‘Whoa! William Beckford was a rum one!’ says Mr Smith, sprawling out on the soft Welsh wool blanket covering our bed – replete from the roast lunch we’ve just inhaled. Reading aloud from the book of bumf he’s found on our bedside table, he recounts how Beckford – from whom Wiltshire pub takes its name – was an obsessive aesthete who scandalised Victorian society with his ‘romantic’ relationship with a 10-year-old viscount.
Funded by his plantation-owner father’s fortune, Beckford (dubbed England’s wealthiest son by Lord Byron), took self-imposed exile, pursuing a life of art and architecture, penning a novel Vathek, and constructing the dizzyingly towering folly, Fonthill Abbey. The gothic revival country house is no more, but its crumbling remains are a short stroll away, and we agree to walk to it tomorrow, if for no other reason than this was where Beckford once ‘bathed in the rain with a sylph-like Albanian footman’, as revealed by a cursory Googling.
This boutique inn’s name, and its proximity to the stunning Fonthill Estate, is as far as its synonymy with Beckford’s archaic strangeness goes – the hotel is about as gothic as a Cath Kidston catalogue. An upscale country pub with rooms, the Beckford Arms is right on the edge of Fonthill Bishop’s acres of farmland, woods and gardens, which when we pass through it, is alive with posturing pheasants and frolicking lambs. The Wiltshire hotel is celebrated for its food, and when we arrive earlier that day the carpark is full with status wagons. This is proper down-from-London country and the place is crawling with glossy dogs and their even better-bred owners, all gathered for the feted Sunday lunch.
Promisingly rich smells of roasting meats fill the air, and despite arriving smack-bang during lunch service, we’re speedily checked in and shown to a table in the grand wooden-floored sitting room, amid rugs, lamps and muted paintwork. We’re seated behind a handsome French couple canoodling on the sofa over the Sunday papers, their toes warmed by the log fire; meanwhile ours are snuffled by the pub’s dog Elsa, who’s particularly taken with my tan-leather brogues. It would seem her masters’ good taste has rubbed off on her.
Swedish chef Chef Pravin Nayar has been with the property since it opened in 2010, and took over as head chef last July when it reopened following a devastating fire. His seasonal menus are bursting with carefully selected local produce, and the food is confidently cooked, refreshingly simple, and pleasingly devoid of the gussied-up flourishes often affected by pubs clawing at that ‘gastro’ prefix. I scan the menu for my usual alarm bells – but there are no ‘deconstructed’ pies or classics ‘with a twist’ here.
Fixated on a blow-out roast lunch, we find that the Swede doesn’t disappoint us, serving up two plates strewn with perfectly pink beef, golden dripping-roasted potatoes, deep, flavourful gravy and Yorkshire puds the size of a baby’s head. It’s a feast fit for a naughty Sunday in the country, and we wash it down with a soft Languedoc cabernet sauvignon. A shared British cheeseboard with the most delicious, crumbly salty-sweet homemade oatcakes propels us into a soporific food coma, and we retire to our chamber for the afternoon, nabbing the Sunday supps from beneath the noses of the now-dozing Frenchies.
Our room is simple and stylish – flooded with natural light, with a view over the garden and a vase of wild flowers on the window ledge. I brew a pot of afternoon tea and tuck into the bar of Dairy Milk. ‘How sweet,’ I say, ‘to give everyone a complimentary tea tray including fresh milk and a chocolate bar.’ Too many hotels have phased that out. To me, being able to make a replenishing cuppa after a food- and wine-induced nap is much nicer than a room-service delivery.
Added extras are partly what give the Beckford Arms a boutique edge. Touches abound like a cute little washbag, pitched perfectly at the well-heeled traveller, stuffed with things I usually forget – razor, toothbrush, cotton buds and possibly this cold-tootsied reviewer’s favourite: a hot water bottle clad in its own Aran knit cover. Even the inanimate objects here are well turned out. When owner Charlie Luxton tells me the fragrant Bramley toiletries are made by his wife, the founder of cult smellies company Cowshed, it all makes perfect sense.
In the candle-lit dining room that night, still full from lunch, I only manage a starter plate. But this is an appetiser that dreams are made of. A delicate, perfectly flaking piece of seared mackerel atop a salad of pickled cucumber, with dill mayonnaise speckled with capers and finely chopped shallots. Mr Smith tucks into a salad of Jerusalem artichokes with heirloom beets and some silky soft mozzarella from Laverstoke farm, marvelling at the incredible flavour of the local and seasonal ingredients.
Cosying up on our well-plumped bed upstairs, with the rest of our Chilean pinot noir, we are overcome by that special sleepy mood that only good food, wine and expertly executed comfort can bring. Tomorrow we’ll explore the old stomping ground of that rogue Beckford, but for now, we’ll enjoy the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets with our newfound bedfellow, the well-dressed hot water bottle. Something tells me we’ll be back at the Beckford Arms.