With mega-fresh food and cosy country interiors, The Five Bells at Wickham, West Berks, is a classic British pub through and through.
You’ll find the Five Bells just off the main road in the village of Wickham, West Berkshire. It’s a chocolate box pretty 17th century inn with more period drama than a Jane Austen novel. Drink in the thatched roof, open fires and ‘Ouch! Mind your head’ low beams. It’s been sympathetically updated and buffed while keep all of its personality.
Owner Duncan JOnes describes it as ‘a home from home pub’ serving British classics that you neither have to cook or wash up. Happy days, my Muddy friends. Happy days. Buuuuut. It’s a bit more than that. Duncan has worked in his fair share of gastropubs and he’s cooked for the Queen, so the quality of the cooking is very good. He’s also keen to keep the food miles low, so uses local suppliers. It’s serves more ‘there there’ than a Victoria Sponge. GBBO fans, will also get a rise out of the fact that Welford Park (home of the Bake Off tent) is just a few minutes down the road.
I ate here for Sunday lunch so the vibe was relaxed and friendly. Attentive staff, but not overbearing and a steady stream of diners and drinkers found a perch on what as glorious Autumn day. In fact there’s a real mix of people here – families, couples, pit-stop cyclists, local drinkers and well-behaved dogs all settling in for the afternoon.
I absolutely loved that the pub wasn’t over designed. All the 17th century charm of the Five Bells shine through having benefitted from sensitive refurb. We had one of the best seats in the house next to one of two roaring fires – country pub must-haves. And although it’s not a massive pub, there’s plenty of outside seating on dry days – a large garden with countryside views and a terrace.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Chef-owner Duncan has his culinary spurs. He was ex group head chef at The Bel & The Dragon, and cooked for the Queen, Prince Phillip and the Queen of Sweden. How fancy is that? The menu at the Five Bells has a little gastropub get-up-and-go but it’s far from pretentious. You’ll find a crowd-pleasing list of British comfort classics, using local ingredients. Keeping food miles low is very much in the Five Bells DNA.
The menu has been stripped back since Covid for obvious reasons but you can still eat with separate main, lunch, Sunday lunch and kids menus.And they can cater for all – veggies, vegans and intolerances. Shall we have a romp through to give you a flavour of what’s on offer?
I started with Steak Tartare which is seared with pickled gherkins and mushrooms, served with a dollop of horseradish sauce and charred sour dough bread. If you’re squeamish about raw meat in a tartare, then try this. It was an explosion of flavour. The picked veg and heat of the horseradish giving the tastebuds a kick up the bum.
Release the Yorkies! I’m here for the Sunday Roast. There were three to choose from sirloin of beef, pork belly and lemon and thyme chicken. All served with roast potatoes (boiled in herbs and garlic to lock in the flavour, before it gets its crispy exterior in the oven.
There was a huge selection of veg. Roots veg on the plate plus a serving dish of greens (five-a-day nailed in one sitting), a big Yorkshire pud and a jug of gravy. I chose the chicken, my mum had the beef – both absolutely scrummy. Home from home, yes, but with more foodie flair than I could muster. The only thing absent was sage and onion stuffing. But there was so much to eat (portion sizes are generous) I’m not sure I would have had room anyway.
Apple crumble and custard sounded a bit school dinners, but was in fact delicious (A* and no grade U-turn from this exam board).
If you’re not a roast fan (*are you mad?) then other classics are available and I thought the kids menu was particularly good. Offering homemade mini roasts, fish fingers, bangers and mash etc plus two scoops of ice cream in small and bigger portions. An absolute bargain £5 or £8 for two courses. £10 for Sunday roast..
OUT AND ABOUT
Although not open until 2021, Welford Park is well worth a visit. The carpet of snowdrops is one of the best in the UK. If you fancy a mooch around the shops, head 10 minutes west to Hungerford for antiques and a smattering of stylish fashion boutiques on Bridge Street. In the opposite direction is Newbury and its mix of indies (Camp Hopson, Willow and Blooms, B The Lifestyle Shop and Fifi and Moose) and Newbury Racecourse (once we’re allowed to fill the grandstands).
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: The Five Bells offers a warm welcome to all, whether you’re in for a three-course blow out or a pint of ale and a packet of crisps. The large garden also offers battle-weary parents all the space they need when their toddlers are throwing an almighty tantrum without feeling the need to hide.
NOT FOR: Foodies looking for sharply attentive service, and ‘packaged’ surroundings. This is a relaxed pub, serving ‘there there’ dishes. Personally there’s always a place for that.
££: Very reasonable. Starters are from £6; Mains from £12 and puds are £4. Wanna catch some zzzz? There are five rooms available, from £55 per night.