GILL HARRIS can’t resist checking out a pub which has just been named the best in the land by the AA

“WELL, that’s George Bush, Senior and Junior, and that’s what’s-his-name in the wheelchair... but I don’t know who the bloke on the far left is...”

The painting on the wall of a clutch of US presidents had certainly got the conversation going between neighbouring tables — a convivial way to start a spot of lunch in the best pub in the country.

It is, after all, not just the TLC shown to the beer pipes or the lavish attention given to the menu, or the pleasing surroundings that make a great pub. Atmosphere has to be high on the list.

And The Bell at Ramsbury certainly began ticking boxes from the moment we arrived.

On the back of its recent AA award of the Pub of the Year England, my companions (one two-legged, one four-legged) and I (two-legged, obviously) were invited to experience The Bell for ourselves over lunch.

Well, it’d be foolish to say no, wouldn’t it?

We were greeted on arrival by beaming, friendly staff, possibly still high on that tremendous accolade, and shown to a beautiful sunlit table looking out over the village.

Menus and drinks — a pint of local ale for him, a glass of red for me — were brought, along with some particularly delicious dog biscuits, if the four-legged one’s reaction was anything to go by.

Ah now, the menu. It is one of those menus you could quite happily read for hours.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not overly long, so it doesn’t leave you burdened with too many choices.

But everything sounds so darn delicious.

The Bell prides itself on sourcing as many of its ingredients as humanly possible from its 19,000-acre estate, which is also home to a distillery, brewery, smokehouse and oil press.

And obviously, the menu changes with the seasons. The day we went, the choices included delights such as pan-seared scallops, salt-baked squash, air-dried ham and sage ash. Or king oyster mushroom soup, Wiltshire truffle, pickled shitake, dried hen of the woods and cep powder.

Mouth-watering delicacies, such as black truffle oil, cobnuts, seaweed sauce, and Oscietra caviar sprinkle the menu with notes of luxury.

But we didn’t have all day and so choose we must.

My pal went for the prawns from the specials board, and these weren’t the faintly depressing, flavourless fellas you sometimes come across. These were fat, juicy kingsize ones, meaty and tender and, it has to be said, rather messy!

Autumn is my favourite time for dining out as I’m a bit of a sucker for game, so I chose to start with the seared local pigeon.

It came with a garden beetroot and pickled red cabbage coleslaw, which beautifully offset the pungent, pink meat.

Attention to detail is evident not just in the delicate balance of flavours but in the stunning yet simple presentation. No over-fussy, foaming fads here — just sheer elegance.

For mains, my chum chose the Cotswold venison loin, which was served with chicken stock potato, black garlic, pickled cranberries, and a pine and walnut green sauce.

It was a beauty, and probably the best venison he had ever eaten, he said, between mouthfuls.

Again, every element on the plate belonged there and worked with all the other ingredients to produce a classily harmonious dish.

I remained with the game theme and chose roast grouse in heather and hyssop, salt baked potatoes, cobnuts, cabbage and bacon and elderberry sauce.

At the risk of sounding like a teenager: Oh. My. God. It was simply divine.

I’ve never actually had grouse before and, after an initial fight carving the flesh from its tiny carcass, the bird yielded a headily rich and moreish meat, with an almost liverish tang.

Again, everything surrounding it served to complement and enhance the flavour of that beautiful flesh.

On the side, we ordered buttered kale and pine nuts, which added a good old splurge of greenery to the meal, even if it was the naughty, buttery, salty kind of greenery.

We were full after all this but it would have been rude to leave without trying at least one dessert, so I bravely volunteered.

The prune ice cream with Pedro Xemenez sherry spoke to me and so it was decided.

Wow. Talk about rich. Think chilled, boozy Christmas pud with lashings of buttery cream and that should give you an idea of the flavour.

It was too rich for my dining companion, which was a terrible shame because it meant I had to scoff the lot.

On top of all this great food and lovely drinks, there is something else fantastic about The Bell, which may partly help explain that award — at no point did we feel hurried or harassed. It is rare to find such a high calibre of dining in such a relaxed setting. Not to mention friendly.

It’s not cheap, I’ll grant you. The bill for our food alone came to around £80. But it really is worth every penny. And if you don’t want to wait for a special occasion to justify a big blow-out, it’s the kind of place where you can skip the starters, or perhaps share one of the mouth-watering platters.

And of course, you could just pop in for a pint. And see if you can work out who that other president is. If you do, please let me know.

The Bell

The Square, Ramsbury, Marlborough SN8 2PE

Tel: 01672 520230

Parking: Yes

Disabled access: Yes

Our ratings:

Food: 10/10

Choice: 10/10

Decor: 9/10

Customer service: 10/10

Main course prices: £14-£30

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5/5