Rural aesthetics run deep. That’s what the writer and conservationist Isabella Tree (Lady Burrell) and her husband, Sir Charles Burrell, discovered when they decided to turn Knepp, their 3,500-acre family estate – then a financially failing arable and dairy farm – back over to nature in 2001. Knepp’s pioneering project initially sparked indignation. The pair were even called unpatriotic. But as Tree, who has penned an award-winning book on their experiences in transforming Knepp into the first large-scale rewilding project in lowland England, explains: “The land had been soaked in chemicals for 70 years. There was nothing of natural value left. We felt free to experiment.” 

Two decades on, the grassy scrub of Knepp’s Southern Block is punctuated by swaths of yellow fleabane, ragwort and thistle, browsed by beautiful and brilliantly docile Old English longhorn cattle, as well as Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies. It’s a wild terrain that’s more akin to African bushland than sylvan West Sussex. 

A peacock butterfly among fleabane in Knepp’s rewilded landscape
A peacock butterfly among fleabane in Knepp’s rewilded landscape © Billy Barraclough
The estate’s Old English longhorn cattle
The estate’s Old English longhorn cattle © Billy Barraclough

While their original aim was to raise biodiversity levels and bring some of the wildlife back to the estate, the once-barren clay soil is now a carbon-rich haven for some of Britain’s rarest and dearest living creatures. Come springtime, the dawn chorus, broadcast by the burgeoning populations of nightingales and turtle doves, is so deafening that, according to Charles Burrell, “you can feel it in your lungs”. The beavers are back. There are kaleidoscopes of large tortoiseshell butterflies, extinct for more than 50 years in the UK, and the white storks that have been nesting in Knepp’s ancient oaks have not been seen hatching on British ground for more than six centuries.

Today, Knepp attracts tens of thousands of annual visitors – walkers, twitchers, curious environmentalists and regenerative farmers – from as far away as Australia. “We realised we needed somewhere for these people to sit, have a coffee and stay a while,” says Tree of the recently opened Wilding Kitchen, a café, restaurant and farm shop headed by Tree’s son Ned Burrell.

Produce grown in the Market Garden is used in the Wilding Kitchen
Produce grown in the Market Garden is used in the Wilding Kitchen © Billy Barraclough
A trug of organic tomatoes
A trug of organic tomatoes © Billy Barraclough

For 26-year-old Burrell and head chef Bradley Adams (who has studied regenerative agriculture for the past 16 years), the outpost was an opportunity to tell the story of Knepp’s rewilding, plate by plate. “Healthy soil creates rich and complex flavours,” he says, citing the connection between planet and palate, long severed by convenience culture. “You can see it, smell it and taste it.”

As a child, Burrell was free to roam the land. “No one knew where we were – we’d head out and not be back until teatime,” he says of those years. His culinary journey began while studying ancient history at Newcastle University, where he became obsessed with the city’s flourishing food markets. This curiosity was cemented in the kitchens of an organic gastropub, The Bull Inn at Totnes, and east London’s BRAT, which followed a stint at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork in 2019. 

The restored 18th-century Sussex barn that houses the Wilding Kitchen, with beams made from 300-year-old oak
The restored 18th-century Sussex barn that houses the Wilding Kitchen, with beams made from 300-year-old oak © Billy Barraclough
Knepp’s old English longhorn cattle roam free in the rewilding project
Knepp’s old English longhorn cattle roam free in the rewilding project © Billy Barraclough

Back home, Tree was struck by her son’s epicurean evolution, which they initially got to experience during lockdowns. “Suddenly we were eating brioche for breakfast and ox heart for lunch,” she says. It gave the family the confidence to bring the Wilding Kitchen to life – an entirely collaborative process transforming an 18th-century Sussex barn, previously inhabited by sheep, into a culinary hub, which took three years to complete. The barn now overlooks a courtyard with reclaimed red-brick paths meandering towards Knepp’s 16 miles of walkways. 

Knepp’s regenerative ethos infuses every aspect of the design. Diners are installed at ash tables made from wood collected during dieback clearance. They eat with Sheffield-steel cutlery from Allday Goods, whose colourful marbled handles are forged from restaurants’ recycled plastic waste; and are seated in leather chairs made in collaboration with Bill Amberg Studio, who used the skins of the Old English longhorn cattle that roam the estate year round. Amberg’s Knepp chair and voluptuous Tub chair are upholstered in vegetable-tanned leather that will patina with age. “It’s about celebrating the life of the animal,” says Tree, who notes that the chairs, as well as stools, magazine racks and coasters, will be sold in the farm shop, overseen by Burrell’s partner, Knepp’s design-lead Lia Brazier. The family are also planning community-minded initiatives, including collaborating with Fine Cell Work, the charity founded by Tree’s mother, Lady Anne Tree, which produces decorative needlework goods made by prison inmates. 

Gourds grown in the Market Garden
Gourds grown in the Market Garden © Billy Barraclough
Organic brassicas and onions
Organic brassicas and onions © Billy Barraclough

Opening initially for lunch only, the Wilding Kitchen is an experiment in fostering a wilder, truer and more holistic approach to food. The restaurant’s menu includes fish caught daily in nearby Sussex Bay (“If there’s a storm, fish will be off the menu,” says Burrell of their sustainable ethos), Norfolk oysters and a rainbow of seed-grown regenerative produce from the neighbouring Knepp Market Garden, tended by a duo who previously supplied the Copenhagen restaurant scene. Whatever comes into season here will feature – whether that’s a leafy salad with fennel flowers, parsley, carrots and arugula, or the flavoursome eight-variety tomato and basil plate.

While vegans are well catered for, Knepp’s Old English longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs are the stars of the show. Culled at the on-site butchery once a year to maintain numbers – “We stand in for natural predators,” says Burrell – these animals are the ultimate in ethical meat. No one would disagree that reducing meat consumption is environmentally essential, but for Tree, Knepp’s entirely pasture-grazed cattle are worlds away from their industrially farmed counterparts and have a crucial role to play in forming healthy, highly carbon-capturing soil. Knepp’s cows live in matriarch-led social herds, self-medicating on wild flora and fauna that reduces vets’ bills – and, crucially, methane emissions.

The Wilding Kitchen’s sirloin steak, sourced from the Knepp estate’s longhorn cattle and dry-aged on the bone for up to 100 days
The Wilding Kitchen’s sirloin steak, sourced from the Knepp estate’s longhorn cattle and dry-aged on the bone for up to 100 days © Billy Barraclough
Eight varieties of tomato with basil oil dressing
Eight varieties of tomato with basil oil dressing © Billy Barraclough

“They’re living their best lives,” says Burrell, who will serve longhorn steaks from cattle up to 19 years old, giving rise to “a deeper, more umami flavour”. He says a vegetarian visitor to Knepp’s Pasture To Plate safari completed their tour sampling these carnivorous delights. 

In our era of global boiling, Knepp offers a glint of positivity. “If you want to feel hope, come here,” says Tree, who’s currently working with local landowners, farmers, community projects and gardeners on an initiative to develop a 50-mile nature corridor from Knepp to the sea and north-east to Ashdown Forest. Despite its scale, in many ways Knepp, which sits under the Gatwick stacking system and is encased by A-roads, is an unlikely natural idyll. “We’re living proof that nature can bounce back – quickly and in abundance,” she says. “If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.” 

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