Bruton in Somerset seems always to have been an 'arty' town. There are lots of young folk about because the town has a number of schools. There is the legendary Sexey's which is a Church of England co-ed state boarding school and the starting point of many lewd - and too often repeated - jokes. Then there is Bruton School for Girls and King's Bruton as well as a primary school. This means that a broad cross-section of society has taken up residence in and around the town. There is the expected and usual contingent of indigenous and retired country people but there is also a buoyant community of 'Yummy Mummies', Chelsea tractors and the owners of loud voices thronging the high street. Of course, the tractors are genuinely at home here but that seems almost to be by accident. Some dear friends of mine live here too, who used to live in Stockwell. They moved out in order to return Richard to his roots, whilst Helena, who is a successful writer, can work anywhere. For some years Richard was the leading light in Bruton's contemporary art scene :he had run a gallery in London but having moved to the country he concentrated on developing his own conceptual work and painting... but then it all changed. Hauser & Wirth came, saw and conquered. The company is one of the big dogs in the global contemporary art scene. Their residency began when the owners bought a weekend house there, and then they set up a few artists' retreat spaces and a restaurant. The restaurant is a very successful, award-winning one called 'At The Chapel' unexpectedly not dog-friendly, despite the fact that in the country so many people have dogs, including the gallery principals - or so I am told - and the internal space is so open and airy that friendly hounds could be easily accommodated. They have now gone maximal by buying and redeveloping Durslade Farm to be a gallery complex. It is possibly this is the herald of or an expression of a change in the trade. Whilst the farm/gallery will attract many local visitors one suspects that the majority of the business will be done via the virtual world and mainly deal-closing is likely to be accomplished on site. Therefore this is an upscale warehouse - a hub, a bucolic centre of operations and not a straightforward selling space. Within the development everything has been made immaculate. There is something very Continental about the detail of what has been accomplished there; it is hard to describe exactly what that means but it relates to the fact that though they have obviously taken huge care to be sensitive culturally and historically in all they have done, the end result lacks the amateurish ramshackle nature you always encounter with an English project. This place is perfect - perhaps even a little cold - and that makes it strangely un-English.
It is a very exciting thing for the locals to have a thriving art gallery in their midst and it is the buzz of the town, and beyond. The car park at the new gallery complex is crowded as we drive in and you immediately get the sense and scale of visiting a publicly-funded gallery or house. There is also a sense of shock and surprise as you approach, as from afar you spot a giant shiny bucket and neon writing on the walls of the farmhouse.
Walking in and directed by a London-style gallery assistant I embark on a wander around the beautifully appointed circuit of buildings and admire the playful though thoughtful work of the artist Phyllida Barlow. I then saw the wonderful, wild, boldly colourful but controlled garden being installed by Piet Oudolf, and now nearly ready. I took a break and sat under a canopy to drink a superb Bloody Mary - spicy, cold, super-fresh tasting and enhanced with a splash of sherry, provided by the Roth Bar & Grill. The bar itself is a fantasy of salvage by the artist team Bjorn and Oddur Roth; it has a controlled chaos to it that was for me the perfect backdrop for a bar - a space where calm and mayhem are natural bedfellows.
It was really inspiring to visit the Hauser & Wirth project because they are obviously committed both to Bruton and to offering an inclusive and nurturing experience for their artists and visitors. Eventually, feeling nurtured, we had to leave and head west to a part of Somerset that has not been touched by this magic wand. Though we had consumed an afternoon cocktail, food had not played a part in the day as yet and as we drove back home through the town of Chard we were inspired to drop in on the Portuguese restaurant-cafe in the high street. Still aglow with Bruton glamour and style a slight feeling of negative anticipation washed over me as we entered Saraiva's. Two men with scrappy beards and baseball caps were talking loudly in Portuguese, leaning on a high glass counter and drinking beer from bottles, accompanied by strange pastries - presumably members of the relatively new Portuguese community which has grown up around Chard's factories, which produce food and Henry hoovers. We seemed to have passed through a magic portal into a foreign land. The sense that we were fish out of water soon passed though as the owner and the two drinkers got together to both welcome us and work out what we might like to eat. We were ushered to the back room where brightly varnished chairs and tables and the melodious bubbling of a vast aquarium awaited us. There we were brought classic grainy deep black coffee and what were like calzone pizzas filled with ham and melted cheese. We wolfed these down delighted in equal measure by both the unfamiliarity and the taste. Leaving happy, our sugar levels restored, we espied some black pudding and swiftly bought it. They call it 'Morcilla' and it differs from the English version in that it contains rice and much more spice. That night we feasted on this delicacy, together with calves liver, red onions and crispy wedges of potato. It was all good but the Morcilla stole the show.
Sitting back wiping meat juices from my mouth I reflected on the contrasts of the day. Durslade Farm, according to the blurb provided, has been a model but working farm for over 1000 years. In addition the new owners are creating a farm shop which will offer organic produce made there. The art that they are presenting is at the very forefront of modernity and yet through a combination of the setting and the connection with the town and its community there is an arc joining the past with a very contemporary vision of the present. Impressive though this is there is also something perhaps even more marvellous to celebrate. A few miles away in Chard the multicultural nature of Britain today expresses itself in a culinary triumph. Here it is appreciated and valued differently, but it is just as good somehow just as innovative as the Bruton creative, a twist on the norm or the expected. But this is poor Somerset, the other is rich and privileged - and they both have much to say and to offer. It is not a question of better or worse simply a microcosm of diversity.
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