09 December 2020

A weekend of action and restoration in the wilds of Exmoor

09 December 2020

“For your salad tonight, a mushroom from the woods,” says Pio, proudly holding up a plump porcini. I lean in for a sniff. It’s a beauty; a chunky hunk of leathery, earthy goodness. And if last night’s dinner was anything to go by, I’ve no doubt Pio will have transformed it into a work of art by the time it reaches my plate.

Pio Catemario Di Quadri is chef at Locanda on the Weir, a boutique hotel in Porlock Weir, a tiny harbour hamlet on the edge of Exmoor National Park, West Somerset which he runs with his partner Cindy Siu. He usually does set menus – featuring dishes flavoured by both his Italian roots and experimental twists – but has happily tweaked things to suit my plant-based diet.

After arriving last night, just in time for a fireside aperitif in Locanda’s cosy reading room, I’d feasted on fennel with a vibrant lemony dressing and oven-fresh focaccia, a colour-fest of roast carrots, orange and pea puree, then strawberries (“the last of the season”) with an aged balsamic vinegar reduction and kick of black pepper. Other diners had raved about their langoustines and roast lamb.

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“The woods are great for foraging,” Pio adds. “What I can’t find there or get from our kitchen garden, I can usually get from other local plots.”

Plucking porcinis is not all the woods are great for, as I just discovered while tearing up the trails (well, sort of) with Exmoor Adventures on a e-mountain bike. Don’t be fooled thinking the addition of motor assistance takes all the challenge out of it – the hills here don’t mess around and the ground gets seriously mushy – but it does make it easier for mixed groups to ride together and means you don’t have to be a hardcore athlete or daredevil to enjoy it.

Exmoor Adventures offer a range of activities, from kayaking and paddle boarding to tree-climbing and coasteering, all making use of Exmoor’s varied landscape and surrounding shores. Dan, who set up the company just over a decade ago, says mountain biking is especially popular and the e-bikes have been a hit with all age groups.


Today, he guides me and two fellow riders on a three-hour trek that sees us crunching up and down forest tracks, bouncing and sliding along a muddy moor, and even getting off a couple of times to shimmy across plank bridges, bikes hoicked up in our hands.

It’s early November and the leaves are still a fiery weave of rust and amber, and while it rains a few times, every now and then the clouds clear, revealing snaps of brilliant blue.

The pandemic and its restrictions mean opportunities to escape and seek adventure have been extremely limited lately. For many of us, getting outdoors when possible for a dose of fresh air and movement has been our saviour and our solace – and how grateful I’ve been for the pockets of green on my doorstep, and the health to embrace them. But the urge to roam has nipped hard – and after a morning on the bike, soaking up the wilds of wintry Exmoor, I feel reborn.

Back at Locanda, after rinsing off my mud-soaked kit and warming up with a quick shower, I refuel with coffee in the reading room. It also houses the bar, two armchairs in a bay window facing out to sea, and three seriously sinky sofas by a big open fire. There’s a record player and stack of vinyl, and bookshelves almost as eclectic as the art on the walls.

Locanda on the Weir – Reading Room

“It’s all stuff we’ve collected ourselves over the years, or handed down from family,” Cindy tells me. “A lot of the Italian antique furniture in the restaurant comes from Pio’s family. We wanted to make it feel like a home.” And it does – albeit a stylish one with seriously good food.

This is Cindy and Pio’s first time in hospitality. The couple quit their London city careers a few years back, armed with a lifetime of honing skills in interior design (Cindy) and food (Pio – although remarkably he’s self-taught and before this, worked in banking, training his palate “by eating out, reading and teaching myself to replicate restaurant dishes at home”), along with a pretty clear vision of what they hoped to create.

“A restaurant with rooms really, and we knew we wanted to be somewhere wild,” says Cindy. They didn’t want to be anywhere too “done” though, and had no intention of attracting “the Soho House, up ‘til 3am” crowd. “We wanted to offer something more intimate and soothing,” Cindy adds.

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Their search eventually led to a tired seaside café; a blank slate for a redesign, with five spacious en-suites plus space for Cindy and Pio to make it their home, it seemed a perfect fit. For Pio, being able to source local, sustainable ingredients was also important – and it’s rich pickings, with oysters scooped fresh from Porlock Bay, huge stretches of salt marshes sprouting wild samphire, and even a local coffee roaster.

They opened in 2018 and already have a string of repeat guests. Even at full capacity it’s never crowded, but during the pandemic, when allowed, they’ve been operating at reduced volume to enable social distancing. My two-night visit comes just in the nick of time before England’s second national lockdown.

locanda crop

The surrounding villages are all storybook-sweet brick cottages, proper tea rooms, and friendly locals, who all know each other’s names. Porlock Weir is weeny, just a few streets of houses, one pub, and a small row by the harbour where I spot a sign for pizza and a pottery (both closed today). Backed by dense wooded hills and the endless heather-topped moors and grassy heaths of Exmoor, it really does have a touch of the wild. The bubbling rocky bay brings a fierce sea breeze and all year round, you’ll spot surfers out for the late-afternoon swell.

After my coffee, I take a walk and end up sitting on a rock to watch them a while. The third rainbow of the day streaks the sky, then just like that, greyness descends and the heavens open. Sheets of Skittles-sized hail pelts my cheeks and within seconds I’m drenched through.

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It’s only a quick dash back to the Locanda, where a roaring fire awaits. I curl up with my book and an aperitif before Cindy calls me and the other couple of guests to our tables.

My starter arrives. That plump hunk of porcini now lies on my plate in artful slivers, so fine they’re almost transparent. It tastes all the better knowing just hours earlier it was still in the ground, metres away in the woods.

How to plan your trip 

Stays at Locanda on the Weir cost from £175 per room per night, including breakfast, with a minimum two-night stay. Alternatively, guests can hire Locanda exclusively for £10,500 per week inclusive. For more information, visit locandaontheweir.co.uk or call 01643 863 300.

Exmoor Adventures offer a range of activities, including standard E-Bike tours from £60pp for three hours. Visit exmooradventures.co.uk.

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