) has a relaxed, vaguely French vibe (his wife is from Brittany) with six-course evening tasting menus at £98. (“I’m old-school”, he says, “mine are decent portions.”)

Sō-lō serves up six-course evening tasting menus at £98
Sō-lō serves up six-course evening tasting menus at £98 - Patricia Niland

Meanwhile, The Barn is a striking part-rustic, part-industrial space – a favourite of lunching ladies – with set dinners, £48, or a la carte around £66, while dinner at the two-star Moor Hall is a marathon journey (literally; the meal progresses from the raftered, fire-warmed lounge via the open kitchen to the sleek dining room) of exquisite, flavour-intense dishes (no fireworks, no wizardry) prepared by a 16-strong kitchen brigade. By the end the price-tag – £225 – (almost) slips down easily.

Birchall concedes that he’s “bolstered the area up a bit”. In 2021 a shiny new wine bar (Arthur’s), coffee shop (Daily Dose) and smart butcher’s and deli (J W Henshaw) opened within months of each other.

Wine bar Arthur’s opened in 2021
Wine bar Arthur’s opened in 2021 - Authors of Augton

At Arthur’s on a Friday afternoon, a table of septuagenarian ladies giggle as they prepare to leave: “We’ve been here two hours!”, they declare. At next door Daily Dose, all white walls and pale-grey floor and whose brunch menu includes Spanish eggs and steak ciabattas, I’m too late for the daily special scones (cranberry, cinnamon and walnut) – “flew out the door this morning, sorry!” – and settle for their Ultimate Carrot cake.

Further along at the startlingly bright J W Henshaw’s butchers, with its comprehensive array of steaks and enormous home-made sausage rolls, owner James is quietly proud at having won the best-kept village shop-front.

This small parade of outlets, beside Town Green station, close to the village hall (yoga classes, slimming club) and across the road from the war memorial and Co-op, must be the village centre, I conclude. A browse around the spacious aisles of the latter confirms it’s the poshest Co-op I’ve ever set foot in, with well-lit shelves of smoked salmon and Lancashire pork sausages, chiller cabinets of superior pizzas, and healthy stocks of Prosecco and organic Albariño amongst the wines.

Daily Dose does some of the best breakfasts in Aughton
Daily Dose does some of the best breakfasts in Aughton - Daily Dose

This area is also a good starting point for what becomes my favourite Aughton diversion (after eating, obviously): house voyeurism. The village has some spectacular properties with Granville Park, Swanpool Lane and Long Lane particularly fine hunting grounds.

I gawp at enormous Victorian villas – from whose lofty heights, someone later suggests, those Liverpool merchants could keep an eye on their ships in Liverpool’s docks – mock-Tudor mansions, a lovely Georgian terrace, a Hollywood-esque art deco number and some massive but rather charmless new-builds (buying, knocking down, re-building is a popular activity).

Who lives in these grand houses – bristling with security gates and cameras – is a mystery to many locals, I discover, when I call in at Café Vista, part of the adjacent Christ Church, and with probably the finest view in the village. (From its sweeping first-floor windows, I can see the Mersey estuary.)

Moor Hall in Aughton
Moor Hall in Aughton - Moor Hall

“We don’t see the people but we see their expensive 4-by-4s!” chuckles Angela Mellor, one of the café’s volunteers. Like her colleagues, she feels the village’s starry restaurants “have had a positive effect. They’ve attracted people to live in the area, put Aughton on the map.” She and girlfriends have booked a pre-Christmas lunch at The Barn.

Angela is equally proud of “our high-end church café” – latte macchiato, £2.60; jacket potato and salad £6, cream scones £3.00 – which is thrumming with people popping in for lunch or a chat, or the Friends’ Group meeting (one of Christ Church’s numerous pastoral activities).

Retire to bed after filling up on Michelin star cuisine
Retire to bed after filling up on Michelin star cuisine - Moor Hall

Reluctantly leaving the café’s warm embrace – and cakes – I set off across the fields opposite on a walk to Gorse Hill Nature Reserve. I’d been told I might see Blackpool Tower (too misty) but settle instead for the cranes at Seaforth Dock on the Mersey and, more thrillingly, the grey outlines of the mountains of North Wales.

Aughton is unlikely to suffer from overtourism – though the dunes of Formby beach and Antony Gormley’s “Another Place” artworks at Crosby beach are within 25 minutes – but it is undoubtedly attractive (winner of the 2023 Lancashire Best Kept Village award, medium category), welcoming (car-drivers invite you to cross the road) and extremely keen to feed you.

Helen Pickles was a guest of Moor Hall (from £750, double room including breakfast and dinner; 01695 572511)

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