Taking Some Time Out | Bel & The Dragon at The Swan, Kingsclere
Since Big Ben rang us into 2017, Saff and I have been working our bits off. It’s been relentless with me on a magazine redesign whilst Saff has been neck-deep in a new bar launch. In fact our last proper day-off was New Year’s Day and even that involved a lot of clearing up from the night before.
What we needed was a breather and charging to our rescue like a knight on his trusty stead was Bel & The Dragon at The Swan, one of seven country inns in the group – all situated in the south of England. This particular inn was in the pretty little village of Kingsclere, with an old church, post office, coffee shop and bakery – you know the type of place. (The nearest big town is Basingstoke, but don’t let that put you off.)
Whilst checking out the local area for places to explore, we discovered that Watership Down was a mere 10 minutes drive away. Who knew that it was even a real place? Author Richard Adams was inspired to write his famous novel whilst walking the downs with his children, making up stories about the rabbits they encountered. Humming ‘Bright Eyes’, and through a nostalgic fog, I remembered the cartoon version of Watership Down. I recalled little bunnies, all fluffy and cute, hopping about in summer meadows. These childhood memories where shattered after looking for a gif to pop on Instagram. This film is savage, dogs mauling rabbits, rabbits mauling rabbits – luckily the actual place is much more beautiful and peaceful.
We’d fully researched the area and our plan was to check into the Bel & The Dragon, dump our bags in our room and go explore yet we failed at the first hurdle. The bar was just so cosy, we didn’t want go out and face the February drizzle. Yes, we know country inns are designed to look warm and welcoming but this was the real thing with a crackling log fire and deep comfy sofas.
OK, change of plan – check in, dump bag upstairs, sit in cosy bar. En route to our bedroom we were shown the drawing-room – complete with a chess set, various board games and stacked full of classic novels and a few more unusual offerings (I thumbed through a book of Chinese propaganda posters). Then we spotted the tea and coffee-making facilities and not one, but two decanters of whisky.
OK, another change of plan – check in, dump bag upstairs, laze about in the drawing-room, drink whisky. This plan we managed to stick to. Sometimes a weekend break doing next to nothing is exactly what’s needed, time to relax, time to chat, time to laugh (and to drink complimentary whisky.)
We whiled away a couple of hours doing just that, actually talking to each other and spending that oh-so elusive quality time together. How I wish every weekend could be like this. After a couple of wee drams it was time to freshen up before our dinner date.
Our room was decorated using muted colours – cool white and soft cream highlighting the darkness from the original heavy wooden beams. The king size bed was so comfy, loved the blankets and cushions although we did find the pillows a little too soft (but we’re fussy like that – Saff usually brings her own.) There’s a HD flat screen smart TV and free Wi-Fi for those who need to stay connected, also a beautifully bright and roomy en-suite bathroom with a powerful shower and a gorgeous roll-top freestanding bath.
And as if the free whisky wasn’t enough, perched on a table in the corner of our room was a complimentary 3/4 full bottle of Sipsmith Sloe Gin. We were pre-warned that the location of our room was above the bar so could be a tad noisy. It was but we didn’t mind at all, in fact listening to the hum of chatter below us was quite nice and by the time we got back from dinner the bar-goers had long gone.
We decided to pop down to the bar for a quick drink before our meal – yes it was turning into one of those weekends. The bar looked even more welcoming and homely now the sun had set and somehow those sofas felt even more comfortable. I took a look at their cocktail list and ordered myself a not particularly sour Whisky Sour (nice nevertheless). Saff ordered a Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic, their distillery is only 7.5 miles away (and tours are available).
We sat down within earshot of a group of locals propping up the bar bragging about their big wins, whist others cursed their bad luck. It took us a while to work out what was going on till we realised that they had spent the day at the nearby Newbury Racecourse. We could have sat and listened to the entertaining banter all evening but it was time for dinner.
The main restaurant at the Bel & The Dragon was just as snug as the bar area, with not one but two open fires. There was an eclectic mix of pictures and artwork on the walls with piles of books and knick-knacks scattered here and there. The wine list was quite extensive but we stuck to what we know and ordered a very drinkable bottle of 2013 Argentinian Ruca Malen Malbec (£8 glass, £34 bottle) and began to study the menu.
Group head chef Ronnie Kimbugwe has created a series of menus full of twists on classic British dishes focusing on quality local sustainable ingredients. My starter was an easy decision, it just had to be the marinated Beetroot and burrata (£8), with a fresh basil pesto and toasted pine nuts. Saff was torn between the Scottish mussels in a Scrumpy Jack cider and bacon broth (£8) and the mighty serving of Warm duck salad with baby radishes (£9). The latter won.
I was all over the Roasted suckling pig with crispy crackling and a warming spiced apple chutney (£19). All dishes from the rotisserie come with their (crunchy-on-the-outside-fluffy-in-the-middle) thyme and duck fat roasted potatoes. Therefore I didn’t really need a side dish, but I couldn’t resist the Savoy cabbage, crème fraîche and crispy bacon (£4), you can never have too much pig.
Saff knew exactly what she wanted and that was the daily special of Rock Cod served with samphire and a butternut squash purée. If you’ve never had fish cooked on the Josper grill then you must – slightly charred on the outside yet moist and tender in the middle. This piece of fish just fell apart into incredible white flakes. It’s very rare that I get food envy over fish dishes but I would have been more than happy to swap dishes with Saff. [Now you tell me, I’d have been so up for that – Saff.]
We were getting full and on the verge of skipping dessert altogether. That was until we witnessed the theatrical delivery of the Baked Alaska (£16 for 2) and we just had to have it. Delivered ‘raw’, the meringue is dramatically set a flame with a kitchen blowtorch and a dowsing of warm alcohol. This now cooked, yet still gooey, meringue hides a huge mound of salted caramel ice cream – such a deliciously decadent way to finish our meal.
We (amazingly) still had about a third of bottle of our wine left to drink. Spotting a free area virtually in the fireplace, we grabbed our drinks and made a beeline towards our new seats. From here we chatted to the passing waiting staff and also the particularly friendly restaurant manager who kindly, in true Bear Grylls fashion, restocked the fire, moving glowing logs and stripping of the bark with his bare hands – now that’s a real man.
Time was getting on and the effects of a hugely satisfying dinner was beginning to take its toll. Our bed (and that sloe gin) was calling our name. After a quick nightcap (no, that’s not a euphemism) we tucked ourselves in under the duvet and quickly drifted off.
Morning came round far too quickly, woken by the gentle cooing of a wood-pigeon – much better than the usual alarm clock or the revving of engines and screeching of tyres. As always making it down for breakfast was a rush. Luckily for us, even at 15 minutes before breakfast service finished, there was a fully stocked table of fruit juices, cereal, yogurt, and various fresh loaves. The cooked options on the breakfast menu sounded good too.
My head was a little ‘foggy’ from the day/evening/night before so only a Full English would do – the Bel & The Dragon’s version involved a mighty wild boar and apple sausage, perfect runny poached eggs, vine tomato and black pudding.
Saff ordered the blueberry pancakes with crispy bacon, clotted cream and caramelised banana. The pancakes were fluffy but a tad cold, the bacon was very crispy (so full marks there) but the big let down were the caramelised bananas, they weren’t caramelised, just warmed and rolled in honey. Saff always compares her breakfasts/brunches to those served at The Table Café in Southwark and in all fairness they are a very hard act to follow. Another slight disappointment was the coffee, or rather the brand of coffee – Lavazza, it didn’t really fit with the whole local, sustainable thing.
Anyway, mini moan over, these were the only negative comments of our entire stay. Even checkout is at a very reasonable 11am and with off-peak room prices starting from just £115 a night, including breakfast, you can’t really go wrong. After checking out we drove to Watership Down and parked up at the viewing point to take in the beautiful scenery but for the more active/less hungover guests, they can follow this walking guide.
On the way home to our cats and our little house in Kent we decided to make a slight detour and have lunch at BBQ Whisky Beer at the White Hart in Witley because we simply hadn’t eaten enough over the course of the weekend.
This weekend break was exactly what Saff and I needed, some proper time together. The Bel & the Dragon was a fabulous place to stay for our first weekend away of the year. In fact one of our New Year promises is to cram as much into every minute that we have together. Next month we already have planned a long weekend in Venice, a day trip to France (via Le Shuttle) and an overnighter in Brighton. Never underestimate the power of a weekend break, you don’t have to go far to get away from it all.
The Bell & the dragon
Swan Street, Kingsclere
Hampshire RG20 5PP
Telephone: 01635 299342
We stayed as guests of Bel and the Dragon, this does not affect our review in any way.
We always write with complete honesty.