The Rock Inn
Will Pocklington visits the 400-year-old country pub that is proving a hit with West Country shooting parties.
It was a journey laden with torment. Each mile travelled was another between me and a very ripe block of drilled spring beans back in Lincolnshire. We're talking pigeon heaven. Oh the reluctance with which I'd pointed the car south in knowledge of such a strong, surely fruitful, flightline. "This had better be worth the trip," I grumbled to the other half as we gobbled-up the M5's tarmac - she, on the contrary, was quite delighted to finally be benefitting from one of my work excursions.
We were en route to The Rock Inn, a 400-year-old pub with rooms nestled in the Somerset hamlet of Waterrow, now run by Ruth and Daren Barclay. And, almost annoyingly (sometimes I like to have a good moan and feel as though I'm quite entitled to do so), it turned out to be pretty damned good.
It would be so easy now to rattle out a few chocolate-boxy, superlative-ridden paragraphs about Ruth's warm welcome, Daren's outstanding food, or the soporific qualities of the accommodation. But I'm not sure that these alone were the cure for what was, really, a dangerously potent bout of pidge fever. Nope, it was the honesty of the place.
What I really can't stand is a pub trying to be something it's not. You know the sort - 'gourmet', 'artisan', 'wild', 'fine' and such words precede each and every dish on the menu, prices are doubled, and yet the food served is substandard and minimal - think gastro-pubby smugness cloaking glorified school-dinner gnosh.
The Barclays stick to a much simpler strategy. Not fancy, not stuffy, not trying too hard. And yet they have managed to carefully nudge the Rock Inn onto that hallowed ground synonymous with: a) an atmosphere which doesn't scare away the locals; b) food which is prepared with passion, eaten with delight and doesn't break the bank; and c) an undeniable air of laid-back country chic.
The reason for The Rock Inn's popularity among shooting parties (there are dozens of shoots within a 20-mile radius, including the likes of Combe Sydenham, Miltons, Haddeo and Loyton) became apparent at about the same time as we plonked ourselves in front of the giant fireplace with a pint of something malty and a pint of something fruity, having deposited our bags in one of the eight rooms upstairs. We were soon chatting to a few of the many locals who clearly know a good thing when they see it. It's a country pub through and through.
At front of house, Ruth nurtures an ambience which encourages a good chat. And that was the beauty of the Rock Inn - one minute we were discussing Exmoor's hunting and shooting scene with the local hunt master, or the best morning walks with the local MP, the next, we're seated (having ummed and ahhed over the table-sized chalkboard menu) and waiting for Daren to rustle up dinner. And Daren's food is outstanding.
The three courses are now a hunger-inducing blur of delectability, of woodpigeon (I enjoy eating them, too), black pudding and truffle oil, of black garlic-marinated Angus beef cooked for 14 hours in black treacle sauce and served with the smokiest of cheddar mashes, and of the made-from-scratch ice cream. That's discounting the other half's choices of brie fondant with pickled beetroot, merlot-steeped duck breast and a sticky toffee pudding the size of your head - all as fresh and as wholesome as you'd expect where local ingredients and genuine homemade produce take centre stage.
By the time we were draining the dregs of our nightcaps and bidding goodnight to the few remaining stragglers, the longing for blue grouse had been quelled to a bearable level. And after a few short steps, the comfort of a king-sized bed was as welcome as the narcoleptic-style collapse into a deep sleep was unexpected.
I slept through my alarm the following morning, my body clock malfunctioned, and as a result my planned early-morning recce around the surrounding area - local MP's suggestions heeded - didn't happen.
But we were awake in time for breakfast - another meal the Barclay's do well. And as we sat discussing the plan for the rest of the day with Ruth, and Daren bustled past with a bag of pigs' trotters for that evening's gravy, the woodie-filled daydreams, I noticed, had subsided.
Just imagine, I thought, what a joy it would be to combine a stay at the Rock Inn with a shooting trip.