The Wellington Arms, Baughurst
If your understanding of ‘destination pub’ is – takes flippin’ ages to find down endless winding country lanes clogged with tractors – then The Wellington Arms on the Berks/Hants border can definitely be awarded the title. But by heck food lovers, it is so worth it.
I took my sister along for the ride and promised her an amazing meal at the end of our pilgrimage. Thank god The ‘Welly’ came up with the goods. I was pretty confident though as the amount of awards and glowing press coverage its received is kind of bonkers.
I’d also read that owners Jason King (chef) and Simon Page (front of house) had just added a fourth bedroom to their B&B set up at the pub and I’m always on the lookout for decent pubs with rooms. It’s always good to have them tucked away in the back of your noggin for the next time you need some R&R.
This 18th-century former hunting lodge on the edge of the Duke of Wellington’s Stratfield Saye estate is just 15 minutes from Basingstoke, though feels (thankfully) a million miles away. It’s a food lovers’ dream come true. On-site chickens, bees, sheep, pigs – and the most beautifully kept kitchen garden you’ll ever see. The menu relies heavily on homegrown. Bliss.
We get a warm welcome from Simon at the door. We’ve arrived an hour earlier than our table booking so we can walk Digby before lunch. Simon gives us directions for a simple circular walk from the pub – him and Jason have two Norfolk terriers so they know their walkies. It’s a beautiful yomp past their small holding with its Dr Dolittle array of pigs, sheep and chickens, across surrounding fields, and if you go wrong (like we did) you can come back through the village peeking at all the gorgeous houses and the beautiful St Stephen’s church along the way.
When my sister and I are together there’s usually ‘an incident’, this time it was that old comedy classic – her boot getting stuck in a muddy quagmire. We squelched and hobbled our way back to the pub, looking ridiculously ‘city mouse’ (my sister was still defiantly carrying her handbag on her arm, like the Queen) and feeling we’d definitely earned our meal.
Though the Lichen front door and the look is cosy, country-chic with well-worn furniture and charming details everywhere you look. Fresh flowers adorn the bar and tables and the interiors are stylish but still homely and not forced or overdone. There are antique silver dishes and spoons, cut glass decanters, delicate vintage bone china cups and jars of homemade preserves for sale on rickety shelves. You can also buy the freshly laid eggs from the pub’s hens, sloe gin, sourdough bread (baked daily) and even the woollen mohair tea cosies – knitted by Simon’s mum.
There’s care and attention at every step – in a flash Digby was brought a chew and a bowl of water and Simon and the rest of the staff are all of the ‘on it before you’ve even thought of it’ school of hospitality.
We started with a couple of fresh lime sodas ‘just like on a beach in Thailand’ said the menu. Oh my bloody god, they were amazing. We necked them and immediately ordered two more. Homemade sourdough was pillowy soft and scrummy, then we had Jason’s babaganoush and chargrilled toast (for 2) which was so good I forgot to take a photo. Um, here it… was.
For our mains my sis had baked potato gnocchi pan-fried with garlic, roast butternut squash, walnuts, sage leaves and Parmesan. Gnocchi can be a bit hit and miss for me, as I often find it quite stodgy and bland, but this was light and flavoursome with a lovely nuttiness to it and crispy outside – it was actually exciting to eat.
I had smoked haddock fillet with a poached Wellington egg, marsh samphire and brown butter. Such simple ingredients but the quality of them combined with Jason’s skilful cooking spun them into something special. Generous chunky flakes of haddock just melted away, and what flavour. That lovely rich golden yolk that only a freshly laid free range egg can achieve and delicate samphire glossy with brown butter. I wish I was eating it now as I write this.
From a cuddly selection of nursery puddings my sister chose the traditional lemon posset and I had the steamed marmalade sponge pudding and proper homemade (natch) custard. Simple, but again perfectly made and beautifully presented. We were both grinning like idiots as we spooned every last mouthful away.
As it was a busy lunchtime service we just had a quick peek through the window of one of the B&B rooms and they are, as you can imagine – faberooney. Cosy but stylish with wooden beams and exposed brickwork, there are now four to choose from including the Apartment in the former landlord’s accommodation above the pub. Prices start from £100 per night for a double room. And the area begs to be explored if you do spend a night or two here.
There’s Silchester Roman city walls and amphitheatre, The Vyne with beautiful gardens and ancient woodlands (it’s one of my favourite National Trust places to visit outside of Berkshire), Highclere Castle is about 20 minutes away near Newbury, Sandham Memorial Chapel – another National Trust property this houses a series of impressive large scale murals by Cookham artist, Sir Stanley Spencer. Bombay Sapphire just down the road in Whitchurch where you can take a tour of the distillery and book a cocktail masterclass. Also in Whitchurch, visit the Whitchurch Silk Mill – the oldest silk mill in the country in its original building, the Georgian water mill still weaves silk using 19th century machinery. And finally, this is beautiful walking country, so just stick your wellies on and off you plod!
Here are some shots from the circular walk we did (with some creative detours!)
Meanwhile back at the pub…
Pleasantly fat ‘n’ happy, we strolled back to the car through the beautifully kept gardens with its plentiful tables and benches, perfect for when the weather starts perking up (yes Easter weekend hail stones, I’m talking to you!). And at that moment, I decided I will eat my knitted mohair tea cosy if you don’t like The Wellington Arms. It’s a true labour of love and I admire Jason and Simon who have such a passion for what they do and really care. It’s a joy to spend time here and you’ll feel full of tummy and smiley of face when it’s time to hit the (really) long and (ultra) winding road home.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Foodies – people make the pilgrimage here because of the quality of ingredients and cooking, and Jason and Simon are passionate about the environment too. Waterloo cheese from Riseley in Berks, custard made with eggs from their own hens, Mr Adam’s apples from over the way… if you care about the provenance of your food you will be in heaven. Overnighters – the B&B rooms are picture perfect and there’s loads to see and do in the area – perfect for a romantic weekend away, if you can remember what one of those even is knackered parents?! Dog walkers – dogs are made very welcome.
Not for: Anyone in a hurry – it takes an effort to get here and you’ll want to linger and make the most of it when you do, so put your phone away and stop checking the time, just reeelax and enjoy. Parents with younger children and buggies might struggle as the pub is compact, with only 12 snug tables. But when the weather warms up the outside space is perfect for children and gated off from the main road. There isn’t a kids’ menu – just smaller adult portions – so if you have fussy eaters you’ll have to be brave!
£££: For the quality of ingredients and standard of cooking prices are pitched about right. Starters £7-£10; Mains £15-£25; Puddings £3.50-£8.50. The wine list is broad and interesting, carefully put together by Jason and Simon to include plenty of everyday wines you will have heard of and lots of rare and wonderful things you might not have, including some Australian labels (Jason is from Oz). Everything on the list is organic or biodynamic and you can bet the boys know each and every producer inside out. Prices start at £6 by the glass or £23 for a bottle of white and the list of spirits, port etc. is seriously impressive – you could get very squiffy here indeed!
The Wellington Arms, Baughurst Road, Baughurst RG26 5LP. Tel: 0118 9820110. thewellingtonarms.com