Tread softly as you walk past Rupert and Sophie’s house. For each time you do, their dogs (one little, one large) descend into a frenzy of barking, running and jumping around.
I love it when I meet people and they begin by saying, ‘I’m not convinced I’ve got that much interesting to say’, and nearly two hours later, you’re still listening to their story, absolutely fascinated.
As we sit chatting at his dining room table, it soon becomes clear that his life has been demarcated by houses. Starting with a rather significant one.
“My family’s been in Dorset for 200 years, near Corfe Castle, but I can trace it back beyond that. One of my ancestors, John Scott was Lord Chancellor to George III (the mad one). Originally he was from Newcastle, from where he eloped with his girlfriend, Bessie Surtees, the daughter of a banker. In 1821 the King bestowed on him the title of 1st Baron Eldon and later he was made Viscount Encombe of the County of Dorset.
It’s a title which – when there was a hiccup somewhere along the line when one of the Earls married a catholic and was disinherited – went down one part of the family, while the house went down another.
Yes. Encombe. We sold it in 2003. My grandfather had died and there were all sorts of things that kind of conspired against keeping it. Not least the bills. Whereas a bill for doing work on a normal house might be £300, there it was £3,000.
Personally, I found it quite difficult because, although it was a family decision, I’m the oldest son, meaning that it was on my watch that we made the decision; and it was a very tough one. The house had only ever changed hands four times in a thousand years. But if someone didn’t make it, over time there was a good chance it would have all gone. We did very well with running it, but it was like pushing water uphill.
In keeping with my new theory that life is happier when simplified, I ask if he is happier with it gone.
Life certainly became a lot easier. Happier? Yes and no. No, because it was emotionally scarring to do it – to be involved with that part of it – and I was very sad. But happy because it enabled my father to live the last twenty years of his life without any worry, which was important. He had cancer, which he beat short-term, and he had twenty very, very good years of not worrying and enjoying life.
Having previously interviewed Julian Fellowes about Downton, I ask if – as he suggested – the house had a personality; like a characterful member of the family.
More like a relative you want to keep in the attic perhaps. After selling it, we stayed on in Dorset for a couple of years, but also bought a place in France – kind of so as not to be on the doorstep. We first lived near Cannes, up in the hills, then moved to another house, which once belonged to Edith Piaf.
By this point my head is slightly beginning to spin, so I decide to take things back to basics and ask how he and Sophie met.
In Dorset, in our late twenties, when her parents moved back from Italy – where her father had been working for the European Commission. Before moving back to Encombe I’d been a property developer in London, then, during the Dorset years, we ran Encombe as a venue for weddings and corporate events. By the time we moved to France we had three children, Charlie, Eddie and Lulu.
Okay, so back to France. What did you do there?
Well we didn’t do a lot for a while. Just recuperated – there’d been a huge amount of work involved in selling. All the stuff from the house was stored for a long time, before we sold some of it and distributed the rest amongst the family.
Then, in 2002, the French Government introduced the Raffarin Law, which said you had to install protective barriers around privately owned pools, in order to help prevent children from drowning. It seemed a great opportunity for a business, so I negotiated the rights for some Australian and American products, and within a few years had a team of about 30 or 40 people working for me.
Until, one day – it was literally like a tap had been turned off – the French decided that as no-one had been prosecuted for not complying with the law, they were no longer going to abide by it. Overnight, our turnover went from a million euros a year, to something like €300,000. So eventually I wound the business up – which included putting money into it to ensure no-one was left being owed.
I ask if this hurt as much as Encombe.
No, Encombe was emotional, but here, it was just business. Although was a pretty unpleasant experience and taught me the difficulties of owning a business abroad.
After eight years in France, when Charlie reached secondary school age we decided to move back to the UK. We bought a house in Wiltshire, did that up, and then aged 45, I decided on a major career change and for six months attended the Ashburton Chefs’ Academy in Ashburton, gaining myself a Diploma in Professional Culinary Arts. I’d always been a keen amateur cook, but I was short on technique; long on cream and butter.
Would you like another cup of tea? Yes please…! And then?
After I graduated, in 2014 I worked in a couple of pubs for minimum wage, peeling veg etc. I didn’t learn any more about cooking, but I learnt how to run a kitchen and a food-led business. Wastage policy for instance. How to make a free soup out of the stalks and skins from a mushroom rarebit. I also cooked for an artist and crew catering company, plus Glastonbury for a month – catering out of a field.
I ask if, doing all this, he ever used to think about his previous life in Encombe.
I don’t think it matters what you do, as long as you’re loving it. I’ve never had any airs and graces. For me, this period wasn’t about money, it was about educating myself – the opportunity to learn something new. I did a few other Festivals, and then a friend said they knew of a new pub looking for a head chef. I’m quite project based. I like finite times to things, so I agreed to set up the kitchen for them. Then, in 2015, my father died and I left there, then didn’t work for a while – apart from some private catering.
I had, however, always talked about the fish and chip industry – believing it to be a great British staple that’s mostly done very badly. So in 2017 Sophie and I bought a small fish and chip shop – with a tiny 22 seater restaurant attached – in Fulham. Skip forward two years, and we were in the top twenty of all London restaurants on Trip Advisor (even reaching No 1 for a short while); so well known that tourists would come straight to us from Heathrow.
In our last year we sold 72,000 pieces of fish and literally a ton of chips a week. Meaning, on a quiet day, maybe 250 portions; and when the footie was on, up to 650 or 700.
Again, we have a fascinating conversation about fish (the colder the sea, the better the fish); but you’ll have to ask Rupert next time you see him to tell you all about MSC and everything else involved in creating wildly popular fish and chips.
I ask if running Fishers was the pinnacle of his career.
Well, originally, I’d had bigger plans for it: a Fishers in all 22 London boroughs. But in 2017, a 45lb box of cod was £103; and when we sold it was costing £162. So costs went up by 60% and I could only increase my prices by 25 – 35%. So because of these increasingly squeezed margins, and the fact that both Sophie’s and my mother haven’t been well, in 2019 we decided to sell; which led us to Piddlehinton…
We moved here because originally we thought we might buy the Brace of Pheasants, and it was when we were looking at it that we found this house, back in May last year. The house absolutely fitted our bill – there was room for a bit of development, it’s got a good-sized garden, and its annexe is perfect for the boys.
In the end, the Fishers sale took a long time to go through, so Sophie and I didn’t actually move down properly until last December, although by then we’d put in an offer on another pub, The World’s End, which is part of the Charborough Estate. It’s quite a big place, 80 covers, with lots of land where we were planning to put on mini Festivals, while also developing the bedrooms.
Then in January we’d just returned from visiting the boys in Japan – where they were working as ski instructors – when we were told that the pub was no longer for sale, as they wanted to ‘explore other options’.
We were due to take occupation on the 24th March. Lockdown was announced on the 23rd.
So, in fact it turns out we were very lucky that the deal fell through – despite the money it had cost in agents fees, as well as my time. Which matters to me. For at 53 I only have a finite amount of it left and don’t want to be wasting it on things that aren’t going to come to fruition.
But yes, we did feel lucky, and sent Richard Drax a thank you note and bottle of champagne.
So, how did you feel about lockdown? Has it felt profound?
Yes, it has. When we were out in Japan we could see Covid sweeping the world. Our boys are self-employed ski instructors, so only get paid when they’re teaching. Their boss wanted them to stay until the end of April, but in the end we just booked them two tickets. We felt it important that we ensured they were safe, before whatever was happening began to happen.
Charlie has Type 1 diabetes and our daughter, Lulu, has asthma, so we were told that they were both at risk. Also, my mother has COPD and Sophie’s mum is in a home, which means that poor Soph hasn’t been able to see her since March, which is terrible. Although a sort of blessing is that she has Alzheimers, so is probably unaware that Sophie’s not been able to visit.
Also, my age means that I’m in a category that puts me more at risk, and I needed to be okay to support my mum. So all of these things meant that we did really lock down for the three months. I was the one who went to get the food, and I used to hate it; didn’t like the idea of being near people. I found it frightening on the basis that Covid isn’t an enemy you can see. We’d occasionally come out for the singing, but the first couple of times we would back away from other people, so yes, as a family we did feel at risk.
I ask how it was, being holed up together.
I don’t want to be blasé, because I know that many people have had the most appalling times. But as a family we had a good time. Yes, without being a dick about it, we had a great lockdown. Our boys had been away for nearly a year, working first in New Zealand and then Japan. They’re very close, as are Lulu and Sophie. They exercised together, did a lot of talking, walking. I actually started running – until I injured myself. I also did a lot of cooking, including baking bread every morning, for which I sourced flour from a mill.
We just tried to keep things happy. We had seven or eight rounds of film nights, where each person would put a film in a hat and we’d pick until all five films had been watched. It meant that over the summer we watched around 40, including things like High Society, without a single argument! We also played games, did puzzles… And obviously we’re very fortunate with where we live, so I can’t say we had a bad lockdown.
I ask if he worries for his children’s future?
Yes. I feel desperately sorry for them. Lulu’s now at Uni, at Exeter, and she’s okay but having a very different experience to the one she’d been expecting. Although she’s better off, I think, than a lot of the universities up North. But my boys had embarked on this career of being ski instructors which they’d worked incredibly hard for, and to have it taken away from them is tough.
Charlie’s now 25, and won’t be able to get a working holiday visa when he’s thirty, so he’ll have to be sponsored by a ski company in order to work. But in order to qualify for that, he’s got to have done 36 months of instructing, and doing three years within the next five was already a tough ask, so he needs to look at it carefully.
They’ve been pretty even-keeled, keeping themselves busy. They both love being outdoors and have played a lot of golf. Charlie started a vegetable garden, growing tomatoes and things from seed, and he’s done a bit of work for his previous employer; while Ed did some work at The Thimble (whose fish and chips are brilliant, incidentally). But it is tough. Right now, they’ve got nothing on their horizon.
And how’s it been for him?
Obviously I’ve had periods of not working before, but this time was very different. The actual three months of lockdown were great, but then, when things started opening up again, I began really pushing for change. I wanted to demolish the stables and rebuild them, rip out the spare rooms and re-do the kitchen.
Soph is a life coach, and together we’ve been trying to get to the bottom of why I felt like that. I think it’s because I’m very happy working on a project – the build-up, the execution, the wrapping it up, then moving onto the next one. There’s always been a period of planning, then activity. But this time around, I’ve not been able to do any of that. One reason is that the hospitality industry is in a terrible state. Sadly, I think it’s going to be a long hard winter for everyone involved.
In some ways Covid’s meant there’s been a bit of a cull within the industry, which I feel was needed. The big chains, backed by Venture Capital money; suppliers and landlords getting screwed; people with no passion for food entering the industry. I don’t think all of that’s been good for it.
When I ask what he’d say he now ‘is’, what he does for a job, there’s a long pause.
I don’t know how I see myself these days. An out of work hospitality, property developer?
When Sophie calls out, from the other room, “Entrepreneur”, his face relaxes.
Yes. I am looking for opportunities, although for the moment I don’t think they’re going to be in hospitality.
I ask whether he thinks that what happened with Encombe has been a big driver in his life.
I think so. I think I lost my way a little bit at some point. Now I know there are more important things out there. It’s important that my family is safe and well, and lockdown has given me the time to reflect on that. At the beginning I could be quite ratty and bad tempered – I feel I’m less stressed now, more even-tempered.
Sophie adds that at the beginning he was also on a mission to ensure everyone had everything they needed.
I am a fixer of things. If I find a problem, I like to be able to fix it, and if I can’t I find it frustrating. That’s probably one of the things I’ve learnt this year – that I can’t fix everything. If ever my kids came to me with a problem I’d always try to sort it. Now, rather than jumping in, I’m trying to take a step back.
So, now they’ve landed in Piddlehinton, is this their forever house?
Soph would like it to be. I think I’m a bit of a nomad.
And, the big question, what’s been his silver lining?
After the time that we were able to spend together as a family, then it’s probably the fact that we were lucky to have sold in London and, while I hate saying there there’s ever a positive to a deal falling through, absolutely 100% I wouldn’t want to be in a big-rent pub at this particular moment.
Lockdown also means that I’ve had the time to stop and think, meaning I’ve somewhat re-evaluated things. Soph and I have been thinking that, in a couple of years, we might do something that’s more of a personal project: a community-focused pub that’s not food-led, where the beer’s affordable for everyone.
The kind of pub where we sponsor the local cricket team and rugby club, and host the darts team. We wouldn’t necessarily want to live in the village is itself, as we are very happy in Piddlehinton, but it would need to be close to here.
And yes, I guess this thinking has evolved out of lockdown – and through talking to people at the cricket club; finding out what they’ve been missing. I know I don’t want to be back at the stoves for x number of hours, with Sophie doing twelve hours front of house. I’m now thinking: a place that covers its costs, washes its face. Not something you drive for profit, and nor would I want to grow it into a chain.
I also wouldn’t want to do anything that competes directly with The Thimble as this fabulous pub was one of the draws to the village when we moved, and I want to see Emma-Jayne and Michal thrive.
I am now interested in creating something much simpler than things I’ve previously done, a venture which serves the needs of the local community and gives something back.
Because I think that community is really important. We’ve seen that from the village WhatsApp group – how for some people it’s been a lifeline. We moved here just before lockdown, so haven’t really had a chance to integrate into the village as much as we’d have liked. But we will, I’m sure. I’m quite willing and able, under the right circumstances, to get fully involved. I love the village. I love the pub. When the boys joined the cricket club, we used to go up and watch.
I’m quite a private person – talking to you now is quite out of my comfort zone. I don’t talk about people, and don’t particularly want people to talk about me. I’m happy to socialise, have a drink, and I can be lively. But, as a family, we don’t ask too much from others, and don’t expect much in return. Although, if asked, we’d certainly dive in and help where we can.
What I have now fully realised is that inactivity creates low points for me, particularly when it’s forced.
So, how can you serve your community? That’s what I’ve begun to think about.