A rural village in remote north Devon isn’t the typical investment opportunity of interest to Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, but for Michael and Xochi Birch Woolsery is more than a business move – it’s in their blood.
When, in 2015, Bebo co-founder Michael Birch heard there were plans for The Farmers Arms in Woolsery to be turned into flats, he felt compelled to try and save the 350-year-old pub. There were good reasons for his interest: a long line of his relatives had called the village home (his grandmother was born above the shop) and it’s where, as a boy, he spent his summers. It was the special place he couldn’t wait to show Xochi when they first met in the student pub at Imperial College in London.
‘We had no grand vision,’ says Michael. ‘We bought The Farmers Arms and it snowballed from there. We then acquired the Fish & Chip Shop, some cottages and the village shop, but the major turning point was the acquisition of the manor house.’
‘When I was a child, we would visit Devon every Easter and summer, without fail,’ he explains. ‘Although my grandmother had moved to Bideford, her brother Cyril still lived in the village, and I so looked forward to our trips there. I would hear all about our family connections: how my great grandfather had built the shop and how the graveyard was full of distant relatives.’
Once word got out that Michael and Xochi had bought the pub and had ambitions to restore it, other villagers approached them and offered to sell buildings and businesses which needed love and attention.
The pair, and their on-the-ground team, are in the process of turning the grand Georgian house – named Wulfheard Manor – into a unique luxury hotel and restaurant experience unlike any other in the UK.
‘Manor house hotels are usually a couple miles from their nearest village, so can feel very disconnected from village life,’ Michael explains. ‘But the manor house in Woolsery is in the middle of the village, so we can create the exact opposite of what you’d usually find. We want the community to be part of the experience, so visitors can prop up the bar of the pub alongside locals, soak up the sun on the village green and wander through Birch Farm meeting the farmers and gardeners.’
Michael and Xochi bought 150 acres of local farmland and created the farm which is run using traditional organic and sustainable principles. It is growing and rearing produce for the various businesses in the village (named The Collective at Woolsery). A next-gen wood-fired bakery is also planned.
Reviving the facilities in the village isn’t just for the benefit of guests who’ll visit Wulfheard Manor when it opens. Breathing life into some of Woolsery’s businesses is also important for the local community, who are benefitting from the associated employment – as well as getting some fantastic places to eat and shop, right on their doorstep.