“Churchyard dining? In North Devon? You can’t be serious?” That was my first reaction when Auntie Chris told me she was heading out to a pop-up restaurant in the little village of Swimbridge, near Barnstaple with nine of her friends.
She was, in fact, referring to Hidden Heaven, a beautifully converted Baptist chapel dating back to 1837 which just happens to be the home of Geoffrey and Kirsty Everett-Brown and their three children. The couple bought the building, complete with the graveyard containing 70 deceased occupants, in 2000 and spent the best part of five years converting it into their dream property.
Now the friendly husband-and-wife team throw open their doors once a month to host informal and welcoming dining experiences for members of the public at a cost of £30 per head. It’s a fantastic concept.
Supper is made from locally sourced and seasonal ingredients and served in a light and airy open plan living and dining room that once housed the pews and pulpit (not the grounds of the churchyard – I was being a touch dramatic) but you do walk past the graves on the walk up the path to the former place of worship, which is a surreal experience in itself.
And there’s no shortage of characterful features to marvel at including the original arched windows – not one pane of glass is the same size – memorial plaques and a hymn board. Guests are required to bring their own alcohol and drinks but get to enjoy a chilled evening with friends and family while being waited on hand and foot in the comfort of a unique family home.
Even so, when Auntie Chris first invited me I instinctively said no.
As many of you know, I have histamine intolerance which means I have to avoid things like citrus fruit, grapes, alcohol, vinegar, anything aged or fermented otherwise my throat starts to close or my tongue swells. (I carry adrenaline pens, steroids and antihistamines at all times).
Dining out is troublesome at the best of times because these ingredients are usually prominent in vegetarian dishes (I’m pescatarian and have not eaten meat since the age of 13).
To make things more complicated my nutritionist recently started me on a strict (hopefully temporary) gluten-free, dairy-free programme in a bid to reset my gut. For the time being, dining out is not an option.
Yet, Geoffrey and Kirsty were so fantastically kind and accommodating. On hearing my situation they invited me along and said it was perfectly fine for me to take my own food so I didn’t miss out on the experience. I was thrilled especially as living with allergies and invisible illness can be so isolating at times.
In fact, I cursed my histamine intolerance when I saw the menu – there was so MUCH choice! We’re talking asparagus soufflé with a tarragon vinaigrette, roasted vegetable terrine with wild garlic pesto, fine beans and sugar snap peas with orange and hazelnuts, and desserts including white and dark chocolate mousse with macerated strawberries or Coeur a la crème with blueberry compote and hazelnut and lavender shortbread.
After dinner, we retired to the family’s lounge area for coffee and conversation. There poor Geoffrey had to field numerous graveyard-themed questions.
“Are people still allowed to visit their relatives in what is effectively your front garden?” (Yes). “Have there been any burials since you’ve lived there?” (Only the interment of ashes). “Do the graves get many visitors?” (Surprisingly, not). “Do you have ghosts?” (No).
With that, I turned to quick-witted Auntie Chris. “Have you enjoyed the evening?” “Thoroughly,” she enthused with a glint in her eye. “It’s been absolutely magnificent. Great company. Outstanding food. An enchanting setting. Oh, and I loved the desserts. They were to die for.”
I should have known that was coming!