Behind the scenes
at the chapel
words emily payne
photography tori o’connor
At the Chapel in Bruton celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. We visit to see how the bakery, winestore and restaurant-with-rooms continues to thrive in its local community
In 2000, London restaurateur Cath Butler and her partner, renowned furniture designer Ahmed Sidki, came to look around a ramshackle old chapel, on a whim. “This building found us,” Cath says. “We had no intention of living here. To me the countryside was that green, generic space outside London.
“It was totally derelict. You had to step over holes in the floor. They’d taken out all the pews, and there was no electricity, no heating and no floorboards. The windows were blocked in, and there were heavy stained glass windows from the 1930s. It was very dark.
“Bizarrely, we found ourselves making an offer,” she laughs. “We drove back to London asking ourselves ‘really?’ We had no money and no plans, and we’d just bought this huge derelict building for £300,000. I can’t tell you how much we’ve spent on it since, but it’s a few more naughts than that.”
The couple started visiting from London at weekends, camping out in various bits of the building. It was so cold, Cath remembers using the unheated main room as a fridge. “We used to have great parties in here,” she grins. “We had three big sofas, some big dogs, and we slept on a futon that we’d borrowed from a friend.”
After eight years of renovations and various existential crises about what in fact they were doing in Bruton, Cath and Ahmed opened the restaurant, bakery and winestore – somewhere which very quickly became the social hub of the town, and which, this winter, welcomes a new all-day workspace and juice bar downstairs.
The inside doesn’t look this good by accident. Almost everything you see at At the Chapel is made by Ahmed. “An architect never would have taken on this project,” he says. “It was too expensive”. So Ahmed did it himself, and touches of his ingenuity are everywhere: In the panelled wooden James Bond-style revolving door in the clubroom; or the pizza oven made from rubble found underneath the building during its excavation, or in the door handles created out of the original supporting beams. His vision for the chapel was inspired by a building cantilevered off a cliff in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest – all stone walls, glass and dramatic light.
But according to Cath, there were also Dickensian levels of serendipity at play in the chapel’s return to grandeur. There were the leather sofas, tub chairs and a baby grand piano donated by the Mirabelle restaurant, which a former colleague happened to be revamping. And the “crazy” decision to excavate the lower floor, which yielded the original stonework needed to ditch the stained glass and return the windows to pre-1930s brilliance. “This place has been here for 400 years, it could be here 400 more, we are just a tiny part of it. We’ve restored it, so actually we are serving it, and our community,” says Cath.
To really understand At the Chapel, you need to go back a few centuries. “We are built on a couple of ley lines,” says Cath. “One runs to Luxor in Egypt, the other to Stonehenge. The story goes, that where ley lines met, people would make a well. If this well became an important meeting place, they’d build a chapel.” Go downstairs to the clubroom-come-juice bar, and you’ll see this well, lovingly preserved.
Built in the 1600s, the building has been central to Bruton life ever since; even during a strange period in the 1970s when it was renamed Atlantis building and some hippies moved in. To some, Cath and Ahmed’s move to convert a former place of worship into a place of indulgence was a questionable one. “First, we made a bar at the alter and then we put a sculpture of a naked girl above it,” Cath says. “It was controversial! But actually, when we opened, the Bishop of Wells and the Bishop of Edinburgh visited. They said we had made this place reminiscent of a church before the Victorian era of stiff upper lips; a social place for the community to meet.”
Indeed, it is now affectionately known as the community centre. During the blizzarding ‘Beast from the East’ of early 2018, people came to shelter from the snow; locals feel so at home, one even gets his post delivered here, says Cath. Clientele are many and various: from the freelancer tapping away on their laptop to the brainstorming film directors and the mum sneaking an espresso martini on the school run in a takeaway coffee cup. Famous regulars include Cameron Mackintosh, Caroline Corr, Pearl Lowe and Danny Goffey and Don McCullin. One magnificent day, Nicholas Cage was sitting just metres away from Liam Neeson.
“We open at eight o’clock in the morning, but a lot of our customers come at seven. We’re open and we’re on. Our ethos is simple, you can spend; or you don’t have to. We know the people who haven’t got money, and they can come and sit here with a cup of coffee all day long. We take them water, they get a hug. That’s really important to us.
“The definition of hospitality is kindness to guests. You take it further, you have to start with yourself. Most of us aren’t kind to ourselves. So we are working on how to be nice to ourselves and each other. We have scraps like any family, but the rest of the time we love each other.”
If baker Tom Hitchmough looks tired to you, that’s because he is. His produce – and the now legendary aroma it exudes down Bruton High Street each morning – is revered. Guests staying in one of At the Chapel’s eight rooms say the plump croissants hung on the door at 7am are one of the reasons they keep coming back. But it comes with a price: An overnight shift from 10pm to 10am, baking 150 loaves of bread along with mountains of pastries and cakes, five out of seven nights a week. Here’s an artist who suffers for his work. Tom says: “Night shifts massively mess up your body and your head, but I do it to get the best product I can.”
Flour, water, salt and sometimes yeast. Those are the only base ingredients you’ll find in this bakery. The only machine Tom uses is the mixer. “We try not to cut any corners, and use only traditional methods. I like to make it as fresh as possible, but there’s a long fermentation period; some loaves take two or three days to prove. We don’t want to force it to prove using machines, it does so in its own time.”
Tom is keen that everyone can buy good quality bread. “We want it to be accessible to everyone,” he says. The ideology here is loud and clear. Cath adds: “We used to have this little old man who came in with a plastic carrier bag along with £1.20 in his pocket every day. With the price of flour increasing all the time, we didn’t have the heart to tell him prices would have to rise. So we decided to keep it low. And then one day we saw him driving off in a brand new Mercedes!”
You won’t find gels and beige smears across the plate here. At the Chapel head chef, Dan Starnes, is aware of food trends but doesn’t feel pressure to follow them. His menu is varied; everything is what it says it is. Steak and fries, pizza, an outrageously tasty salted caramel chocolate fondant, and upcoming plans for homemade pasta. Sure, there are gluten free and vegan options; Dan is a health fanatic and keen marathon runner. But there’s no big banner to declare them - they’re just part of the choice.
“You have to cherry-pick the trends. You know they’re going on, but they’re not suited to here,” says Dan. The open kitchen sits at the back of the chapel’s main hall. It makes things sociable, easy.
“I love my job here. I enjoy the space I work in and the freedom. I’ve worked in kitchens where the chef is short-tempered. Here, I’ve lost my temper four times in six years. My staff know the signs. It doesn’t happen very often. So many chefs work in a hot box somewhere and no-one ever sees them. Here, the regulars come in and stop and have a chat. It’s a joy.”
There’s a hidden table in the upper echelons of the dining room which Cath calls the ‘naughty table’. Home to many a raucous night, both staff and locals have been spotted dancing on it. What would those Bishops say? Maybe they’d join in.