The curious Devon town transformed by a Silicon Valley billionaire

The Farmers Arms pub is the beating heart of Woolsery

What does the word “collective” suggest to you? Could it be a commune, perhaps, or a communal version of The good life? Perhaps it evokes a nightmarish Stalinist proposal for a new approach to agriculture? To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I approached the village of Woolsery in North Devon. Had it even arrived? The signs were ambiguous. There was a Woolfardisworthy but also a Woolsery, which turned out to be the same place (due, apparently, to a 17th-century pronunciation quirk). The strangeness had begun.

And it didn’t end there. For the last hour I had been driving through miles of open fields and small ruined villages typical of North Devon: small clusters of cottages, a church, sometimes a small country pub or a decrepit village shop struggling to stand. open, but generally neither. Moments after Woolsery, however, there was a perceptible change.

Suddenly an elegant, perfectly maintained little pub (the kind that serves craft cocktails) appeared; a luxury village store with post office; a gourmet fish and chip shop; and a meticulous Georgian villa (the Gothickally called Wulfheard Manor). There was also an adjoining 150-acre organic farm and a neat portfolio of historic cabins intended to welcome visitors.

Here, in the wilds of Devon, was a little pocket of almost Stepford-style perfection; like some kind of immaculate toy town or a movie set. Nowhere was there a crooked slab of slate, a fallen beam, a crumbling chimney. At first he wasn’t quite sure what to make of all this.

But when you learn that all of the above (now rebranded as The Collective at Woolsery) is owned by a social media billionaire from California’s Silicon Valley, things start to make a little more sense.

Michael and Xochi BirchMichael and Xochi Birch

Social media billionaire Michael Birch and his wife Xochi own The Collective at Woolsery – Matt Austin

Far from being a brash businessman looking for a pet project, Michael Birch – who, with his wife Xochi, founded the successful social media website Bebo in 2005 – has a deep connection with Woolsery. In fact, theirs has been something of a circular journey: His great-grandparents built the town’s original store, and his grandmother was born on top of it. Many members of his family still live in the town and it is a place that for him, even from his base in faraway San Francisco, is still filled with happy childhood memories.

“The original motivation was The Farmers Arms pub,” he explains. “It had been unoccupied for several years and there was a plan to convert it into apartments. For me, the pub is the heart of the town and it was unthinkable that Woolsery would not have the pub he had known all my life. Xochi and I were in a position to help, so it all started there. There was no plan for the Collective from the beginning, it simply grew as we were offered other buildings in the town in various states of disrepair.”

They are certainly not in bad shape anymore. The Old Smithy, where I stayed, was full of elegant little details (exposed beams and bricks, two wood-burning stoves, one, rather delightfully, in the bedroom) along with every possible modern convenience. There is a turndown service when you order breakfast, which is delivered the next morning in a wicker basket. And it’s unlike any hotel breakfast you’ve experienced before: Mine centered around nettles, served as a fritter with spiced fermented vegetables, nuts and seeds, plus a side of sweet clover and vanilla yogurt.

The old blacksmith shop, the Woolsery collectiveThe old blacksmith shop, the Woolsery collective

The Old Smithy is a characterful hotel, with exposed beams and wood burning stoves.

The farm-to-table concept is nothing new, but it has rarely been taken as seriously as it is here. Not content with their food being simply “organic,” The Collective grows their food in a way that mimics nature. The food forest, for example, embraces the natural growing environment with intensively planted root crops, ground covers (such as grasses), fruit bushes, vines, low-canopy fruit trees, and high-canopy nuts that fix nitrogen that feed the floor.

Visitors are welcomed and certainly surprised, because this doesn’t look like a normal farm. The crops (they also have animals; the Collective may be environmentally friendly, but they are not vegetarian) all grow together, along with plenty of flowers (used for cooking, drinks, and cordials) and abundant foraging.

cocktail makingcocktail making

The Collective grows ingredients and flowers to use in making cocktails – Matt Austin

This might all start to sound a little like The Village on The prisoner, but (perhaps strangest of all) the general result is quite the opposite. Far from being Stepford-esque, Woolsery is a happy, prosperous little place, filled with a sense of purpose and community, which has managed to avoid the exodus of locals unable to find work as many of its neighbors did.

The inhabitants of Woolsarian are genuinely cheerful and welcoming (no “see you around” smiles here), chatting with visitors and guiding them through the maze of small alleys when they inevitably get lost. Local gardens are opened to the public every year; there is a small primary school; the town hall organizes local craft shows; and there is an annual street fair. Miss Marple would feel right at home.

According to the Birches, the town was always prosperous and they are keen to point out that The Collective certainly did not “save” Woolsery. However, it certainly helped keep it that way. Local producers (vegetables, cakes, honey) have an outlet in the Colectivo’s beautifully renovated village shop and post office, essential services that are fast disappearing in south-west towns. And, since the Collective’s accommodation can only hold 20 people at a time, there’s little chance of Woolsery being overrun by tourists. It is, you could say, the perfect balance.

The old blacksmith shop, the Woolsery collectiveThe old blacksmith shop, the Woolsery collective

The Collective’s accommodation can accommodate 20 people at a time.

And if, on a rural retreat in pristine Woolsery, you start longing for a bit of natural chaos, you’ll easily find it. North Devon is a wild, windswept landscape, perfect for invigorating winter walks. The coastline, just a few miles from Woolsery, is spectacular, with sand dunes, waterfalls and coastal cliffs.

At Hartland Point, you’ll take a rollercoaster ride to the sea, where spectacularly twisted layers of rock have served as a fitting backdrop for smugglers and saboteurs, both real and fictional (they last appeared in the 2020 film). Rebeca). Wildlife is positively abundant. There are rock pools filled with crabs, wading birds scurry along the shoreline, porpoises and gray seals swim offshore, murmuring starlings fill the sky, and wild orchids bloom in the surrounding fields.

On the contrary, after a day in nature, Woolsery feels really welcoming, its neatness and attention to detail a welcome comfort. Maybe this is an experiment that shouldn’t work, and yet it does. I can certainly imagine other struggling towns doing the same: They could start by scouring parish records for Silicon Valley-based philanthropists.


Anna Selby was a guest of the Woolsery Collective (01237 431 238), which offers rooms from £275 a night, suites from £325 and cottages from £450.

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