Bel & The Dragon. This sounds rather like a scrambled-up classic British pub’s name; it doesn’t sound quite right. The Bell and Dragon – yes. The Dragon & Bell – fine. But Bel & The Dragon? Dyslexic sign maker?
No, not at all – the inn’s name references a rather unusual and ancient story; a story of Babylonian idols and Persian kings and high-concept trickery. I won’t divulge the details, I’ll let you visit and hear it all first-hand in the warmth of the bar.
Bel & The Dragon at Churt is part of a small group of Surrey inns that share this mysterious, allusive name, and is one of the best spots you’ll find to lay your head whilst out touring round the Surrey Hills. The drive to Churt is quite something, the roads around these parts of rural Surrey are long and winding, and in late autumn, all is green and brown and on the turn – England at its most pastoral. The inn stands on a corner and as you pull up, you cannot help but imagine it existing in times long gone by, a coaching stop on the route into London from the South.
The recent refurbishment has upgraded what I am informed was, in its last incarnation, a depressing ‘drinkers’ pub’, a place of one-armed bandits, football and fights, into a deeply charming, stylish and homely weekend getaway – a joy to visit. Once checked-in, we make our way up to the rooms, which fan out around the upstairs of the building, each taking the name of a character in an Austen novel (Jane Austen grew up just around the corner). We’re to spend the night in Darcy.
The first thing I’m drawn to on opening the door is the bottle of Sipsmith Sloe Gin that’s sitting on the window ledge – a winter warmer if ever there was. Our host helpfully points out that the gin is complementary, and there for us to enjoy at leisure, to help us settle in. This is a superb touch, they’ve chosen a gently appealing, seasonal spirit and offered guests to help themselves. I’m sure almost all will do so showing appropriate restraint and therefore the gesture will cost little, but the sentiment will, I am certain, travel a long way.
The room manages to be many things at once: it is spacious, yet cosy, feels clean and new, whilst having the slightly worn in, comfortable air of a place that people have enjoyed. The Farrow & Ball covered walls are lined with well-thumbed, orange-spined Penguin Classics. Large windows frame the room and offer views out over the Surrey hills and beyond.
We snooze in white linen, before showering at leisure and making our way down to the restaurant for a late dinner. The bar follows a similar format to the rooms, the primary focus and objective is for it to be extremely warm, comfortable and homely; the management want you to arrive for the weekend and settle in, for nothing to be an effort, nothing a chore. This is, of course, the idea at all inns, it’s just that here they manage to pull it off with extraordinary verve.
After a couple of French 75s on the sofa and a engaging chat with Mike, our genial host, we move through to the restaurant. Where there was calm and slow-sipping cocktails in the bar, the restaurant is a hive of activity. The room is full and laughter is everywhere; there’s a celebratory sense of weekend enjoyment, of getting away from work, from the city, from everyday worries. We opt for the special of chateaubriand served for two to share. A veritable slab of meat comes pink and fragrantly beefy, cut into good, thick slices and brought to table on a rough-hewn block. We drink a very pleasant claret from a list that veers toward classicism and includes some excellent classed- growth Bordeaux at extremely approachable prices, and a pleasing selection of large format bottles. Puddings are creamy and English and joyfully indulgent. We leave the restaurant happily sated.
A nightcap in our room to finish – sloe gin from our own bottle. We have a moment gazing out over the Surrey Hills. The woodland is glorious in the late autumn moonlight, so calm, so at peace. As, I can truly say, are we. Bel & The Dragon is a superb bolt hole, hidden away from the metropolis, but less than an hour from zone one. I recommend you visit when feeling a little put upon, a little weary – in this frame of mind, Bel & The Dragon will feel like a sanctuary.
Bel & The Dragon, Jumps Road, Churt, Farnham, Surrey GU10 2LD. For more information including room rates, details of private dining and the other properties in the group, visit the website.