There’s a warm glow which comes when reading a newspaper article called ‘Cosiest pubs to stay in this winter’ and realising you are heading off to stay in one of those featured that very day. This happened to me recently when about to head off to The Bell Inn in the New Forest; reading the paper over my morning coffee I found that it had been singled out as the perfect place from which to enjoy bracing country walks (and to return to for post-walk drinks by its log fire).
Expectations were high therefore as I took to the road and thankfully I wasn’t disappointed – The Bell Inn is a charming place and I was fortunate enough to stay for two extremely cosy nights.
Having previously spent a considerable amount of time driving through the New Forest itself to get to various hotels I was surprised at how handy The Bell Inn is to get to – it was literally just a few minutes off the M27 so you don’t waste a moment snarled up in Lyndhurst traffic before getting stuck into some serious relaxing.
The Bell Inn has been in the Crosthwaite Eyre family for hundreds of years (since 1782 to be precise). Much of the food served in the restaurant has either been grown or raised on the family’s New Forest estate – some also comes from the family’s estate in Scotland – so the pub is very much a local enterprise and during my stay was preparing to host a dozen local suppliers in its annual Christmas fair.
While the building might be old, inside it has the look and feel of a more modern establishment, with immaculate carpets, newly-painted walls, cream wood cladding around the bar and much smarter than the uneven flooring, low ceilings and generally rickety feel that I was expecting, given its age.
My room, number 12, was on the first floor overlooking the large garden which would be a great spot for some al fresco dining in the summer. The room itself was extremely spacious, containing a smart bathroom with bath and separate shower (and a range of posh toiletries) and the bedroom itself had plenty of room for a king-sized bed, sofa, writing desk and lots of storage space.
As you’d expect from a coaching inn there was the slightest sound of passing cars from the road (which doesn’t bother me anyway) but other rooms are completely insulated and you can’t hear a thing. It was all very smart and ideal for a country stay and couldn’t be faulted, although if I’m being picky I think it would be nice to have had some additional touches in the rooms unique to The Bell Inn (along the lines of the Dormy House’s owls or The Painswick’s maps) which would have made it feel a little more personal and a ‘home away from home’ feel.
Downstairs in the bar which was filling up with locals (always a good sign) I enjoyed a pre-dinner half of Double Drop from the Flack Manor brewery just a few miles away. The local theme continued into the restaurant where there was an excellent ‘food map’ on the reverse of the menu showing where the food had come from: eggs from Ringwood, fish from the estuary, game, meat and poultry from nearby Swallowfields Farm and herbs from The Bell Inn’s own herb garden.
The food was a cut above your average pub grub, with an extensive menu ranging from ‘nibbles’ and salads to the full works, with daily special and gluten-free and vegetarian options. My pan-seared scallops with black pudding soil (I think soil needs to disappear from menus soon though) and fennel and pea puree was excellent, as was the Hampshire lamb with slow-cooked shoulder and crispy belly and roast loin.
I was even able to sample a tiny portion of cheese which was just as well as the Isle of Wight Blue was fabulous. (Full marks for a detailed and well-chosen cheese list).
As The Times had promised, The Bell Inn is a great place for country walks and a trip to the Rufus Stone made for an ideal way to walk off dinner and the hearty breakfast the following morning, being well signposted from The Bell Inn and a pleasant half hour stroll along a winding lane.
This part of the world isn’t short of country pubs either; the William Tyrrell is on the way to the Rufus Stone and if you fancy a change from The Bell then the George just across the road does a very nice pint of Wadworths rum-infused Swordfish ale.
Golf enthusiasts only need to walk round the back of The Bell Inn to find not one but two 18-hole courses at the Bramshaw Golf Club (owned by the same family) including the Forest Course which is the oldest course in Hampshire. And for those who are slightly less activity-inclined – well, there’s always that roaring fire…
The Bell Inn, Brook, nr Lyndhurst, Hampshire SO43 7HE
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If you’re looking for some great places to stay in the New Forest then look no further!