“YOU can’t get rich this way, but no-one ever gets conned.” Four middle-aged drinkers in one corner of the Duke of Wellington are happily pre-occupied with their game of Crash – “It’s like three card brag, but you get 13 cards each,” explains one of them.
Some small stakes seem to be changing hands, but most of this is being spent on beer, so I don’t think any major licensing laws are being broken.
It’s Monday night and the pub is quiet after a busy weekend. Its restaurant is in darkness, and save for us, and the card players, there is just one more couple enjoying a drink at the other side of the bar.
Under new ownership, the Duke of Wellington is feeling its way cautiously into the future under the stewardship of manager Martin Spalding, who is bringing the restaurant know-how he gained at the likes of top Leeds eateries Leodis and Paris to this attractive village inn.
A refurbishment completed three weeks before Christmas put paid to an old-fashioned look, its “everything brown” colour scheme giving way to softer creams and burgundies. One long room has been turned into a stylish restaurant, while the central bar sits between the pub’s two main drinking spaces.
It’s a work in progress. One room is still awaiting the arrival of its comfy furniture, the pub opening hours and food service times are restricted at present. All these are likely to change in the next few weeks, with all-day opening and food served every session.
My local spy tells me that its neighbour, the Old Star, is also thriving under new management – but that is purely a drinking house, and with no restaurant in the village. Martin is keen to become a first-class dining destination, just as the Windmill has done in nearby Linton. “It’s our aim to make it more about food, while keeping it very much a village pub at the heart of the community,” he says.
The choice of beers should see to that. The Duke has long been a Copper Dragon pub, and their dark, malty, easy-drinking Best Bitter has a prime spot on the bar, alongside the sharper, dryer and more assertive Golden Pippin: “our biggest seller,” says Martin. We opt for one of each.
There’s also John Smith’s plus one guest beer, currently Guzzler from York, with Ossett’s lovely Silver King racked and ready to take its place.
There’s also what appears to be a Guinness font on the bar, but this is a devilish front for a device which actually uses individual pint-cans complete with a nitrogen widget and something called a “purge system” to deliver “the perfect pint”. It’s all the rage barside apparently, and I guess makes sense to pubs which don’t sell enough of the stuff to justify carrying it on draught. Particularly when Guinness drinkers are so admirably sensitive to changes in the quality of their stout.
We take our non-purged, non-canned, pints of real Yorkshire ale into the pub’s poky front room, where the Crash players are punctuating their game by keeping the open fire topped up with coal and hunks of wood. It’s a welcome refuge from the bitterly cold night. The pub labrador Bailey is walking around as though he owns the place: “We’re very dog-friendly,” says Martin. “We have drinking bowls and dog snacks behind the bar. Sometimes we have more dogs than customers.”
On Tuesdays, the pub plays host to an acoustic music session where local mandolin and bouzouki players add extra cadence to a clutch of guitars. Thursday is quiz night, while the weekends need no extra attractions to pull in the punters – whether they’re the dyed-in-the- wool locals or those well-heeled city types who have been drawn to this pretty commuter-belt village.
On this Monday night the talk around the bar is of the last knockings of the beating season on the local shoots. Displays around the wall – fishing floats, stuffed birds, riding hats, and pictures of grouse, fish, and the local hunt – each play to the country sports theme.
The restaurant is more formal, and with choices like sea bass (£14.95), feta-stuffed pheasant breast (£12.95) and a 12oz sirloin steak (£19.95) it is certainly aiming for a spot well up the market, reflecting Martin’s former life as a city restaurateur. An early bird menu at two courses for £13 and similarly priced Sunday lunch menu, offers keener value for money. Local produce predominates.
For those who aren’t dining, he offers unusual snacks ranging from hard-boiled eggs to sauteed pheasant legs, by way of tiny game pies and home-made pork scratchings. It all fits with the bucolic theme, and as Martin greets his guests with Bailey in tow, it’s pretty clear he’s enjoying the lifestyle change too.
Name: The Duke of Wellington
Host: Martin Spalding
Type: Village pub and restaurant
Opening hours: 3-11pm Mon-Fri, noon-11pm Sat, noon-10.30pm Sun
Beers: Copper Dragon Best (£2.90), Golden Pippin (£2.90), John Smith’s (£2.70) plus one guest real ale, currently York Guzzler. John Smith’s Smooth (£2.90), Carling (£3.10), Foster’s (£3.10), Stella Artois (£3.25), Guinness (£3.40)
Wine: Good choice from £2.15-glass and £11.95-bottle
Food: Restaurant open 5-9pm Mon-Fri; noon-2.30 and 5-9pm Sat; noon-6pm Sun
Entertainment: Tuesday acoustic night, Thursday quiz, TV with ESPN Sports
Children: Welcomed if well-behaved
Disabled: Straightforward access from front door Beer Garden: Outdoor drinking space to rear
Parking: Large area to rear
Telephone: 01937 573259
Beer of the week
Fair play to St Peter’s – as a brewery they refuse to simply follow the herd.
Their distinctive medicine bottle style and some of their interesting and experimental recipes, set them apart from the great mass of companies competing for attention in the Craft Brewery space.
Their fruit beers are great, their organic ales lovely. But it doesn’t always work, and Suffolk Smokey Peated Beer didn’t make any beey bells ring sweetly for me.
Again, to be fair, it does exactly what it says on the label. There’s a great enticing whiff of peat as you prise off the cap; the first sip sends a rich blast of dry smokiness barrelling across the palate.
There are suggestions of malt whisky here – and that’s no bad thing – but I do take issue with the label’s claim that this is a “balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness”. In fact the smoky peatiness totally dominates, right through into an aftertaste which makes you feel like you’ve sucked up the rainwater from the bottom of a dirty ashtray in the beer garden.
This may be your thing. It ain’t mine.