STEVE WEBB finds Downton Abbey is closed but he still manages to be treated like a lord on an overnight stay at a very charming country pub The good news – we were booked in for the night at the delightful Yew Tree Inn in the splendid north Hampshire countryside, close to the village of Highclere.
Now if that name sounds familiar, that’s because there is a TV ‘star’ located nearby – the grand and photogenic Highclere Castle, otherwise known around the world as Downton Abbey.
And the bad news? Highclere Castle is closed until Easter. But that was not a major setback to our weekend away – indeed we forgot all about Downton Abbey... sorry, Highclere Castle... as soon as we walked through the front door of the Yew Tree.
The pub stands in the fork of a Y-shaped road junction, is surrounded by fields and hills – and is utterly charming.
Warmth – literally and figuratively – greeted us the moment we crossed the threshold, took in the surroundings and met the staff winding down after a busy Saturday lunchtime, but readying themselves for dinner that night. But they were smiling and cheerful and we were led on a delightfully winding route upstairs to our room.
The Yew Tree is a typical 17th century country pub, and it feels like it. There is a comforting, evocative, traditional atmosphere that adds to the sense of escape that staying here gives. It’s rustic, it’s rural – and yet, there are mod cons that ensure a comfortable stay.
Our bedroom was a good example of that. Compact but airy, with lovely views over green (if sodden) fields, it had all we could ask for, with a particularly soft and comfy bed – which assisted a good night’s sleep after a day in brisk fresh air – and a well-equipped bathroom which made up for a lack of a bath with a fabulous walk-in shower.
What I liked about this room, which was tastefully decorated, was that it was modernised, but still felt part of a traditional English country pub.
So much for upstairs, what about the restaurant downstairs?
We had a table booked for an evening meal – which was just as well because this was a particularly busy Saturday night – and we were instantly charmed by our surroundings, and by the staff, as we took our seats.
It was again comfortable and traditional, and it looks as though someone has given careful thought to the lighting, which managed to be quirky yet created an atmosphere of intimacy.
The website tells us that the kitchen team is led by Simon Davis, who has run Michelin starred restaurants and who takes pride in sourcing fresh, local produce.
“Simon draws his inspiration for our menu from the surrounding English countryside so expect to dine on fresh fish and game plucked straight from forests and rivers nearby,” the blurb goes on to say.
We don’t doubt any of that – but what we can confirm is that the food is sensational. I had black pudding and Beechwood Farm Scotch egg to start (yummy), followed by one of the night’s specials: roast pheasant which came with a beautifully presented selection of vegetables (wow), and then a rich and creamy vanilla pannacotta with Yorkshire rhubarb, pomegranate, blood orange and rose (to die for).
My wife busied herself with baked goat’s cheese, pickled apple puree and winter truffle salad followed by venison, which was local and “deeply rich” and “smelt like a velvet curtain” (and that was after she had only had one glass of wine).
Her special treat came from the section on the menu headed Liquid Dessert – curiosity got the better of her and she chose blackberry and pear pie.
A liquid dessert? What were they going to do, puree it? No, it was a cocktail – blackberry and pear pie turned out to be a mix of white cream liqueur, pear vodka and blackberry syrup with vanilla ice cream. She said it had a little whiff of cinnamon and – “it was scrummy and a little bit naughty”.
It was a fun meal and it has to be said the Yew Tree is a fun place to stay.
You feel relaxed as soon as you arrive and you are reluctant to leave when it’s time to check out.
It may not be as big or as grand as Downton Abbey, but the Yew Tree provides its own pleasant upstairs/downstairs experience, and for just one night we were treated like a lord and lady.
Plenty to see and do
DESPITE effectively being in the middle of nowhere, there is plenty to see and do near to the Yew Tree – and top of many people’s lists will be Highclere Castle.
It is a short distance from the pub – by car or on foot – and opens to the public at Easter. But it is worth noting, tickets for the Easter and spring season are sold out. Tickets for the summer season, beginning on July 13, are now on sale.
For full details of opening times and ticket information, go to highclerecastle.co.uk.
Disappointed as we were about not being able to visit Highclere Castle, we instead made for Winchester, less than half an hour’s drive from the Yew Tree and a city crying out to be explored.
History lovers will find much to excite them in Winchester, not least its cathedral. Not as imposing or attractive on the outside as the likes of Salisbury or Gloucester, inside it is a delight, with many interesting nooks and crannies to explore. Look out for the grave of writer Jane Austen, who lived and died in the city. Or the crypt, featuring Antony Gormley’s sculpture Sound II.
It’s worth taking time to walk through some of Winchester’s little streets and lanes to get a feel for the city. It’s also a great place to shop, and for eating out with many pubs and restaurants (I can highly recommend the fish finger sandwich at the Bishop On The Bridge).
But if it’s fresh air and open spaces you desire, then the countryside around the Yew Tree is a walker’s paradise.
There are many routes to explore in this part of Hampshire and just over the border into Berkshire, and there are leaflets to peruse at the pub. The helpful staff will also happily offer advice on places to visit.
At little more than half an hour’s drive from Swindon, the Yew Tree is a convenient place to visit. It would made a convenient overnight stay for anyone heading for the south coast, but the chances are that won’t be long enough – the Yew Tree is the sort of place that makes you want to linger and not hurry off to anywhere anytime soon.
It would certainly make a great weekend away – anything planned for Mother’s Day or Easter?
<li> Steve stayed at The Yew Tree Inn where one night’s bed and breakfast, based on two sharing, starts at around £120.
For more information, contact The Yew Tree Inn, Hollington Cross, Andover Road, Highclere, Newbury, Berkshire RG20 9SE . Phone: 01635 253360 www.theyewtree.co.uk Email: firstname.lastname@example.org