October 18 2017

Review: The Bath Arms, Horningsham (on the Longleat Estate), Wiltshire

Every so often (and usually when you least expect it), life has a habit of playing a very nice trick on you, and an experience that you sort of expected to be verging on “good, but just normally good” (as in, dinner at a country pub) ends up being totally magical – and that’s the trick that life played on us when we visited The Bath Arms.

Okay, so location (the tiny, ancient village of Horningsham, on the Longleat Estate), the menus (upper-crust, chef-driven gastropub delights) and even The Sunday Times (who recently included this “ivy-wrapped retreat buried deep in the Wiltshire countryside” in their prestigious top 100 British hotels charts) all point you in the direction of A Lovely Experience as you make your way up, down and across the increasingly-narrowing highways, byways and, eventually, country lanes that lead you to your destination, around a 40-minute drive away from Bath. But nothing prepares you for just how gorgeous your first glance of The Bath Arms turns out to be.

With origins dating back to the 17th century, the pub (and it’s been a pub since 1732) boasts all those gorgeously eclectic architectural flourishes typical of the style of the day: the point where European inspirations started to nudge the confused eclecticism of English Renaissance architecture into the shadows, replacing it with a gently baroque-infused charm. In other words, this is probably one of the prettiest pubs you’ll ever encounter; it’s a non-imposing, fairytale mini-mansion cloaked in a soft, mature evergreen wrap with subtle lighting in all the right places when the sun sets highlighting its multiple picturesque charms. Seductive? Totally! And we haven’t even set foot inside yet…

Cosy corners and fireside hearths for couples in the mood for lurve. An elegant, spacious, rather grand dining room lit by utterly beautiful chandeliers. A merry bar area perfect for those in search of the traditional, proper pub experience. Yup, The Bath Arms is an all-things-to-all-people kinda place… and if you’re a kinda foodie person, you’ve definitely come to the right place.

New head chef Brian Hall previously worked with superchefs such as Nathan Outlaw and Rob Clayton before taking to the Wiltshire countryside – and it’s clear that the Wiltshire countryside acts as inspiration for thoughtfully imaginative menus that read like a paean to the season and put a roll call of the loveliest local producers and suppliers in the spotlight. As you begin to feast your eyes on the detailed promises that the menu holds, Brian’s flair for imaginative partnerships such as pork loin and pigs cheek served with parmesan and polenta cake, or beetroot teamed with the otherwise prosaic scallop/chorizo combo, reassures you that you’re firmly on tasteful treat territory here.

A starter of rich, buttery, golden-yolked poached duck egg served with samphire Florentine that at once calmed down but somehow also exaggerated the creaminess of the egg (clever!) and an earthy but creamy truffle beurre blanc was luxury on a plate personified. A second starter of sweetly peaty oak smoked bacon served with distinctly non-gloopy bubble and squeak, bathed in a creamy, just-the-right-amount-of-lemony hollandaise sauce (Brian is clearly a master of saucery) and topped with a poached egg was akin to the best breakfast you’ve had, all grown up.

For mains, meltingly tender spring lamb arrived in both pulled and chop format and teamed with, in what I would call a moment of sheer genius, an earthy, sweet beetroot risotto, roasted whole beets, kale that had been wilted just to the point where the leaves easily give way to the fork but the emerald green hue remains intact and a silky shallot jus – jewel colours (those beets; that kale) and a treasure chest of flavours combined. Across the table, mild, milky pork loin and uniquely flavoursome, velvety pork cheeks complemented each other perfectly while a parmesan and polenta cake did a much better job of upholstering the partnership than plain old mash ever could and roast apple puree and a generous lubrication of sage jus added tantalising fruity/astringently aromatic twists and teases at every turn.

After all that, we shared a dense (in a good way), glossy chocolate tart and a selection of West Country cheeses that represented the kind of cheese line-up that one would expect to see laid out and adorned with rosettes on the winner’s table at a national cheese awards ceremony.

And yet, and yet… dinner at this dreamy little destination diner will not give your bank balance nightmares. Starters fluctuate between £6-£10, mains circa £14-£20, puds dance around £6 – so, average prices for a distinctly above-average experience, then. Meanwhile, the wine list is intelligent, well-sourced and equally well-priced, all kinds of local brews keep the bar buoyant and service is properly, genuinely lovely. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Wrap your arms around The Bath Arms* and let life play a really good trick on you, too.

*By the way, this pub has rooms, too. Next time I visit, I’m not leaving.

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