There’s something in the water at places called Newton. Get this. Just when you thought The Ship Inn at Low Newton would be hard pressed to better fulfil its outward promise than with friendly fire and fresh-caught fruits de mer, the landlady goes and installs a micro-brewery in the back. The Queen’s Head at Newton, Cambs, carved its alluring, no-frills niche by half-cocking customers cold-cuts and selling soup from a slow-cooker according to what shade the most recently tossed in components have coloured it. Pull up to the The Duke of Wellington at the Newton near Stocksfield, Northumberland, and you’re so disarmed by the gorgeous, panoramic rear aspect that as you step out of your vehicle you might even neglect to notice you’ve let your car door open onto the wing of a badly parked Bentley. (Oops..) It’s beautiful here. I’m in my element. I’m home. And I haven’t even had a pint yet.
There’s been substantial investment in this place. South-facing views across undulating countryside have been enhanced by split-level terracing that was still a work in progress as we arrived. A big-arse wood-burner commands the pub area, flanked by bookshelves to one side and a dartboard to the other. Handsome, purpose-built bench seating lines the wall perpendicular to the bar itself, the lime-washed wood of either lending a modern edge to a naturally light space you can’t help feeling might benefit more from warmer tones and less intense pyrotechnics. It carries with it the stamp of quality craftsmanship, mind you – you need a solid centre of gravity to force open the heavy toilet doors – but it’s a braver man than me that risks a buggered bounce-out or missing Double Top and embedding a 24g arrow in the new tongue and groove.
The same aesthetic carries through to the restaurant. I’d say it flows through, only it doesn’t. This is an extension and although it affords fabulous views it’s too bright and feels cold. The chairs are all wrong in a faux-French style, and the tables, of a size and evidently chosen to give the room a functional flexibility, are too uniformly spaced.
The food, on the other hand, is excellent. Imaginatively served, well cooked and, in view of the modest lunchtime tariff, gut-bustingly good value. Startlingly good, in fact, to the degree you wonder how they account for or justify the comparatively high cost of their a la carte choices. Certainly I’d expect that the extra fiver or so per dish payable of an evening (some dishes go for around £20) to go beyond the use of more obviously expensive ingredients or toward over-filling the plates. Or else that portions at this time of day end up a tad smaller. These were vast and, at £10 apiece, Medallion of Beef Fillet with Autumn Coleslaw and Hand Cut Chips, and North Sea Cod and Chips went an awfully long way. I was surprised, if not to be asked how I’d like the beef cooked, then at least to be told how I might expect it to arrive. “Medium”, it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter a bit. It was tender and offset by the presentational flourish that is serving chips (beautiful, by the way) in ornamental chip pan baskets. The Cod, in a batter whole-heartedly endorsed by my sponsor, was enormous and came with mildly minted mushy peas.
Dessert was categorically not needed but a worthwhile luxury, even if it was complicated both in the reading and eating by an unduly flowery make-up. Sweet Potato Cake (£5.50) came with a Date Puree and a Blackberry Foam which both H and I agreed might just as well have been ice-cream. Not that its consistency belied the name, rather that ice-cream would have been a simpler, more honest (this is a pub), and fittingly robust way to round off a lunch comprised of two classics. Delicious, all the same. Coffee was accompanied by Petit-Fours – a little too perfect to be homemade but I could be wrong – and with hindsight I’d probably take the owners to task over the need actually to charge double for a Double Espresso (£3.80) where a Cappuccino, traditionally the same but with hot milk, came in at over a quid less.
The all female staff was incredibly youthful, all competent and very sweet, although one or two did lack the confidence or maturity to appreciate the selling points of a smile. While this didn’t by any means let the offer down, the sense of a senior presence was lacking – someone, for example, to notice the mustard had been sat out long enough to begin forming a crust – , as was that of a personality to give the venue a face. Two of four ales were local, Corby Ale (3.8%, Cumberland Brewery), and my eventual choice, Tyneside Blonde (3.9%, Hadrian & Border Brewery) which went down about as easily as it name suggests it might.
The absence of a variety of alternatives in the surrounding area means the Duke’s already turning mid-week custom away, and this before an on-line presence has begun to be established. Once one has, and it’s home-page provides links beyond the food, drink and function offer to details of the 4-Star letting rooms and the outlook from within, there’s every reason to believe its popularity will only grow. Good for the few local institutions that do exist to be kept on their game, I think, and I’m sure places such as the Angel at Corbridge would have said the same before they’d had half their personnel poached. The Duke isn’t perfect. It’s not finished, to be fair, but there are elements to tweak. I’d be surprised if before long a better compromise wasn’t reached between pricing and portions from afternoon to evening. Equally, it would be disappointing if something cosmetic wasn’t done to increase the ambient appeal of a pretty soulless restaurant. But this is Newton, don’t forget. They’ll get it right. They invariably do.
This one’s for you, Han. For lunch, and for letting me stay, I thank you very much xx