It’s 2020, a year we will never forget; where travelling to far-flung destinations is taboo and the prospect of even a short haul flight could end up in a two-week quarantine. Holidaying closer to home is the most viable and obvious option for us right now, it’s just about finding those hidden gems, and our country is filled with them. An idyllic spot; where cosy meets luxury and where nature is visible, bright and roaming free. That’s exactly where our own staycation took us – to a little village called Ellastone in Staffordshire where we spent a night at The Duncombe Arms.
Sitting proudly in the centre of the village, it’s immediately apparent that The Duncombe Arms is not only at the heart of Ellastone, but the heart of the village itself. Previously an Inn throughout the 19th century, the building was left derelict until its current owners, Johnny and Laura Greenall, decided to take it on with a complete renovation – opening its doors once more in the Spring of 2012. Although many original features remain intact and the archetypal pub quirks that we all know and love (read: cosy fireplace, leather upholsters, dark woods and richly patterned carpets) run throughout it, The Duncombe Arms is certainly contemporary in many of its offerings (I’ll come onto that later).
Fast-forward to 2019 when the pub introduced and now boasts a luxurious ten-bedroom annex, The Walnut House. Architecturally pleasing in a very modern barn-esque way, the building sits just to the right of the pub facing the lush rolling hills of the countryside – a glorious contrast of contemporary living in a rural setting.
Of the ten bedrooms in The Walnut House we were given the Green Room – much to my delight. I feel strangely happy around emerald tones and this room was filled with them. Stunning Colefax & Fowler wallpapers, sumptuous deep forest green velvets and heavy earthy tweeds were complemented with neutral woods and crisp clean white linens. I was sure the Greenall’s had hired the very best in interior design to create their vision for The Walnut House, but Laura modestly explained that it was all down to her – I was majorly impressed.
The devil was in the detail for me, with USB sockets next to the bed, a DAB radio and clever sensor night lights in the bathroom. Fluffy bath robes and slippers were lined up in the wardrobe, and there was – every parent’s must-have necessity – a Nespresso machine (accompanied by some delicious shortbread). Oh, and a cot they’d kindly put up for our little one. Fresh milk is kept in a mini fridge at the entrance of the house which guests can help themselves to, along with water bowls and snacks for any canine friends.
The view was a particularly wonderful surprise – our 20-month old was transfixed by it. We propped up a velvet chair against the floor to ceiling windows and she spent hours watching the cows and sheep roaming the fields. This chic luxury space so brilliantly juxtaposed with the rustic countryside vista made The Walnut House feel like a home-from-home (with a bit of an upgrade).
The kitchen is led by Jake Boyce, previously Head Chef at Minnow and Social Wine and Tapas in London. Having visited the latter restaurant, I knew we were in for a culinary treat. Ingredients are locally sourced at The Duncombe Arms and the passion for that ethos runs deep. Honest cooking is at the heart of the menu and it all begins at the source; both Jake and Laura spoke of the numerous farmers and local suppliers they use for their impressive offering of fresh seasonal food.
It began with a platter of freshly baked bread alongside black truffle butter and dripping (I mean, that’s a seriously good start), swiftly followed by Jerusalem artichoke, cultured cream, shallot and fresh black truffle for me – basically all my favourite ingredients combined. And my husband, Reece, tried the smoked haddock and bacon souffle with butter sauce. The artichoke was sublime, with generous shavings of stunning black truffle and that subtle sweetness from the shallot, combined with the smooth texture of the cream – I could have eaten two lots! I managed to try some of the souffle, too (of course) and it was just the way you want fish and bacon to work together – harmoniously; light in texture, with just enough richness from the butter sauce to strike a nice balance.
Mains were rump of Staffordshire Moorlands lamb, roast carrot, caramelised onion, jus gras for me and Reece went for the 36-day dry aged ribeye, bone marrow butter, hand cut thick chips and lettuce heart. My husband loves a good steak and was very pleased with the tenderness and flavour of the ribeye – the addition of bone marrow butter was a definite tick for him. Lamb is my red meat of choice, usually eaten in homemade Persian stews and such; I like my lamb tender and full of flavour. I ate every morsel of the lamb; the quality, texture, flavour – all immense. The jus gras sealed the deal for me, and the veggies were fresh with a perfect amount of bite.
We were pretty full by this point and our daughter had sat through a two-course meal very patiently (there’s a children’s menu – she didn’t just watch on), but we thought a bit of dessert wouldn’t go amiss. Reece went for another classic with the sticky toffee pudding, which came with salted walnut ice-cream. I opted for the pistachio & honey baklava with lavender ice-cream. Obviously, I managed to nab a spoonful of the sticky toffee pudding, which is actually my usual pudding of choice, and it was good, very good! The salted walnut ice-cream worked beautifully with the heavy sweetness. To make a good baklava is no mean feat and the pastry in this one was delicious – crispy on top, gooier in the middle, with lashings of sticky tasty honey mixed combined with moreish pieces of pistachio nut. The lavender ice-cream worked well as an accompaniment to the baklava. It was very fragrant and true to its flavour; perhaps a little intensely floral for me, but anyone that loves lavender is in for a treat.
As if all of that weren’t enough, the chefs at The Duncombe Arms are also chocolatiers. We were presented with a platter of beautifully finished truffles and shards of fresh chocolate with accompanied dipping sauces (the lime curd was particularly delectable). We took them back to the room to enjoy in comfort, and oh did we enjoy them!
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget the drinks list. With a 98-strong wine list and 28 varieties of gin, you won’t go thirsty at The Duncombe Arms. A selection of beers includes Marston’s Pedigree, brewed in nearby Burton upon Trent alongside the pub’s very own Duncombe Ale. An avid fan of wines from the Languedoc region in France, we tried the Le Versant Pinot Noir; beautifully ripe, juicy, complex and dangerously drinkable – it accompanied our red meat dishes superbly.
With all of this on offer, it’s no surprise that The Duncombe Arms has been named as the best dining pub by The Michelin Guide, The Good Pub Guide, Budweiser Budvar’s Top 50 Gastropubs and the Diners’ Choice Awards, and in 2019 it was awarded a Bib Gourmand, too.
Out and about
Perfectly placed on the edge of the Peak District, The Duncombe Arms is surrounded by attractions and activities to satisfy all interests. Whether you fancy digging around Ashbourne antique market for some bargainous gems or taking up water sports such as kayaking in Carsington Reservoir, there’s something for everyone. And if you’re in search of a different type of adrenaline, Alton Towers theme park is only three miles away.
We took advice from Johnny Greenall – who we’d chatted to at dinner the night before – and headed up to Wootton for a scenic walk. There aren’t many paths on route to this particular walk from Duncombe, so we took the car and parked in the village before heading up the hill. We were promised outstanding views and it did not disappoint. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to escape the city and breathe in that clean, pure air, and to look around and see only lush green hills for miles upon miles ahead; for a time we forgot about the world and all its current troubles and that is what a trip away should do for the soul.
Another big highlight for us had to be the Wootton Hall Woodland Gardens. The gardens form part of The Wootton Estate, which was bought by Laura and Johnny Greenall back in 1998. With twelve acres of beautiful woodland, it’s obvious from first glance that Laura and Johnny painstakingly restored this incredible piece of land over the years to get it to where it is today. We managed to get in a walk just before we headed back to London, and were lucky enough to be accompanied by Johnny, his lovely daughter and their Insta-famous pet sheep, Sidney! Filled with Rhododendrons, Cornus Kousa, Magnolias and an incredible collection of impressive trees from across the globe, it was stunning – the kind of space you could spend hours exploring.
The Best Thing
All of it, really. The food, the room, the surroundings, and the staff. The team at Duncombe were not only attentive and knowledgeable, but it felt like they were one big happy family. There was an energy that felt comfortable and connected. Nothing was too much of an ask (I like a skinny, decaf, extra hot latte from time to time and usually swap out ham for bacon in my eggs benedict – yep, I’m one of those) and every request was happily catered for. The team are friendly, welcoming and most important of all, you can tell they want to be there.
The worst thing
My husband and I agreed, it would have been great to stay a second night. There’s a lot to explore around the area and we wanted to take our daughter to see more sights. Plus, we wouldn’t have said no to another night in The Green Room or some more of the delicious food the Duncombe has to offer.
Prices are from £170 a night, including breakfast; www.theduncombearms.co.uk (01335 324275).
A three-course meal starts from £22 (Monday to Saturday 12- 2:30pm ~ Monday to Thursday 6-9pm).
The Duncombe Arms and Wootton Hall have teamed up to offer garden tours and a Bib Gourmand awarded lunch for just £35! Guests can take lunch either before or after walking round the gardens however they will need to come to the pub first to collect a map. The walk is unaccompanied and takes approximately 1 hour.
If you really want to book ahead, The Duncombe Arms is introducing a new Christmas package, which includes a three-night stay (24th/25th/26th) for £895 based on 2 people sharing a deluxe double. It includes a series of fantastic dining and drinks options, too.