Exactly 600 years ago, the Bel and The Dragon coaching inn was built in the pretty Berkshire town of Cookham and six centuries later, I took a friend with me to stay at the pub and see what it was actually like. Well, you don’t want to rush these things…
While it is officially 600 years old – there’s even an sign outside showing the date it was built, making it one of the oldest pubs in Britain – the Cookham Bel and The Dragon is now part of a thoroughly modern seven-strong Bel and The Dragon chain, part-owned by entrepreneur Joel Cadbury. It might have a long history but since the late 1980s it had been sadly neglected and was barely trading when bought out of administration. Now Cadbury and his business partner Ollie Vigors have spent several years (and no small amount of money) restoring the pub to its former glory, much to the delight of local residents.
In fact, my expectations of Bel and The Dragon had been pretty high before I had even set foot in Cookham, which isn’t always a good thing: just a few days before at a press party in London I had mentioned I was staying there at the weekend and a whole group of people – who turned out to be from nearby Bray – had excitedly talked over each other to tell me just how fabulous it was and how its head chef, Ronnie Kimbugwe, was just the very best. After such a write-up, it seemed that Bel and The Dragon could only suffer in reality.
Thankfully that was not the case. From the moment we arrived and were presented with some Sipsmith’s Summer Cup by Simon, the extremely affable general manager, it felt as it we were in good hands.
I had never been to Cookham before – even though Cliveden, one of my favourite country house hotels, is just a stone’s throw away – but the Bel and The Dragon was easy to find, being right on the High Street and looking suitably old with its black and white half-timbered front. There’s no dedicated parking which can be a problem on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but once we’d found a spare spot up the street we found that the pub resembled a Tardis – cosy low-ceiling’d rooms at the front, and then a large and airy restaurant at the back leading to a very pleasant garden complete with fire-pit and pop-up bar. There we sampled not only my first al fresco cocktail of the season but also the brand new lager from Rebellion Brewery, just up the road in Marlow Bottom.
Once the heavens opened it was time to retreat indoors for a plate of green olives and flatbread with macademia hummus to ward off any hunger pains until the evening, and then we had a very pleasant amble through town over Cookham common, past the house lived in by local artist Stanley Spencer (the Stanley Spencer museum is just across the road from Bel and The Dragon) and a grand country house which is rather improbably now occupied by the Chartered Institute of Marketing.
Some hours later as we sat down for dinner, one large and cheerful party was still going strong from lunch which is always a good recommendation, (so long as you’re not sitting right next to them).Thankfully the restaurant was large enough to be able to offer a quiet spot away from the noise and so we could concentrate on enjoying what was really excellent food. The menu looked great – well designed, well explained and containing delights such as salt-baked saddle of lamb and rib of beef.
The marinated beetroot and burrata was perfect in taste and design and the sirloin steak which followed – cooked on the Jospor grill favoured by Ronnie’s former boss at Claridge’s, Gordon Ramsay – was vast and excellently cooked.
I was amazed after all that to be able to fit in the intriguingly-named Chocolate Nemesis with creme fraiche and salted caramel, and then thinking that I might as well go the whole way, accepted the waitress’s suggestion of an espresso martini to round the whole thing off.
Thankfully our rooms – the pub has five, but is planning to extend that number before long – was just a few steps away. At the top of the guests’ stairs there was a charming touch – two whisky decanters, with notes on saying to help yourself – as well a coffee maker and a little cosy corner filled with books.
There were tea and coffee-making facilities in the rooms too, along with a bottle of Sipsmith’s sloe gin, water, a range of paperbacks and full-size toiletries in the immaculate bathrooms.
Guests who are more used to boutique hotels such as Cotswolds favourites Dormy House and Barnsley House and worried about eschewing a spa weekend in favour of a mere pub will find nothing to complain about here.
Come breakfast I was inexplicably ravenous, so was delighted to see that there was a large selection of cereals, pastries and fabulous yogurts from Brown Cow Organics as well as cooked options ranging from boiled eggs and a Full English to poached duck egg with avocado and a bacon sarnie.
My poached eggs with smoked salmon was so large a post-breakfast walk was called for, this time in the other direction along the River Thames which is just a minute’s walk away and perfect for a morning’s people- and boat-watching.
Popping into nearby Marlow on my way home I discovered a print of an earlier incarnation of the Bel and The Dragon for sale so we retraced our way to the pub to restore it to its rightful home and to say thanks once again for such a lovely stay. I look forward to checking out the other Bel and The Dragons which sound equally good – and I certainly won’t be leaving it another 600 years before my next visit. .