Hall and Woodhouse at Wichelstowe
Well listeners – what follows here is a guest blog from Jonathan Broom of Joined Up Letters – a chap I recently met at Swindon Business Village.
Like me, he’s on a mission to celebrate Swindon and to demonstrate that the place is not deserving of the negative perceptions of Swindon. Y’know the ones – they come Swindon’s way with monotonous regularity.
Here’s a brief bio bite about him:
‘A recent change in circumstances has caused travel writer and lifestyle journalist Jonathan Broom to relocate from East Anglia (Norfolk, to be precise) to the west of England – where he likes much of what he sees. Swindon he feels has been given a bad rap; so he’s on a bit of a mission: to play some small part in redeeming the town’s undeservedly poor reputation.
Clear-eyed and far from uncritical – but keen (as perhaps only an incomer can be) to celebrate all that’s best about ‘Pig Hill’.
Just don’t get him started on The Canaries – aka Norwich City Football Club, or you’ll never hear the end of it.’
A recent visit to the new (ish) Hall and Woodhouse pub/restaurant over at Wichelstowe, in south Swindon, prompted him to hit the keyboard – and you’ll find it below.
I have to say, his piece did make me smile at times. I enjoyed a brief interlude of wanting to, being able to, enjoy going out and enjoying child-free time. Now, as a great-aunty and a grandma I’m firmly back in family-friendly territory at times. And, although I have a taste for the kitsch and therefore rather like the interior of H&W, I do take his point about the decor – it is a tad busy. Anyway – read on – see what you think …
Fine dining – or a dog’s dinner? Wichelstowe eateries provide food for thought
At the heart of the recently-opened Hall & Woodhouse bar-restaurant on the north bank of the Wilts & Berks Canal, in the as-yet-mostly-unbuilt ‘Canalside’ area of Wichelstowe, South Swindon, sits a barge.
We’ll get to the inside later, but from the outside, its prow pointing proudly to the north, it looks like nothing so much as one of those RNLI collection boxes you used to see in pubs and sub-post offices. You half-expect a celestial hand to emerge from the clouds, clutching a giant 10p piece which, when dropped through a slot in the pub’s roof, will cause the narrowboat to shoot forth, launching itself into the car park.
But sadly the barge is high and dry, and going nowhere. Could the same fate ultimately lie in store for this new venue?
Not for the time being, certainly. Shortly after it opened, my partner and I called in at Hall & Woodhouse for a drink. Like many, we’d watched it going up; weekly shopping trips to Waitrose, on the canal’s south bank, kept us up to speed with progress. So we were curious to see the finished article.
As was most of the rest of Swindon it seemed, that Saturday afternoon the joint was rammed. No matter – we found a space at the bar, ordered a couple of beers, and I struck up a conversation with the barman that went something like this:
Me: “Congratulations – you must be delighted! Place is heaving…”
Barman: “Thanks. We haven’t stopped for a minute – but hey. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Me: “I know it’s early days, but word is the food here’s great…”
Barman: “Yeah – better than the bloody Bayberry.” This with something between a smile and a sneer. A snile? A smeer?
Me: “That so? Apples and oranges, surely?”
Barman (smeer now more of a snarl. Smarl. Whatever): “Yeah – we’re gonna wipe the floor with that dump. We’re great, the Bayberry’s rubbish. Fact.”
As I say, something like that.
As we leaned against another bit of bar – the seating all very much taken – I pondered the barman’s words. I couldn’t – and still can’t – see the comparison. But since he insisted on making one, I thought: let’s give him a hand.
Built to slake the thirst and fill the tummies of the denizens of the then newly-built East Wichel, the Bayberry boasts all the atmosphere and olde-worlde charm of an airport departure lounge: nondescript pine furniture atop a swirly maroon carpet, in a pub that’s probably too big for the constituency it was built to serve.
As you enter, leading away to your left towards the far-distant loos is arrayed a mixture of benches, booths and traditional table-and-chair configurations; some or all of which, depending on the time of day, are apparently the playground of choice for a kind-of rolling parent-and-toddler group. Personally, my window of tolerance for little ones clanged shut when my own ones were no longer little, but then I’m not a very nice or tolerant person. For the Bayberry, I guess it’s a customer base of sorts – though I can’t imagine a very lucrative one.
Immediately ahead and to the right is a lounge-y drinking-and-eating area, while beyond a rather half-hearted partition lies a more restaurant-like zone. Parking is ample, and there is a small garden, though no pretty planting, nor views to speak of.
Not exactly a place of pilgrimage, then. And yet…and yet… and yet… the Bayberry has found what H&W hasn’t: a niche.
As well as being child-friendly, it has earned a place in its community. Short on character it may be; but the pub is not trying to be anything it isn’t. The staff are smiley and welcoming, the range of drinks is as extensive as you’d expect, the beer is well kept and reasonably priced. And while I don’t suppose the good folks of East Wichel love the Bayberry – it’s not been there long enough to love – I’ll wager they’d rather have it there than not.
And then there’s the food – and this is where mine host at Hall & Woodhouse got it wrong. The food at the Bayberry is not haute cuisine, not ‘fayn dayning’, because it doesn’t have to be. What it is, is decent, and cheap. H&W might be on a mission to take pub gastronomy to a new level, and good luck with that; but the Bayberry is where Wichelstowers, South Swindonites and Wroughtonistas go to feed their faces when they can’t be bothered to cook. A couple dining at the Bayberry can get on the outside of dinner and drinks, and walk away with change from £20.
Which won’t get you far at Hall & Woodhouse. But this is not – or not only – about price. It’s just as much about a venue attempting to forge an identity. A new venue. A parvenu venue. (Sorry.) (NB: parvenu: upstart, social climber etc.)
And, at first glance, failing. Propping up my bit of bar that Saturday, eyes smarting slightly from the frantically overdecorated interior of this brave new boozer, I donned my Wayfarers and looked about me.
Lordy – if ever somewhere is trying too hard, this is surely it. It’s as though the board of H&W have hired an interior design company, said “fill your boots,” and the designers have done just that. Nowhere, but nowhere, have they held back. According to H&W’s own website, this venue is “designed around the Woodhouse family and their interests and passions” – in which case, the clan’s interests and passions are eclectic, eccentric, extensive and in no way suited to being confined to a space such as this. The place is a migraine-inducing riot.
Then there’s that barge, the middle and stern-end of which invade H&W’s interior.
The side is cut away in a manner which brings to mind a Haynes Motoring Manual. But instead of the inner workings of a 1978 Ford Granada, observers can instead feast their eyes on Hall & Woodhouse’s ‘party space’, a pub-within-a-pub with (worryingly) its own beer taps and optics. In here H&W patrons can host their own 21st-birthday celebrations, wedding receptions, wakes, bar mitzvahs and so on.
No problem with that – but when I host a party, I prefer to do so without onlookers peering in through my windows. Which perhaps says more about me and my soirees than I would wish. But partying for an audience? Not for me.
And then there’s the food. I’ve not eaten at H&W, but my partner has, following that first visit. Her verdict? Fine, but not great. Not as great as it wants to be, anyway – and not great enough to justify the slightly-too-high prices. To be clear, nothing is a rip-off; but everything is a couple of quid more than it should be.
And it’s all ever-so-slightly desperate. Hall & Woodhouse have apparently spent £5m on this place – but it fronts onto a canal that, unless and until it gets renovated, is currently just a long pond, leading nowhere. Mooring posts await pleasure craft that can’t get there, never mind tie up.
Meanwhile, of the 4,000 Canalside homes for which H&W is supposed to be a centrepiece, there is little sign as yet. Diggers are digging, certainly; but surely that whole project must be in some doubt (or at least undergoing revision) now that both Honda and BMW are packing their bags and leaving town. So there it sits in splendid isolation, surrounded by unsightly earthworks and stockpiled building materials.
At the moment, the shiny new H&W remains busy, and tables for dinner are booked weeks or months ahead. I hope it stays that way – and that the dust is allowed to settle, that the canal gets redug, that the promised new homes get constructed, and that Hall & Woodhouse matures into the kind of convivial yet upmarket pub-cum-eatery that Swindon deserves. A destination gastropub, drawing punters from the locale (once it’s built) but also from further afield – by road, or waterway. But whatever happens, H&W and its people need to relax.
And stop worrying about competition where it doesn’t exist.
29th August 2018
The Baker’s Community Café
It’s been sometime in the coming – you know how it is with building works – it always takes longer and costs more than you think. But at last it’s open and getting underway and, best thing of all, it’s a lovely bit of good news for Swindon’s heritage and the railway village conservation area.
What am I talking about listeners? The Baker’s Community café of course.
From guns to buns
Or as suggested on social media:
From riot to quiet
From thugs to mugs
I’m pretty ignorant of the history of this ex railway village pub, but it seems it had a reputation for being ‘a bit rough’ – to understate the case. As this article in the Swindon Advertiser explains:
‘The Bakers Arms will reopen as a community café this week after a makeover that saw builders rip out moulding bar and restore historic fireplaces in the 150-year-old pub.
It will prove a major reversal of fortune for the Emlyn Square pub, which was once a source of anti-social behaviour and ire for residents.
In December 2011, police raided the Bakers Arms and found a shotgun and a large amount of what officers suspected was cocaine. The pub was closed three months later after a review by the council’s licensing panel. .. ‘
Huge congrats to everyone at the Mechanics’ Institute Trust – I’m sure it will be great asset to the central area and to Swindon as a whole. Goodness knows Swindon’s heritage areas need some uplift. So this is super welcome.
Find them on social media:
11th March 2018
Eggelicious – E3
Eggelicious Ash Mistry holding a Tim Carroll painting of the Tented Market
Eggelicious – or E3 as the incarnation in The Crossing in the Brunel Centre is called was an early post on this blog: https://swindonian.me/2013/05/31/a-cracking-good-place/
There are couple of others too but that one is the first one. Ive been thinking for a while that I needed to do something to refresh that particular situation. But you know how it is listeners – life and business etc gets in the way.
So what I’ll do instead is share this rather nice blog post from Josh Layton on his Much Ado about Warwickshire blog:
Mother’s Day goes vegan at poetry-inspiring wrap stop
‘Morning prep is underway as I arrive at Swindon’s favourite toasted wrap joint, with ingredients red, green and yellow being gently sliced and heated behind the counter.
Pulling up a stool at the slender counter, I have a front-row view of the open kitchen where owner Ash has full pans of spinach and lamb on the hob. The Asian influence is much in evidence with coriander, dill and ginger among the herbs and spices I can discern.
Eggelicious has the mantra ‘slow food fast’, and it’s this careful prep work that gives the toasted bundles the wholesome pep that have put the name on the map … ‘
Eggelicious started life in the tented market in the town centre. It then expanded into Wood Street in Old Town. Now with the demise of the town centre market hall, E3 is open for business in the Brunel Centre food court. Ash and his crew serve food for meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Everyone is catered for.
If you’re feeling social here’s Eggelicious out in the ether:
4th October 2017
The Thistle Express launches in Swindon
It’s good to see what was – many years ago – the Wiltshire hotel and latterly The Thistle, back in use as the Thistle Express. It’s in a super fab location for sure. Literally a spit from the railway and bus stations and the town centre. The Kimmerfields car park is just across the road and only a further little spit up to Regent Circus and the Cineworld cinema and eateries up there. What you might call at the heart of things.
I have an opportunity to try the place out soon so I’ll report back on that soon. I look forward to the bottomless breakfast. It sounds good to me! In the meantime, the official press release follows to give you a feel for the place.
‘Thistle Express is aimed at the savvy, value-conscious, modern traveller, providing more choice when it comes to booking trips.
The latest addition to the next generation of Thistle hotels in Swindon is opposite the future commercial quarter, ensuring the 95-bedroom hotel is conveniently placed for both business and leisure travellers. It’s the ideal location for guests to drop their bags, head off to that wedding, get ready for their big presentation, or get some well-deserved shut-eye. For those travelling from further afield, Thistle Express Swindon is just an eight-minute walk from the main train station.
The hotel offers fast, free Wi-Fi, bottomless tea and coffee and free breakfast for all guests.
Smart TVs in every bedroom allows those staying to stream their own content, along with blackout curtains and Hypnos mattresses for a good night’s sleep. Guests can fuel up for the day with the hotel’s delicious, free buffet breakfast, offering a selection of hot food as well as lighter continental options of fresh fruit, yoghurt and pastries. And with no need to check out, Thistle Express is turning the traditional hotel experience on its head.
The unique interior concept has been beautifully executed by Faber Design who recently created the Formula 1 R&D Centre, now used as the new headquarters for a leading Formula 1 motorsport company.
Thistle Express Swindon’s General Manager, James Preece, says; “As the latest addition to the Thistle Express family, I am delighted to be a part of the team here in Swindon. We’ve got a great team lined up, all of which are local to Swindon, and we’re all excited to welcome our first guests this autumn.”
Neil Gallagher, CEO at glh hotels says, “We are very proud to be extending our new Thistle Express brand. With increasing investment going into Swindon and the surrounding area and the new shopping hub and commercial quarter opening, we’re ready to welcome guests to this new, modern hotel. We listened to our customers and responded to the demand for a value proposition with fantastic amenities, such as free Wi-Fi, which is crucial to all guests regardless of the purpose of their stay.” ‘
Photography by Brydn Webb (c)
Launch Group 37284 Thistle Express , Swindon.
Ribbon Cutting, Swindon Mayor, Maureen Penny with Neil Gallagher, CEO GLH Hotels.
Launch Group 37284 Thistle Express , Swindon.
Team with Neil Gallagher (Right) CEO GLH Hotels.
29th September 2017
The Core Juice Bar Swindon
Last weekend saw the 4th annual sausage and ale trail around Old Town. This is, it has to said, a rather splendid event.
It’s a great opportunity to undertake a gastronomic tour round the participating pubs, bars, coffee shops and stalls. It’s also great fun if you do it with friends – as I did. Cos then you can share lots of different burgers/bangers/fish stew etc. Even better. And that’s exactly what I did with my good mate Carole Bent and her friend Muriel. The photos below are Carole’s – she has a good eye for a photo I think. Unlike me.
From the Core’s website:
‘We serve delicious, fresh juices and smoothies that are made to order every time. All the ingredients are juiced and blended right in front of you, so you can be sure that the nutrient content is at its absolute peak for you to enjoy. For anyone not in the mood for juice, then we also have a wide variety of hot drinks, including: teas, herbal teas and freshly ground coffee.’
Kris Talikowski founder of The Core
Now I have to be honest here listeners and tell you that I would probably prefer to eat my own feet than embark on a juice programme. It’s really not for me. I have to confess to being a die hard meat eater. That said, committed carnivore that I am, I can be tempted by an occasional vegetarian or even vegan dish. And The Core has some delicious offerings in that department.
Only a few days ago I had a meeting in there over lunch time and enjoyed a rather delicious avocado on toast. Rather than being smashed, as is usual, it was arranged in beautiful slices and was tasty indeed.
For the sausage and ale trail this year The Core offered a vegetarian burger. Come on – that’s surely an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms at least? 🙂 From the Collins English Dictionary:
‘A burger is a flat round mass of minced meat or vegetables, which is fried and often eaten in a bread roll.’ As opposed to a resident of Hamburg that is …
Not that I’ve any clear idea of how else you’d describe such a beastie. A pattie perhaps?
Anyway, Be all that as it may – I have to say that it was totally scrumptious. So scrummy in fact that I would love to have another one – all to myself this time! Who’d a thought it?
Here I am diving into it with some gusto and relish!
So, my personal reservations about juicing aside, there’s lots of epicurean attractions for me at The Core. And that’s nice!
Well done Kris and your team. The offerings at The Core are a great complement to the other other refreshment stops in both Old Town and the town centre. And YES – there’s some great food and great coffee down the hill too! #justsaying