The countryside looks bleak at this time of year, not a leaf on the spindly branches. But down on the ground at Welford Park, a sea of snowdrops are gently nodding yes, spring is coming. In the Lambourne Valley a dappled beech wood provides the perfect conditions for the tiny flowers, which spread out like a white carpet across five acres of private land. Not usually open to the public (though it will be familiar to Bake Off fans), Welford Park opens its gardens from 29 January to 1 March especially for snowdrop season, with walks through their woodland on paths criss-crossing the river. The sight and scent is enough to cheer up anyone down in the doldrums this January.
Five minutes up the road from here, The Pheasant Inn provides the perfect weekend base for exploring. A snug bar with an open fire greets you at this characterful pub with just 11 bedrooms that are playful and welcoming thanks to the input of interior designer, Flora Soames. Patterned fabrics, Bamford products, Roberts radios, Birchall tea and artwork by Partnership Editions keep the place feeling fresh as well as luxurious. Jack Greenall – the young owner who has been in charge since 2016 – tells us he wanted to do just one pub, but do it really well. He’s not only charming but incredibly hands-on and seems to love being around which makes for a convivial atmosphere. The assorted crowd that gathers on a Saturday night includes couples and groups of friends down from London (it’s just four miles from Junction 14 of the M4) as well as locals and lively jockeys. The pub is positioned in the heart of racing country with Lambourne and Newbury close by, hence the black and white photos on the walls, the artful collages of racing silks and the stable divider separating the restaurant from the bar area.
As per the interiors, the menu offers a contemporary take on the classics – dishes like kohlrabi salad, cashew nut hummus and halloumi fries run alongside more typical fish and chips and rack of lamb. We share a bottle of wine noticing that trays of espresso martinis keep disappearing to the private room upstairs. This is a real find; private rooms can feel like an afterthought but not so here. It is perhaps The Pheasant’s best room with wooden beams, its own fire, bookshelves and a long table where up to 20 guests would be very happy settling down for a party or celebration. In the morning linger with the papers over breakfast where there’s an ample selection of yoghurts, granola and pastries as well as eggs and cooked breakfast to order from the menu. There’s a small suntrap outside to spill out onto come the summer, but in winter everyone seems loathe to leave the fire.
If you do head out, Hungerford is full of antiques shops. Aim for The Arcade for a browse where a rabbit warren of different independent dealers specialise in everything from stamps to silver, military memorabilia and collectible toys, lusterware jugs to antique jewellery. For serious buyers in the market for furniture, oil paintings, clocks, lighting and rugs the smart Great Grooms Antiques is a good place to start, occupying an imposing three-storey Georgian house on the approach into town. Second-generation dealers, William Cook Antiques specialise in English 18th and early 19th century furniture and accessories at their showroom that’s just across the bridge over the Kennet and Avon Canal. When you’ve had enough of antiquing, pull on your boots for a walk along the muddy toe-path past the locks and friendly barges that hug its banks. Stop for an organic lunch of Ottolenghi-style salads at Elian’s on the high street – also popular for afternoon tea and cake. We could have lost hours browsing at the independent Hungerford Bookshop which stocks new titles upstairs and second-hand and antiquarian books in the basement below. Marlborough is also close by, as is Highclere, the setting for Downton Abbey which is open to the public on certain days of the year.
Staying on is tempting, even more so thanks to The Pheasant’s ‘Settle-in Sunday’ offer where you can stay for free on Sunday nights when you spend £100 in the bar and restaurant. But even one night here is enough to provide an antidote to January-February blues.
Getting there: Direct trains from London Paddington to Hungerford take 1 hour, from there it’s a 10 minute taxi to the pub. Driving from London takes about an hour and a half. Rooms from £105 https://www.thepheasant-inn.co.uk