Game on! Autumn flavour at The Carnarvon Arms
Autumn is the season of the country pub. Plates of 'there there' food and a glass of Malbec in front of a toasty fire. Off to The Carnarvon Arms we go to sample the new menu
In many ways Highclere is a typical leafy Berkshire village. It’s a few miles outside a market town – Newbury, in this instance – and it’s surrounded by rolling hills and countryside. But what makes it very different is that it’s world famous. Why? Nearby Highclere Castle, owned by Earl and Lady Carnarvon, is star of TV and Film Downton Abbey. Cue coach loads of eager fans desperate to get their hands on Lord Grantham in the Capability Brown gardens. The good news for anyone who wasn’t born into the aristocracy, The Carnarvon Arms is an excellent local pub with rooms which is much more laidback – and you won’t have to worry about spilling wine on the priceless family Chippendale.
This former coaching inn has recently undergone a full renovation – and I’m impressed. Rather than being country pub paint by numbers, they have injected, colour, personality and lots of interesting artwork alongside traditional pieces of furniture, roaring fires and oak beams. The result is fresh and modern without losing its country pub DNA.
The dining areas are buzzy, there are plenty of quiet nooks to grab a drink and read a magazine in peace (*read hide from your kids) and the new (Covid safe) wagon-style pods in the garden are great fun.
Upstairs, you’ll find 18 boutique, dog-friendly rooms – perfect if you’re looking for a base that’ll let your explore West Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire. Although, I’m not sure everyone will want to wake up to a Highland cow staring down at the them. If you’re sensitive to road noise, you might hear the low rumble of the A34, but it’s not something I was remotely aware of during my visit. All in all it’s relaxed, welcoming and has a lovely atmosphere.
SCOFF & QUAFF
I’m a big fan of a hasselback potato and deconstructed pud, but there’s always a place for pub classics done well. It saves the ‘what the hell are they going to eat’ anxiety you get if your kids are as fussy as mine. The emphasis here is on the best ingredients (local where possible, of course) and the autumn menu has all the ‘there there’ vibes of a comforting hug.
Drop that napkin across your lap, let’s dive into the first course. This pretty salmon pink parcel of loveliness was a delight. The salmon and cream cheese are a classic combo, but it comes with a chilli kick and the balsamic pearls kickstart your tastebuds.
My Muddy lunch date opted for the Smoked Duck with celeriac puree, candied beetroot and plum gel. It’s basically autumn on a plate – balancing those smoky, sweet and earthy flavours. Looks pretty too. Portion sizes are good, leaving plenty of room for the mains!
So many good mains to choose from. I almost went for the Mushroom and Guinness Pie and the Lamb Rump was in with shout, but I was game for game and ordered patridge served with garlic and herb mash charred carrots and celeriac puree and blackberry jus. It’s basically a posh roast, but I am here for it. Creamy mash, loved the charred carrots and the partridge managed to stay on the right side of moist – hideous word, but a dry bird is far worse.
Swapping comfort for a culinary halo, my partner in foodie crime chose the Hot Smoked Salmon Niçoise Salad. Lovely fresh ingredients, bags of flavour and there was no danger of feeling hungry. Don’t worry, she hit the pudding menu hard with a Millionaire Shortbread crowned off with a decadent bit of edible gold leaf.
All the dishes were beautifully proportioned – no piling up the plate or making us take out a magnifying glass to find the food. It’s surprising how many pubs get this wrong and you’re struggling to make it through to dessert. Not an issue for your reviewer, who topped off an excellent meal with Poached Pear Pannacotta Crumble (it also comes with a bit of bling) and is much lighter than it sounds. The clean plates speak volumes.
OUT AND ABOUT
You’re in Downton Abbey country. While the American tourists are relatively few in number, there’s no better time to waft around Highclere Castle. It was pretty famous before its TV and film debut, as the ancestral home of Howard Carter (5th Earl of Carnarvon) who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Now the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon open their home to anyone eager to experience a bit of real life of Downton magic and ooh and ahh at the Capability Brown gardens.
Fancy working up an appetite before your pub blow out? You’re spoilt for choice, but a stomp up Beacon Hill delivers epic views. It’s a steep climb, that can get muddy, but the reward is worth channeling your inner mountain goat. You’re also very close to Newbury where you can walks the canal, mooch around the independent shops or spend a day at the races.
A little further afield, but well worth booking is the Bombay Sapphire Distillery. Take a tour, sample the goods, and book a taxi.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: City slickers looking for a stylish, authentic country pub. Friends gasping for a decent Sunday lunch. Romantics propping up the bar. Families hoping to find a pub that won’t be too ‘on ceremony’ to put up with their kids.
Not for: There’s a children’s menu and little people are clearly welcome but with a limited outside space it’s not as ‘let them off the leash’ as some other, more grassy, local pubs.
The damage: Starters are £7.50-ish, whilst mains range around the £15 mark for burger and chips. The partridge is £17.50, the salad is £16.50. Puds are £6ish. There’s also a good children’s menu priced around £6-£7.