The Collective At Woolsery: How An American Millionaire Is Transforming A Tiny Town In Devon

By Jane Knight

5 months ago

The charming village is now home to an award-winning pub


A gorgeous hotel, farm-to-fork food, and sustainable farming: Jane Knight explores Woolsery, the sleepy Devon enclave being transformed by American millionaire Michael Birch.

Meet Michael Birch, The American Millionaire Revamping A Tiny Devon Town

Michael Birch and his wife Xochi.

The village name alone evokes curiosity. Woolfardisworthy in North Devon proves quite the tongue twister, which is why the Anglo-Saxon name for Wulfheard’s homestead has been known by the shortened version of Woolsery since the 17th century. Today, this little village of 1,100 residents with its medieval church and small school is attracting attention for another reason. The American-based tech millionaire Michael Birch, who sold the social networking site Bebo in 2008 for $850 million, and his wife Xochi have bought and renovated the local pub, the adjoining chippy and the village store with post office, as well as creating a 150-acre farm to supply them all with produce. Last summer, they added four swish rooms above the shop, along with three cottages dotted around the village. It’s been quite the transformation. But it’s not over yet; the Birches are still busy turning the old village manor into a hotel. 

Why the interest? It’s not as if Woolsery, just three miles from the gorgeous little Clovelly tumbling down to the coast, could ever hope to compete in the beauty stakes. To Michael, though, it’s part of his heritage – his maternal great-grandfather built the village store, his grandmother was born in one of the rooms above it, and when he was growing up, he holidayed there with his parents at Easter and during the summer. ‘I loved Woolsery as a child,’ he said. ‘For me, it was always the place that represented family.’

When his sister called him in San Francisco and told him that the village pub was in danger of being turned into flats after its thatched roof collapsed, Michael decided to act. He bought the Farmers Arms in 2014; while the Grade II-listed building was undergoing a four-year renovation, the owners of other properties asked if he was interested in buying them too. The project snowballed and The Collective at Woolsery was born. Although locals haunt the buzzy bar, the challenge was always going to be to entice visitors from further afield. ‘We are not on a drive-through route or on anyone’s radar,’ said Emily Harmon, who moved from America to mastermind the project. ‘To survive as a business we had to attract people interested in food.’ 

Dish of roasted meat toped with herbs.

They have certainly done that, taking farm-to-fork dining to new levels in the beamed pub restaurant with blazing fire, oak settles, wall-mounted cow heads and an unusual menu. 

At first bite, you know it’s special. Here are ingredients prepared in a way you might never have thought of, contributing to layer after layer of flavour in dishes such as Birch Farm hogget with parsnip, nettles and fermented garlic, or fermented mushroom parfait with chantelle and dulse. I had never heard of sea buckthorn before trying it in a tart with hibiscus, pink peppercorn and sweet cicely, but couldn’t get enough of its cantaloupe flavour. 

It’s all a result of the close interaction between former Gidleigh Park head chef Ian Webber, and head gardener Josh Sparkes, who runs The Collective’s 16-acre organic market garden on the village outskirts along with a livestock farm of rare heritage breeds. It’s a shining example of sustainable farming. 

The beginnings of a 300-species edible forest have been planted, perennial crops are favoured over annual ones, and products such as lemon geranium and sumac are grown to minimise food miles by replacing citrus fruit. A storeroom holds row after row of intriguing jars whose contents range from pineapple weed vinegar to mugwort syrup. ‘We pickle, preserve and ferment using all those techniques that have largely been lost,’ said Ian. 

Farmer in a field holding a lamb.

Touring the farm, you can see just how much thought and passion has gone into it all. The same goes for the interiors of the rooms, suites and cottages, which have been beautifully designed in a style Michael calls a ‘fun period country vibe done very elegantly’. Statement vintage wallpapers are offset by heritage fabrics, antiques rub shoulders with contemporary pieces, and interesting art hangs on the walls. Bedrooms might feature a delicate petal glass lamp, fabric bed headboard, bespoke cabinets made by a local joiner, with perhaps a modern interpretation of the classic roll-top bath in the bathroom. ‘I’m obsessed by interior design,’ said Emily, who collaborated with Hannah Lohan from New Heritage Design. No expense has been spared in kitting the cottages out with high-end goodies, from Sage coffee makers to Miele washers, dryers and dishwashers, along with light switches that proved a tad too complicated for me. 

You can see that Michael has been quite the cash dispenser financing it all, though he won’t be drawn on just how many millions he has invested. ‘It’s definitely not a money-making venture,’ he said. ‘It has become a passion project. The goal is to be cash-flow positive when the hotel opens.’ 

There’s still no date on when that might be. Although Wulfheard Manor – comprising a Devon longhouse behind a Georgian façade – was purchased in 2014, renovation to make it into a 18-room hotel including barn accommodation has taken far longer than expected. ‘We are at least two years from finishing,’ said Michael. 

That won’t please the locals, some of whom have nicknamed Woolsery ‘scaffold city’. ‘What they have done has been lovely but it’s been a building site for seven years,’ said Simon Bennett outside the beautifully refurbished store, named J. Andrew after Birch’s great-grandfather. ‘It will be amazing when it’s finished. Everything was old and decrepit in the pub and now it has been brought into the modern day,’ pointed out Thomas Teather.

Exterior of the Farmers Arms, the village pub in Woolsery.

Over on the other side of the village, in the community centre’s bar, there was a bit more grumbling about high food and drink prices at the Farmers Arms and the impact the renovation was having on house prices. ‘But it is good for the village economy,’ conceded one local.

Indeed, The Collective employs 70 people, almost three-quarters of whom live in the village. Among them is Sophy Buckley, 22, who works at the Farmers Arms bar. ‘When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait to get out of the village. There didn’t seem to be a future here for me. Now I’ll be staying,’ she said.

Other employees at the farm and the shop include some of Michael’s distant relatives; he sees them when he visits twice a year. If that makes him more of an absentee lord of the manor for now, he does plan to stay for much longer periods when his youngest child, who is 15, finishes school.

Meanwhile, he said he had no further plans to create anything else in Woolsery as has happened in Cornwall’s Padstow, which gained the moniker of Padstein after the sheer number of businesses run by Rick Stein. ‘I care a lot about Woolsery – what it is and what it becomes,’ said Michael, who even named one of his children Devon. ‘I really believe in community and villages.’ 

BOOK IT

Cottages from £275 per night. A hamper breakfast costs £15pp. woolsery.com