Ding dong! Cracking food at the Five Bells
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 keeping 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 (the former home of the Bake Off tent) is just a few minutes down the road.
Footloose and fancy free on a Friday night, so off to the Five Bells we went for a cheeky date night. The vibe is relaxed, friendly and down to earth. It was busy and buzzy with couples, families and a large group on a girls’ night. It was only 7pm, but we like how these guys roll. Attentive staff, but not overbearing and a steady stream of diners, drinkers pop and well-behaved dogs.
I absolutely love that the pub hasn’t been over designed. All the 17th century charm of the Five Bells shines through having benefited from a sensitive refurb. Although it’s not a massive pub, there’s plenty of outside seating – a large garden with countryside views and a terrace. If it was a stick of rock it would have cosy, country pub running right through it. A rarity these days.
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 Philip 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 gloriously fuss free. You’ll find a crowd-pleasing list of British comfort food classics, using local ingredients. Keeping food miles low is very much in the Five Bells DNA.
Shall we have a romp through to give you a flavour of what’s on offer? Duncan suggested we have a platter of starters. At first I thought it was reviewers privileges, but it’s available to anyone. Brilliant for the indecisive, compulsive over sharers and larger groups. The board comes fully loaded with calamari rings with an asian dip, honey and mustard glazed sausages, scampi and garlic mayo – all very good – but the rarebit and mackerel paté were out of this world. Flavour fireworks, in fact. Paté can be a marmite dish for me but I was down with chunky texture and sharpness from the lemon and pickles. What so special about rarebit, you ask? I can only say that the quality of simple ingredients in right hands maketh the dish. YUM.
Sashaying onto the main event… beef and ale suet pudding. Popular in the 18th century and ruined by my mum in the 70s, it was a wild card choice. But in the hands of a pro, I thought I’d give it a go. To my surprise, the suet pastry is lighter than a traditional shortcrust but just as tasty. Choose your sides – I went for shredded greens and truffle fries – and slather the whole lot in gravy. It’s a warm hug on a plate.
Now if there is one dish guaranteed to seduce my OH away, it’s ham egg and chips. A rarity on pub menus these days, but this basic dish is all about the quality. The ham and eggs are local and the chips home cooked. Judging by the smile on his face and the empty plate, it was a hit. He was pretty giddy about the beers on tap too. The Five Bells makes its own micro brewery. The pub’s Wickham Ale is a rather punch 6.5% but there are plenty of guest beers to choose from too.
I failed on the pud. I have loved the crumble and custard in the past. It sounds a bit school dinners, but is delicious (A* and no grade u-turn from this exam board). My date was not so reluctant, sticking his spoon into a traditional Affogato – whipped cream, ice cream, followed by a a shot of espresso. It was gone in 60 seconds.
I have eaten here a lot with my family. The roast is seriously good and my kids have always loved the food – high praise, they’re pretty hard to please. The two course kids menu is seriously good value. Offering homemade mini roasts, fish fingers, bangers and mash etc plus two scoops of ice cream in small and bigger portions. An absolute bargain at £5 /£8 the Sunday roast is £10. There are also good options for veggies, vegans and anyone with intolerances.
Keep your eye peeled for the themed nights. They’re hugely popular and a great opportunity to try something a bit different.
OUT AND ABOUT
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 & Blooms, B The Lifestyle Shop and Fifi & Moose) and Newbury Racecourse.
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 £13 and puds are from £4. Wanna catch some zzzz? There are five rooms available, from £65 per night.