Is this the end for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage?

Is this the end for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage? BLOG  Monday 13th September 2021


In a list of the country’s most enviable people, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would surely have been a permanent fixture for the past couple of decades. By relocating from London to Dorset and learning to be self-sufficient at the idyllic River Cottage, he has lived a real-life Good Life, only better.

Not content with creating a rural nirvana for himself, his wife Marie and their four children, he went on to make millions through books, TV shows and restaurants.

In recent weeks, however, his recipe for perfection has soured, leaving a bitter aftertaste for some who have done business with him.

Keo, the film company he set up in 1995, has had to be sold after accruing more than £5 million in losses. Questions have been asked about why directors were paid more than £4 million between them during seven successive years of losses at Keo Films, and creditors have been told that not all of them will be paid the money they are owed after Keo was sold for £1.7 million in July.

Meanwhile three of the four River Cottage branded restaurants have closed and four of the six companies of which Fearnley-Whittingstall remains a director made a loss in the latest financial year.

Between them, River Cottage Stores, River Cottage Holdings, River Cottage Limited and River Cottage Partnerships racked up losses of more than £7 million according to the latest accounts filed at Companies House. The remaining two companies recorded profits of £953,000 between them.

So is there trouble in paradise? Or is Fearnley-Whittingstall just the latest victim of a Covid pandemic that has left thousands of businesses struggling?

“We all feel really sad about what’s happened, it’s not the outcome that we wanted, because we’ve all put our lives into the company,” Will Anderson, creative director of Keo Films told The Daily Telegraph. “But we have to make realistic and sensible choices that protect the employees and their jobs.”

In River Cottage’s heyday during the late 1990s and the 2000s, Keo was making profits of several hundred thousand pounds a year as it churned out more than a dozen TV series under the River Cottage brand. Viewers were enchanted by old Etonian Fearnley-Whittingstall’s back-to-basics cookery and environmentally-sustainable methods, and the shows spawned a restaurant, three more canteen and kitchen spin-off sites, a cookery school and more than 25 books. They made Fearnley-Whittingstall a household name. Not bad for a freelance journalist whose only culinary training had been a short spell as a sous chef at London’s River Cafe.

The last River Cottage series on British TV aired in 2014, a decision which Fearnley-Whittingstall told The Telegraph was his, because: “I decided it was time to explore a change in direction.” There began the downturn in Keo’s fortunes. As River Cottage absented itself from the schedules, other TV chefs turned up the heat, notably Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein, Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson, and cookery shows such as MasterChef and The Great British Bake Off gobbled up screen time.

Fearnley-Whittingstall, now 56, turned his attention to campaigning, fronting documentaries including Hugh’s War on Waste and Britain’s Fat Fight, while Keo’s output increasingly consisted of worthy, serious documentaries about refugees, wildlife and the environment.

He admits the company had been “financially stretched for many years” but claims that last straw was “uncertainty over key recommissions, and projects delayed or cancelled due to Covid”.

Anderson says: “We have a reputation for taking on difficult and challenging documentary projects, which are unpredictable by definition. These things are hard to budget for. They have been successful and come with lots of awards but they don’t make much money.”

Emmys aside, in recent days questions have been asked about why directors, of whom there were only four at the time the company was sold, were paid an average salary of £582,000 between them over the seven loss-making years, and why the top director’s pay increased from £170,000 to £200,000 in the latest accounts.

There have also been claims that the company still owes some of its freelancers money.

One freelancer, who said he was never fully paid after working for a Keo Film subsidiary, told The Telegraph: “Although they claim it’s an ethical company, it doesn’t seem that ethical.”

Anderson insists directors were simply paid in line with industry norms, and says some directors, who include Zam Baring, scion of the Barings banking family, had made substantial loans to the company, which will be written off.

He also says that Keo’s new owners, Passion Holdings (which makes the meerkat commercials for will ensure freelancers are paid and that those working on ongoing projects will be kept on.

He adds: “We were managing to keep our heads above water and then Covid hit and things that were in production got cancelled or suspended and it got harder to get commissioned. The cashflow dried up.”

Covid cannot, of course, be blamed for the seven years of losses the company had racked up between 2014 and 2020, nor can it be entirely to blame for the shrinking of the River Cottage restaurant empire.

In 2017, the River Cottage Canteen and Deli in Plymouth, which charged £28 for a three-course lunch, closed down, with the firm saying only that it had “struggled” with the site.

Then in February last year, well before the first lockdown, Fearnley-Whittingstall announced he was closing his River Cottage Canteen in Bristol because of “rising costs and challenging market conditions” despite a £3.1 million loan by a major shareholder (either Fearnley-Whittingstall or co-owner Guy Baring).

In July last year the River Cottage Kitchen in Winchester closed for good, which was blamed on Covid. He told The Telegraph that closing the other restaurants had been “a real blow” but insisted that as one door closes, another opens, because it gave him time to realise ideas that had been “on the back burner for too long”, such as a range of organic food and drinks. You can now buy their own brand yoghurts (£1.85 for a 160g jar), kombuchas (£2.20 for 275ml), beers and ciders (£33 for a mixed case of 12x440ml cans), wine (£28 for a bottle of sparkling), while cooks can now take a River Cottage Cooking Diploma via an online course. A Christmas at River Cottage book will be out next month.

The restaurant closures and the sale of Keo leaves Fearnley-Whittingstall with interests in his River Cottage Limited (the events and courses arm, which made a loss of £1.65 million last year), his retail and restaurant business River Cottage Stores (which made a loss of £5 million), River Cottage Partnerships (which covers franchising, brand licensing and book production and made a loss of £336,000), and River Cottage Holdings, which is majority owned by Guy Baring and made a £38,000 loss. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s portfolio as a whole has net assets of around £4 million, meaning that taken as a group they are well in the black.

River Cottage is by no means alone in struggling to keep restaurants open – Jamie Oliver, whose empire dwarfs that of Fearnley-Whittingstall – was forced to close almost all of his eponymous restaurants in 2019 as they went into administration because of an overall downturn in casual dining.

Fearnley-Whittingstall, meanwhile, insists his own brand has become “ever more relevant” as environmental issues and sustainability occupy ever more of the public agenda, and that he and his staff remain “busy”.

Despite stepping down from the board of Keo, he expects to carry on making programmes with it, and has hinted that the goose may have to be asked to start re-laying its golden eggs.

“Would I ever consider making brand new River Cottage shows?” he said. “Never say never.”


By Gordon Rayner


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REMEMBER: The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.

– Nicolas Chamfort



  1. “Dream big and dare to fail.” – Norman Vaughan.


Happiness is…having the best paid job in the world…I bet.


“I always take my wife morning tea in my pyjamas. But is she grateful? No, she says she’d rather have it in a cup.” – Eric Morecambe.


Love is…living for each other.


A time to be the flavour of the day…A time to be face the sorness especially after Covid-19 Lockdowns.

Fairytale of New York.

The delightful Emma Raducanu pulled off the fairytale feat of winning the US Open. She becomes the first qualifier in the Open era to win a Slam and is elevated to British number one. At the start of the year, this inspirational young woman was ranked number 345 in the world and less than three months ago was sitting her A Levels. She has raised all our spirits and is a wonderful British story.

And that wonderful moment when all the Nationals feature the same story!


©2021 Phil M Robinson