Critical acclaim is a chief attribute of The Bell, a Tudor pub about 10 miles south of Royal Tunbridge Wells. As well as being South East pub of the Year in the 2017 National Pub & Bar Awards, the guest ales available at the bar include Harvey’s Sussex Best, the CAMRA Champion Beer of 2005 and 2006.
Ticehurst, The Bell’s home, is a quintessentially British village within the Saxon district of Wadhurst in East Sussex (not far from the Kent border). Period housing stock, a small church, a cricket pitch and a handful of independent shops make up the hub of the picturesque parish. By way of an additional quirk, Ticehurst is also the base of the Antiquarian Horological Society, a learned society formed in 1953 to promote the study of time measurement in all its forms.
In the distance, the manager was whipping her team members into shape with a series of verbal instructions
The Bell’s owners have created an interior that can claim to be a true country pub environment. Stripped-back floorboards are battered but sparklingly clean; art, taxidermy and curious objects adorn the walls and shelves of the pub’s main space. Exposed beams nod to Tudor provenance and are, as with the floorboards, sanded matte to effect a stylised version of antiquity. Beyond the bar, the dining room section houses five or six tables of varying size. They are to a common theme of washed-out oak, giving continuity to the farmhouse feel of the property.
The manager seated me with an expression of warmth and enthusiasm. I was promptly given the much-anticipated Harvey’s Best – kept perfectly, by the way – and felt poised for a positive service experience. My mouth had gone arid in the cab ride and, like some adventurer’s reward, the hoppy, mild ale made for an astonishing quench. My thirst slaked, I focussed on the food menu, which, at the The Bell, is divided into “Land & Fire”, “Sea” and “Earth”. Having ordered with a young colleague of the manager, there was a chance to unwind, breathe deeply and marvel at the room: a print of Johnson’s map of Europe on the wall next to me; gold and crimson wallpaper bearing the pub’s livery; a pillar of archaic books and a random telephone table. In the distance, the manager was whipping her team members into shape with a series of verbal instructions (politely delivered, I should make clear). The pub is clearly a tightly-run ship, with the slightly matronly manager at its helm.
There isn’t much to say on the drinks front. The pub does have a wine list but, sadly, it bids nothing of great interest (and the vintages are not stated either). Luckily, the three ale offerings are accomplished, not least because of the champion beer’s presence on the pumps. Consistent with the pub scene generally, wine is not given much regard and indeed the list at The Bell is reflective of that fact. I opted for a Portugese wine from the Douro, which, on the palate, was at the good end of ordinary.
A starter of egg, asparagus and a mushroom arancini ball shortly arrived, served in its own mini skillet. The use of quality produce was apparent due to the egg’s orange yoke and rich taste. While the dish was not innovative, it was a pleasure to both look at and consume. After the right amount of pause, I was handed my main – a chunky, beer-battered fillet of cod on a stack of triple-cooked chips, with obligatory mushy peas and tartare sauce in side pots. The cod was genuinely faultless. A little seawater sat between the batter and the fish, the latter of which broke effortlessly into bright white flakes which I lathered in crunchy tartare. If I’m to be finicky, the chips were towards dry – maybe due to time under a heat lamp (though this is a guess on my part). Still, they had fluffy middles and were pleasant enough.
Proceedings closed with the classic (if ubiquitous) pub dessert of sticky toffee pudding. The twist added by The Bell’s kitchen is the use of whisky in the toffee sauce, which was detectable without being overpowering. Like the prior courses, its presentation was neat and restaurant-grade.
In closing: Kent and Sussex dwellers are fortunate to have The Bell within easy reach. For the less local, it’s still worthy of a gastro-trip, particularly if paired with taking in quaint villages or romping through the countryside towards Hastings. The Bell, with its vast garden, sets up well for the warmth of summer, while its internal quarters lend themselves to hearty dining in the cooler seasons. After a satisfying meal and a bill of just under £50, I’d certainly venture back in repeat pursuit of well-executed plates of food, traditional surroundings and amiable service.
by C Ley