Michael Edwards heads to Staffordshire’s Dove Valley to stay at the Duncombe Arms; a ‘foodies Mecca’ and the ‘village pub everyone longs for’.
The Duncombe Arms, in Ellastone on the road to the Derbyshire Dales, is much more than a Michelin Bib Gourmand and AA two rosette restaurant. It is the story of Johnny and Laura Greenall’s desire to breath fresh life into both their heritage and their village. The tale of a chef, Jake Boyce, who enjoys nothing more than a Staffordshire oatcake for breakfast, returning to his culinary roots: heading up a team who grow cucumbers, tomato and nasturtiums at home to bring into the kitchen. It is a living narrative of the warmth of Ellastone that charmed novelist George Elliott to feature such a homely village in her first novel Adam Beds. Above all, the Duncombe Arms is coolly stylish yet utterly welcoming.
“It’s really an extension of our home,” says Laura Greenall, a member of the Duncombe family, as she gestures at the decoration of the warren of dining rooms that were once part of a pub that opened in the 1850s. After years of driving past the boarded-up derelict building, the Greenalls took the plunge and renovated the building, re-opening in 2012.
On the wall there is a Greenall brewery sign that was given to landlord Johnny Greenall on his 21st birthday. His experience in the trade stocks the bar with the pub’s very own Duncombe Ale, some twenty-odd gins and over one hundred wines. Diners can match wines to courses as many wines are available by the glass. There is an extensive collection of whiskies too.
Black-and-white horse racing photos, some of the family on horseback, cram the walls above the fire-places. Obituaries too of the admired and departed: Joe Frazier, Elizabeth Taylor, Josh Gifford. Farm-yard portraits of cows, pigs and sheep feature on an exposed brick-wall.
The Duncombe Arms is the local pub every village longs for, a foodie’s Mecca and edging towards a boutique hotel. Quietly positioned, beyond the pub and appropriately beyond the walnut tree, is Walnut House. Two electric car-charging points, a glass door that swings open with a tap of your key-card and a security camera all hint that this is not just a new-build with the rustic charm of a barn conversion.
Every one of the ten air-conditioned rooms, two being suites, with picture-window views over the bleating sheep of the Dove Valley, is named after the theme of its decor: blue fern, hops, green, Ashbourne blue, game birds (for the shooting set?) golden maple (particularly calming), Shetland plaid, peony and flying ducks. You almost wonder if Johnny and Laura match guests to room moods.
It’s a tasteful textured world of Egyptian Cotton thread linens and luxurious fabrics set off by Farrow and Ball paints that has every guest making interior design plans for their return home. Bathrooms have deep baths, intelligent spotlights, Fired Earth tiles and Bamford toiletries.
The art work is original and distinctive.
“Long ago, I shared a London flat with Robin Light who went on to work for the Calman Crane Gallery,” explains Laura.
“Robin always has more work than he can display,” so Walnut House has become a Staffordshire extension of the gallery that was started by a Hungarian refugee, his parents killed in the Holocaust, in an air-raid shelter in Manchester in the 1940s. Rarely is your room an art gallery.
For a Michelin Bib Gourmand the inspectors seek the same qualities as a Michelin star – but at a price that offers good value. Menus must reflect not just the chef’s skill and sourcing but also his or her personality. After a dozen years in London and a spell in Australia as a consultant, Jake Boyce designs menus that mix the very best of British pub classics with hints of global cuisine.
A torched mackerel starter is contrasted with the oriental citrus flavour of swirls of ponzu sauce, served on samphire with coastal herbs of sea rosemary and oyster leaf. Similarly, a veal chop, an old school staple of the summer menu, is seasoned with garlic, thyme and black pepper. Every morning the potatoes for the accompanying terrine are selected from Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes’ range of over a hundred varieties and sautéed in a black cast-iron pan for the potato terrine.
These are pub classics for connoisseurs. Currently, the next batch of Himalayan salted beef is ageing for 36 days, Cornish suppliers are ready to deliver more crabs and very soon grouse will appear on the autumn menu.
Dessert is far from an afterthought. Guests rave about the pistachio and honey baklava served with lavender ice-cream and also the orange and cinnamon creme brûlée. Helpfully, port and pudding wines are listed just below the desserts.
Everyone is given a warm welcome at the Duncombe Arms by Johnny and Laura, even their electrician is treated to a Duncombe Arms breakfast before he starts work. Locals drop by for a pint or a bite, families recover after visits to nearby Alton Towers, hikers walking the Derbyshire Dales stay for a few days, horse-racing parties heading for Uttoxeter book rooms. Shooting parties, antique enthusiasts on their way to Ashbourne and steam aficionados calling in on the Churnet Valley Railway, have all discovered that The Duncombe Arms is a dream destination.
Tell Me More About The Duncombe Arms, Ellastone, Staffordshire
The Duncombe Arms Main Road, Ellastone, Ashbourne, DE6 2GZ
T: 01335 324275
Rooms from around £170 including breakfast.
Starters cost from £6 and mains are around the £14 to £28 mark.