Pub/Bar of the Month March 2010: The Bell, Aldworth
The Bell, Aldworth, near Newbury, UK
In the West Berkshire market town of Newbury, pubs battle for business. Every latest fad is absorbed in order to give a pub an edge over its rivals.
There are giant screens for TV sports, huge bar-top dispensers for ultra-cold lagers and stouts, all the latest mass-advertised branded bottled drinks, live rock bands till late in the evening and poker schools aimed at modest gamblers.
Despite all these so-called attractions, only at certain times of the week are most pubs busy. In midweek they can be deathly quiet.
Twelve miles away, stranded out in the country, in a village with a population of only 250, far from major road and rail connections, it’s a rather different story.
The Bell has stood in the village of Aldworth for possibly 700 years, in one form or another. Being beautifully preserved by the same family for more than 200 of those years, it has hardly changed since the day it first opened its doors – certainly not in atmosphere.
There are no electronic amusements, no flicker of a TV screen, no thumping jukebox soundtrack and no food list as long as your arm.
Entertainment comes simply from conversation with the bar staff and other customers, interspersed perhaps with a game of shove-ha’penny or, if the weather is kind, a few rounds of Aunt Sally – an arcane local skittles game – in the breezy garden.
In summer, there may be cricket in the field next door and greater evidence of the pub’s position close to the Ridgeway ancient footpath as an increasing number of booted ramblers wash away the dust of the trail with a few pints.
Forget super-chilled lager, the beer provision is firmly embedded in local ales, traditionally served in the finest order.
Beers come from West Berkshire and Arkell’s breweries, and there’s a real cider, too, all dispensed from a small, central, enclosed servery and quaffed in a tiny public bar and a marginally larger tap room, where a one-handed clock vaguely marks the passage of time.
Food is restricted to well-filled fresh rolls and the occasional soup.
Ask a pub ‘marketing expert’ and he’ll tell you that a pub like this, in such a remote location, with no modern-day appeal, could not survive. Let me tell you that The Bell not only survives, it positively thrives.
It’s common to turn up and find all the seats taken, and even a queue for the bar, sometimes snaking out of the front door. But no one minds in the slightest: it’s all part of the experience.
Everything about The Bell is worth the wait and, for most visitors, the lengthy journey. I can’t help thinking those town pubs are missing a trick or two.
The Bell, Aldworth, Berkshire RG8 9SE
Tel. (01635) 578272
Opening Hours: 11–3, 6–11; 12–3, 7–10.30 Sun; closed Mon, except bank holiday lunchtimes
Photographs courtesy of Roy Bailey