Food | The Gannet

Coach class

There’s still plenty of life – as well as good food and fine beer – in the old British pub.

January 29 2010
Bill Knott

I have always loved pubs. Growing up in Cambridge, with its bitterly cold easterly wind, pubs were beacons of warmth and fellowship. And there were plenty to choose from, among them a brace of old coaching inns. There was The Cambridge Arms, where I had my first pint of Abbot Ale at an indecently young age, and there was The Eagle, a scruffy old barn of a place just off King’s Parade, full of disaffected townies skulking guiltily in the courtyard shadows.

The Eagle, nonetheless, had a claim to fame as the only public house in which the secret of life was actually discovered, rather than just discussed at length. On February 28 1953, a young scientist called Francis Crick came into the bar and announced to anyone who would listen that he and his colleague James Watson had come up with the double helix as the structure of DNA, rather as Archimedes might have run, dripping from his bath, into the Syracuse Arms, screaming “Eureka!” and scaring the barmaids.

I recently returned to Cambridge for the first time in many years. The Cambridge Arms, I am sad to say, has gone (just one of 52 pubs that close every week in the UK), but The Eagle is still there. It’s much glossier than before and though I do not recommend lunch, the beer is still kept well and the ceiling bearing the ghostly graffiti of long-gone servicemen has been nicely preserved.

I have a new favourite coaching inn, however, or at least a new olde one. The Olde Bell in the tiny village of Hurley, Berkshire, is – for the most part – a charming, ancient hotel and restaurant, the sort where the legend on its stunted beams should read “You Will Bang Your Head Later”.

It is also a proper pub: not just a restaurant occupying, hermit crab-like, the shell of a dead hostelry. The public bar is small but perfectly formed, serving distinctly superior bar snacks – Welsh rarebit or a half pint of prawns (both £5.50), for instance – and a very fine pint of Rebellion IPA from the Marlow-based brewery.

The restaurant (pictured) is spacious and rather beautiful. The menu demonstrates a very contemporary preoccupation with gutsy Britishness, but with a delicacy of touch that shows great skill and restraint in the kitchen. My starter of smoked eel (£7) was particularly fine: eel needs to have been smoked very recently to be at its best, and this was miraculously fresh – the tar from the wood still singing in the nostrils. A main course of local woodpigeon (£12.80) was similarly accomplished, and there is an excellent wine list.

Not all the rooms have yet been refurbished but those that have are in the same idiom as Babington House (also designed by Ilse Crawford) with Roberts radios, Anglepoise lamps and a clutch of Penguins (books, not birds or biscuits). The Olde Bell might not vouchsafe the secret of life but it is certainly the secret of a good weekend.