The list of really beautiful villages in the Dorset-Wiltshire roll call of destinations is long and varied. Amongst them is Tollard Royal, nestled in the Cranborne Chase countryside that brought kings and princes to their hunting lodges through the shooting seasons of centuries gone by. The clock has stopped in this region, circa the 18th Century, and all around you is a landscape so beautiful you want to stop the car at every corner to take yet another photograph.
When you arrive at the local King John Inn, a Victorian brick and flint pub, you are quite overcome by a photographic frenzy, so pretty is the décor and so interesting its food. There is also a Wine Shop in the grounds, which, as I arrived in the evening, was sadly closed.
There is a lovely garden next to the car park, which has been arranged in terraces with deck chairs at the top, and at the front of the pub there is a patio to sit on, under the shade of big umbrellas.
How difficult it is to review restaurants anonymously. Carrying my digital camera and trusted notebook I ask the waitress whether I can take photos, to which she replied yes, but I could denote a degree of suspicion that was none too subtle. The waitresses did keep looking at me throughout dinner, and I am sure I would have taken plenty more photographs had I not felt so conspicuous. It is such a beautiful place.
Sage coloured woollen tweed curtains and cushions, comfortable sofas, collage print screens, terracotta floors, vintage, painted tables, mismatching chairs and photographs of hunting scenes on the walls, this is the country house look meets the Scottish shooting lodge meets the locals’ favourite drinking bar, all in one. There are little salt and pepper cruets in the form of little aluminium buckets, fresh herbs in terracotta pots on every table, and glass storm lanterns filled with apples on wooden dressers.
There is a big party taking place, as one half of the dining room is completely filled with revellers all eating on long, refectory style tables. The staff wear jaunty blue and white flowery shirts or black uniforms.
The food is unpredictably simple, and wonderfully sourced, cooked and presented. The Menu is very short and quite monosyllabic in its description: Portland crab on toast; pigeon salad, bacon, crouton, Roe venison haunch, rosti potato, carrots, beans, jus; apricot and almond tart, orange custard; bowl of ripe berries, clotted ice cream, eau de vie.
Just like the St.John nose to tail philosophy, they underpromise and certainly, on the taste front, over deliver. Dishes are served in blue and white Falcon enamelware, ungarnished and unapologetic in their ascetic, school dining room sort of way.
My roasted tomato soup was excellent, so sweet, caramelised, creamy and aromatic, with a deep, lingering taste of pepperiness. Tomatoes are at their best in July and August, and their taste so well captivated in soups, they really belong in the roasting tray and the blender, for all their sweet juiciness to be extracted.
My twice baked Westcombe cheddar cheese soufflé and mixed salad were equally good, and in particular the mustard vinaigrette on the fresh garden leaves was very good. How rare to be served such a great salad, with no trimmings and no garnish. When you buy excellent raw ingredients, very little needs to be done to create greatness in a dish, and this skilful brigade understands this well. It is refreshing to arrive at a gastropub that does not drown in its own gels, drizzles, foams and jus.
For pudding came a symphony in wood, black and bean. Grand Cru Araguani chocolate terrine and Turkish coffee was served on a wine box panel, with two thin slices of the terrine perched on a bare white plate in all their deep, intense, velvet glossy glory. The coffee was very dark, bitter and strong, just a few mouthfuls were all that were needed to foil the taste of Valrhona’s finest 72% cacao. It was a clever pudding, and I remember it still, while writing. I took no notes, I was enjoying it so much I forgot to write.
The King John Inn is the finest people watching perch in the whole county, I am sure, it attracts such an eclectic social mix. From crusty, Sloane ranger, blue blazered country squires, to leathery, stiletto Marbella blondes, local farmers and everything in between, an anthropologist would find enough material here for an entire Phd.
It is notable that a country pub can boast such a diverse range of customers: keeping the locals happy and attracting visitors and tourists from further afield is every country inn’s holy grail, and it takes a great deal of hard work and consistency to achieve it. Yes, it is posh, but no, it is not intimidating. A Ferrari is parked next to a battered Volvo, which is next to an ancient, mud caked Land Rover with a sleeping sheep dog at the back.
I did not stay here, but I have looked at the bedrooms on the website. Judging by the standards downstairs, staying upstairs would not be a hardship at all. Even the downstairs Villeroy and Bosch loos belong in World of Interiors.
The King John Inn
Wiltshire SP5 5PS
Telephone: 01725 516207
Follow on Twitter: @Kingjohninn