Oh dear. With the best will in the world, I struggled at The Castle Inn.
It’s not the people running it. Delightful, enthusiastic David Hargreaves-Putt, general manager, and Ashley Walcott (footballer Theo’s brother), head chef, are terrific and the atmosphere is one of continual bonhomie, but I have developed an antipathy to the contemporary chain pub, and this really is a prime example.
I’d always noticed the Castle, and popped in from time to time. One of Dorset’s oldest and prettiest thatched pubs, and within easy distance of two of the county’s most famous beauty spots, Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, it was famed for its huge range of ciders on tap. So when I learnt that it had new owners and a new lease of life, I decided it was time to stay.
The exterior of the Castle remains enchanting, but inside it’s all change. There’s no cider now (it’s not cost effective) except the odd bottle; and there’s no traditional interior underneath the thatch. Instead you will see the dead hand of modern progress and corporate initiative in the ubiquitous uniform of sandblasted exposed brick, banquettes, faux leather furniture and Farrow & Ball colours.
The Castle Inn has pretty much been gobbled up by Bristol-based Butcombe Brewery, itself recently gobbled up by the larger Jersey-based Liberation Group, and its aim is to open 100 pubs in the West Country in the next five years. That’s great for the failing pubs that need rescuing, but not so great for me, not with my aversion.
Right now, in my bedroom at the Castle, it is me who needs rescuing. My bed is encased in an 18-inch reclaimed wood surround, useful for putting things on, but I have to scramble over the wretched thing each time I want to get in or out.
It’s not easy – I have the bruises to prove it – and it removes the great pleasure of walking into one’s hotel room after a day spent outdoors and gratefully launching oneself straight on to the mattress. You would risk breaking your legs if you tried that here.
The design and build contractors, Concorde BGW, who transformed the Castle in three months earlier this year, creating 12 first-floor bedrooms off narrow corridors, have gone for the “quirky” option. Save me from quirky, please – at least when devised by committee.
In my room, it means a weird picture of a dog in a pink dress holding a watering can, a garish yellow-and-pink flowery headboard that matches nothing, a lamp in the shape of a terrier, and a bed that I can’t get out of without a huge effort.
The rooms are named after local Jurassic Coast landmarks, though Scratchy Bottom, the famous clifftop valley where Gabriel Oak’s sheep are driven over the edge in the film of Far from the Madding Crowd, was deemed, I’m told, too quirky for the men in suits, despite the fact that it’s real and on the doorstep.
The Castle Inn is often packed with daytrippers to Lulworth Cove, and to accommodate them there’s a takeaway menu featuring flatbreads and burgers in boxes that can be eaten in the garden (lovely views) and an extensive lunch menu. But for overnight guests looking for a cosy, elegant room in which to dine, it has less to offer. There was nowhere I really wanted to sit, either at the row of tables placed in front of the back bar, nor in the dining room beyond, which felt depressingly characterless. On a warm Sunday night, I chose delicious chargrilled king prawns to start, followed by a warm spring green salad, an unusual combination of grilled gem lettuce, spinach purée, rhubarb, broccoli, polenta chips and goat’s cheese.
Puddings Made with Love (as stated on the menu) include Purbeck ice cream, which may be made with love in the Purbeck ice-cream factory but not so in the kitchen at The Castle Inn. Breakfast, including avocado and poached eggs, kippers and a veggie English option, was excellent, however, with good coffee.
I can think of at least half a dozen West Country inns that really are quirky and where, frankly, I would rather be. They are places that are individual, naturally evolved, and created by the hands of owners.
At one, the recently reopened Compasses Inn near Tisbury, the new owner has introduced four Scandi-style bedrooms and a very good chef. However, apart from de-cluttering, he has left the olde worlde interior pleasingly intact.
In today’s Wetherspoons World, The Compasses Inn strikes one as genuinely quirky, whereas The Castle Inn, to me at least, just looks contrived and the same as everywhere else.
Doubles from £89 per night, including breakfast. Not suitable for guests using wheelchairs.
Read the full review: The Castle Inn