REVIEW: The country pub has never been more alive

The Wisborough
The Wisborough

On May 1, some 700 people celebrated the opening of a new pub.

The Wisborough was born on the site of the old Bat and Ball in Newpound Lane.

The dining room

The dining room

It was an expensive birth.

Owner Paul Gidley had lovingly invested something approaching £2m to create the perfect country establishment - in a restoration that sought to be as true to the original building as the ethos of the surrounding countryside.

Six months later, to the day, we visited to see how the dream was becoming a reality.

After all, the past decade has been dominated by the headlines of pubs closing. To create something both startlingly original and traditional - a complex contradiction in itself - was impressive.

Roast sirloin of Sussex Longhorn beef

Roast sirloin of Sussex Longhorn beef

We chose a Sunday lunchtime.

It’s when any pub is at its busiest and it gives the best understanding of how its team manage at the key pressure point in the week.

The reviews on TripAdvisor were overwhelmingly ‘excellent’ - but it was not a unanimous verdict. In some of the earlier ones, slow service, disappointing food, and high prices were singled out for criticism by a minority.

They say first impressions count.

Superb wine with Sunday lunch

Superb wine with Sunday lunch

As we stepped out into the expansive car park and looked across at the Wisborough - a building all the more stunning because you cannot see the join between the new and the old - we were hugely impressed.

Inside and out, it was clear that this conversion was not merely a piece of rural enterprise but a painstaking labour of love.

The Wisborough has a warmth to it, imbued in the ancient brick, oak and the flagstones.

It’s a true pub too.

We have met Paul once before, at a previous venture, and he made clear then as he did now that he doesn’t run restaurants. He has pubs with dining rooms.

It is a subtle but significant difference.

The ales on tap are local and quality.

But it was the wines that impressed us most. Too often a pub will palm you off with an overly sweet merlot - with the sugar hiding a multitude of poor pedigree - or a rather brutal and unforgiving shriaz.

Not here. We had a glass of their extraordinary good value St Emilion ‘Bad Boy’. It’s a great Bordeaux from the supreme master Jean Luc Thunevin.

It’s easy to judge a pub by its beer. But if you like your wine, check out what they are serving by the glass at the bar.

We followed it with a bottle of Le Petit Lion - a great 2012 Saint Julien medoc.

This is great French wine at sensible prices given the quality.

It’s no wonder The Wisborough has its own private club too, the 1655, where amazing vintages donated by the industry are bought and drunk with all the proceeds given to local children’s charities and good causes. Some £20,000 has already been raised and given away in the community.

The Sunday lunch menu is not the cheapest. But frankly, nor was it overly steep. Starters ranged from £6 for the tomato and roasted shallot bruschetta to £9 for the hand dived scallops or the dover sole and smoked salmon paupiette.

The scallops, served with a roasted cauliflower sauce and parsnip crisps, could not have been bettered.

The mains were priced from £12.50 for the sweet potato Tuxford and Tebbutt risotto to £15.50 for the roast sirloin of Sussex Longhorn beef.

It was served with all the trimmings that you would expect.

We all chose the beef - reluctantly passing up the roast South Downs venison (£14.50), because the Longhorn from the Knepp Castle estate has a legendary reputation.

The Longhorn steaks could be served with a blunt wooden knife which would still slice through them they are so tender.

Head of Floor Tracey Sutherley served us during our visit, remaining incredibly calm on such a busy day. Some very gentle classical music kept the mood just right.

While head chef Iain Boyd and his team were working a culinary marathon in the kitchen Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was setting a gentler tempo beyond.

We chatted to Lyn and Finn on the neighbouring table.

She told us how much they loved The Wisborough. They had been at the launch party - which coincided with her birthday - and now they felt like ‘one of the family’.

They told us you wouldn’t find better than this. We were inclined to agree.

Paul is the perfect host. He is passionate about the true rural way of life. He wants a pub that is a vital and intrinsic part of that culture which has shaped Sussex over so many centuries.

He is succeeding.

I walked though the dining room and glanced at other diners’ plates. They were just as good as ours.

You see, the food was simply excellent. The roast beef was sublime. The atmosphere was as mellow as the wine.

No doubt a fast food restaurant could have brought the courses more quickly. On a lazy Sunday afternoon with the mist lying low on the fields, who wants that?

Like all great endeavours, this is the start of the journey. But when absolute quality is your destination it is difficult not to applaud.

Six months’ after its opening, The Wisborough is on course to be one of the greats of the county pub landscape.

Note: Although the Restaurant Inspector was invited to review the Wisborough, the review was entirely independent and not subject to any commercial or advertisement considerations. The review represents the honest opinion of the journalist.

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