This lovely country inn lies in the heart of the Surrey Hills between Farnham and Haslemere, and is full of things to make you feel at home, as Toby Keel found out.
Sometimes, it’s the little touches that you remember most about a night away. The particularly comfortable pillows. The especially pleasant bath oil. The hypnotic sound of an adjacent watermill that eases you to sleep.
And so it was at Bel & The Dragon in Churt, a delightful place that’s part of a small group of country inns roughly located south and west of London. Settling down into the room, we noticed a decanter of sloe gin sitting in the corner; it had a lovely brown label tied around the neck saying ‘drink me’, as if it were a prop from a production of Alice in Wonderland.
How lovely. No need to call for room service. No laser-enabled mini-bar with a permanent ISDN link to a credit card machine. Just a decanter with a ‘go ahead – help yourself, this is on us’ message. And if sloe gin isn’t your thing (which we can’t believe is possible since you’re reading an article on a website famous for its sloe gin recipe) there were even a couple of similarly-labelled decanters of single malt whisky out by the kettle in the hallway.
That one little touch instantly made us feel at home – even the children, who assumed that it was their usual tipple of blackcurrant and apple squash. And that is very much the overall effect of more or less everything in the place, from the cosy furniture to the vintage Penguin paperbacks on the shelves. Come on in. Pull up a pew. Make yourself at home.
And what a lovely part of the world this is to call home – something that Lloyd George, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw all did in the early years of the 20th century. Towering trees and beautiful hills surround the building and dominate this rural area, and right out of the door there are several forest walks that are suitable for everything from a 10 minute stroll to an all-morning walk.
Just a couple of miles up the road is the famous Devil’s Punchbowl at Hindhead, with miles of heathland common owned by the National Trust; in the other direction, a similar distance away, are Frensham Ponds, offering acres of beautiful woodland arranged around a pair of lakes that offer boating and – somewhat unbelievably – a rather lovely little sandy beach which will make you forget that the coast is some 40 miles distant.
Even closer, and even more unexpected, is the Sculpture Park, immediately over the road from the Bel & The Dragon. In truth we went through the gates expecting little, but came away bowled over after wandering, often half-dazed, along what felt like miles of winding woodland paths peppered with bronze gorillas and mirror-shiny steel bridges spanning lakes and streams.
The 600+ sculptures are all for sale – this is effectively an art gallery in the open, curated by the somewhat eccentric owner Eddie Powell – and include everything from faux ruins and disembodied heads to glittering signs and plastic seats. It really is well worth a visit – make sure to allot yourself a good couple of hours if you have even a passing interest in such curios; if you’re an art enthusiast, you could probably spend all day here.
Back at the Bel we made it to our family room, one of five in ‘The Cottage’ away from the main building. All except one of the hotel’s 18 rooms feature décor created by Nicola Harding, with tasteful pastel shades and cosy furniture much in evidence. The exception is the curious attic room in the main building, which retains the original 19th century oak panelling and taps moulded into animal shapes.
Back in the family room we were delighted to find a sensibly curtained-off side-area with bunks for the children – a real mercy, as anyone who travels with young children will no doubt be familiar with hotels that give you a choice between having toddlers bounce on camp beds at your feet all night or leave them to their own devices in a separate room. (Any parent who can sleep properly in either situation has a firmer grasp on themselves than me.)
The meal served up to us would merit a separate review: the head chef of this small chain is Ronnie Kimbugwe, who took on the role after surviving eight years as Gordon Ramsay’s sous chef at Claridges, and the food is every bit as lovely as you’d expect after hearing that.
The stars of the culinary show were veal that was perfectly cooked meltingly soft, and duck breast with pak choi and fig jam bursting with flavour. There was also, for the second-youngest of our party, a surprise chocolate cake to celebrate her birthday – a special treat we also saw arrive at another table. (For a guest who was turning considerably older than six.)
The wine list was equally splendid, with many varieties served, rather fantastically, in magnums. This isn’t an effort to get you sloshed and rack up your bill, though – it’s just a bit of fun, with diners merely paying for however much they drink. It’s a lovely way of taking one of those minor stresses out of the equation, and boosting that feeling of ‘being at home’. Service was appropriately relaxed and friendly; so friendly, indeed, that our three-year-old invited the deputy manager to his upcoming birthday party.
Friendliness and homeliness really do seem to run through the place. According to the manager, Mike, this one of the Bel & The Dragon’s half a dozen country properties has a regular customer who turns up with a couple of black Labradors, settles himself in at one of the armchairs in reception and happily reads the paper for half an hour or so. It’s just that sort of place.
- Bel & The Dragon, Churt – Rooms for two start at £100 including breakfast; main courses from the a la carte menu £9-£33. More details from belandthedragon-churt.co.uk or on 01428 605799.