Charming, friendly and authentic, this sporting pit stop with rooms is truly a home from home, finds Alexandra Henton
ON a dreich evening, what better than the lights of a decent pub, and even more so when that pub offers everything required of a proper sporting pit stop. Charming and unfussy, The Duncombe Arms is the type of establishment all those ‘olde English inns’ yearn to imitate with little success. It is authentic and without pretension. The building is a comfortable honeycomb of rooms, nooks and crannies softly lit by lamps on tables and decent fires. Wooden beams, patinated leather, heaps of rustic charm and locals at the bar; arriving for the evening feels like a return.
The pub was bought by Johnny and Laura Greenall 10 years ago, and they have restored the once dilapidated and sad place, growing it into a thriving business, popular locally and, since rooms were added in 2019, a destination. Racing pictures and celebrated obituaries grace the wall of one low-beamed snug (pictured above), while contemporary animal portraits and high ceilings are found in the restaurant end. There is also a private dining area and a garden room, all with Johnny’s Bar at the heart, where the Duncombe family tree is displayed (Johnny’s wife Laura is a Duncombe). It would be difficult not to fall for its easy charm, especially as it is backed up by a decent menu, interesting wine list and exceptional cheeseboard.
Unfussy fine dining at heart
The pub has a Michelin Bib Gourmand (among other laurels), an encouraging seal of approval – it means good food, not overpriced and of the best quality. A simple pub menu with classics runs alongside the à la carte offering, with unfussy fine dining at heart. Chicken liver parfait and slow-braised pork belly were delicious and prettily presented, but the spoils were taken by the cheeseboard, which showed five artisan cheeses, served at the correct temperature and accompanied by pickled walnuts (an overlooked favourite). It’s hard to pick fault with a kitchen that sends out such a showstopper to end supper, and the wine list offered a particularly good selection of pudding wines.
The Walnut House stands behind the pub and boasts 10 en-suite bedrooms (making it the perfect size for a shooting party) in rooms decorated with artisan wallpaper and great bathrooms filled with Bamford goodies. Our ground-floor room, ‘Gamebirds’, was fitted out with campaign-style furniture, artisan pheasant wallpaper and French windows on to a small paved seating area. Proper tea- and coffee-making kit, homemade biscuits and a writing desk with a Roberts radio ticked all possible boxes needed for an overnight stay. Dogs are allowed in some bedrooms, too, for a small additional charge, and there are two further self-catering properties that can accommodate six guests each.
Breakfast in one of the snugs back in the pub will set you up for a day in the field if your destination is nearby, a day at the races (Uttoxeter) or carrying on north (as we did). Derbyshire is a long haul from the Cotswolds, where pubs with this level of charm and service are not a rare crop; but even there this friendly, hospitable sporting pit stop would cut more than just the mustard. Now for an excuse to return…
A sporting pit stop worth discovering
The Duncombe Arms overlooks the Dove Valley, sitting just south of the Peak District and north of Uttoxeter, between Derby and Stoke-on-Trent. It is a surprisingly rural oasis in an area often associated with heavier, less picturesque industry. I spent some of my childhood days stomping the Peak District, watching my father run the Dovedale Dash – the jolliest part of which was watching the 1,000 or so runners plunge through the River Dove in October – and being thrilled by the Heights of Abraham at Matlock Bath. The Duncombe Arms is well placed for discovering this part of the world, and for keen anglers the Dove (which forms the border between Derbyshire and Staffordshire) is within reach. For shooting practice, the Doveridge shooting ground is close by, as is Yeaveley Estate shooting school.
The Duncombe Arms, Ellastone, Ashbourne DE6 2GZ
Tel: 01335 324275