We’re outside Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey, when Lady Carnarvon strolls across the cobbles where visitors are sipping tea in the spring sunshine. With a looming deadline for her next book, she’s on her way upstairs to write but stops to chat about her husband’s ancestral home, its starring role in Downton, and how they managed to shoot the latest film during Covid by enforcing daily PCR tests.
Where did everyone stay, I wonder. Where are you staying? She smiles.
I tell her we have a room ten minutes away at the newly refurbished Georgian coaching inn, the Hare & Hounds, a mile or so outside Newbury. ‘I hear it’s lovely. I’m doing a gin tasting and talk there soon,’ says Lady Carnarvon.
Jane Knight stops off at nearby Highclere Castle (pictured), aka Downton Abbey, during her stay at the Hare & Hounds outside Newbury and has a chat with Lady Carnarvon
Country pursuits: The restored dining room at the Hare & Hound. ‘Everything has been beautifully finished, with a sense of irreverent fun,’ says Jane
It is indeed lovely, and a superb place to sample a Highclere Martini or two, using Highclere Castle Gin made with citrus fruit from the castle’s Victorian orangery, with oats to soften the finish.
And while the 30-bedroom inn doesn’t have Highclere’s majestic proportions, it has been beautifully restored. Although there is a Downton room in the eaves and a Highclere suite with copper roll-top bath in the room, the nods to its posh neighbour stop there.
Instead, as its name suggests, this pub is more about country pursuits than about country homes.
Above is The Highclere Suite, complete with copper roll-top bath, that’s a nod to the inn’s ‘posh neighbour’
The former stables at the property house some of the bedrooms, incorporating parts of the wooden horse stalls. Pictured right is the poster for the latest Downton Abbey movie
That means hunting-themed fabrics and wallpaper, antlers crafted as lights, the odd stuffed pheasant, and a gun-toting hare immortalised in the private dining room.
Everything has been beautifully finished, with a sense of irreverent fun that can be seen in the portraits of military personnel with dogs’ heads, hares’ ears sticking out from lampshades, and witty slogans on the wall.
Young, smiling staff, with checked shirts and country caps flit around this ideal inn, with its flagstones and beams, and dog’s bed beside a large fireplace.
There are modern touches, too, including a wine-dispensing machine where you can pick your poison and fill your own glass.
Next door, the enormous, timber-frame dining room is an atmospheric place to eat, playing on the pub’s proximity to Newbury racecourse with its stable door, horse-head sculptures, and bridle accessories.
Inside one of the rooms at the inn, which are priced from £120 a night. ‘It is lovely,’ Jane says of the inn
According to Jane, if there’s one point for improvement in the ‘picture-perfect pub’, it’s the food
‘Young, smiling staff, with checked shirts and country caps flit around this ideal inn, with its flagstones and beams, and dog’s bed beside a large fireplace (pictured) ,’ writes Jane
Outside, the real stables house some of the bedrooms, incorporating parts of the wooden horse stalls. More rooms are found in other outbuildings, some with small outside seating areas. All have thoughtful touches including fresh milk and complimentary gin, a Roberts radio and even ear plugs in a wooden box by the bed (it’s on a busy road). The swish bathrooms come with Bramley toiletries and impressive showers.
If there’s one point for improvement this picture-perfect pub, it’s the food. Bread and breakfast are good, the former sourdough, the latter a choice of hot dishes with a buffet that includes cheese and cold meats. At dinner, though, while my pea and asparagus risotto gets a thumbs up, my son’s signature prawn cocktail starter with fennel and pickled apple lacks taste, and his cote de boeuf is unevenly grilled.
It’s not quite up to Downton’s cook Mrs Patmore’s standards, we think.