This post forms an exception to a general rule, that this blog only covers the borough of Swindon, rather than extending into Wiltshire.
But I enjoyed this place so much that I decided to break my own rules. Not to be confused with Sarson’s the vinegar people, Sarsens restaurant in Marlborough is wonderful! Or at any rate myself and my companions thought so. And anyway, it turned out that one of the chefs grew up around the corner from where I live in Grange Park. So if the chef is from Swindon that’s enough of a link for me!
Visiting the restaurant was the idea of my friend and client Sandra. In her business capacity as Fabulous Functions UK – and more about them here– she had one of her Instagram posts ‘liked’ by Sarsens. We’d been looking for somewhere to go shortly before Christmas – but fittingly enough most places we tried had no room at the inn. As it were. But we got lucky with Sarsens. Oh boy did we?!
And we’d have known nothing about them had they not liked Sandra’s Instagram post. Proof positive of the power of social media.
Sarsens restaurant and baris almost a year old. It’s co-owned by Nathan, the chef I spoke of and Connor, who is front of house. They’re on Marlborough High Street – at the end near St Peter’s Church. Good to know what with Marlborough having a rather long High Street!
What they are is a British small plates restaurant. They serve plates designed for sharing that, as their website says, showcases seasonal, local and sustainable produce. Just as important as the delicious food in this eatery, is that the welcome is warm and the service exemplary.
We really can’t praise them enough.
As you can see from the footnote on the flyer, they won the Marlborough in Bloom best commercial garden award. On a night in December we were unable to see it – such a shame. But still! A reason to go back to Sarsens Restaurant Marlborough when the nights are lighter eh?
Not that one needs an excuse – we found the food sublime. All of it – everything we had – it was all consistently amazing. One of the plates we had was turkey. No Ghandi’s flip flop here! Oh it was so moist and so tender. It was to die for. As was the duck. And the salmon. And everything TBH.
There now follows – to give you a flavour (Ha!) of the decor and the food, a few photographs. I loved the glass panel/divider – from a cafe in France. That is gorgeous.
You may remember the Weighbridge Brewhouse under the management of the people from the Three Crowns at Brinkworth. It’s USP was that it was the same format as the Three Crowns: no starters, large plates of meat, tons of veg and lots of cream and butter. It was the closest thing that Swindon had to Fayn Dayning – though it wasn’t really. I loved it – though these days my digestive system is less enamoured of rich sauces. The desire is strong but the gut is weak.
Anyway – you have to now forget all that.
Cutting a long story short, new management took over the Weighbridge and it all went horribly wrong. Details not needed – suffice to say it went pear-shaped. So the owners, the Upham Group,decided to take stock, do a Fagin, and think it out again.
The place has been refurbed both inside and out. The front courtyard is now astro-turfed and equipped with some super luxus outdoor dining furniture. A mixture of stylish bench seating and tables, chairs and cushions. All with huge parasols. It’s rather smart. I had my eye on the plant pots on the table I admit.
The astroturfed outdoor dining area at the restaurant.
While indoors, they’ve reupholstered the seating and installed these rather funky illuminated tress. Possibly slightly kitsch? But I love kitsch. It’s a cavernous place is the Weighbridge so they do fill the space and add atmosphere. Overall a big thumbs up.
How do I know all this?
Well, as part of their thinking it out again process, the management decided to do some dry runs, with invited guests, to try it all out and – crucially – ask for feedback, before they unleash themselves upon the public. And I , and five fortunate pals, were blessed with an invite. I now feel guilty that the building is not included in Swindon in 50 Buildings… I couldn’t get them all in … sorry …
What were our impressions?
Overall: really good. We’ll definitely go back.
Between us we picked a good cross-section of stuff from the menu. Again overall we were delighted but there were a few niggles – duly fed back at the end of the evening. Someone ordered a quinoa salad which was rather more green than quin … someone else felt that the lobster should have had a sauce and new potatoes rather than fries. While others in the group were delighted with their choices. I for one was happy to see a chimichurri dressing for steak alongside the usual cream sauce and pepper sauce. The sharing dessert platter got rave reviews and the sharing starters platter was also rather nice,
So a bit inconsistent – and needs sorting out. But nothing that would stop us going back.
Also fed back to them was to have low-level table centrepieces rather than tall vases. Nice touch to have them, but it got in the way of our view across the table. After we’d shifted it around umpteen times, Sandra, owner of Fabulous Functions UK and someone who knows a thing or two about table centrepieces, snapped off most of the stalks to create a lovely low arrangement that we could all see over.
Note to management – you’d do a lot worse than speak to Sandraabout these things. #justsaying
So that’s it for the negatives. To pick out the positives of the experience:
a. We loved the new look – both inside and out. b. It’s an interesting menu that will have seasonal variations c. It has a lovely outside eating area – few and far between in Swindon d. There’s lots of good places to eat in Swindon but they’re mostly … casual …what the Weighbridge represents is somewhere to go for something a bit special. e. ABOVE ALL what impressed me was that the management are making a huge effort to put right what evidently went wrong. Kudos to them for that. And I think that deserves our support.
So if you’re one of those that went there in recent weeks and months and weren’t happy – give it another go. They’re working super hard to get it right.
‘Our building used to be a Weighbridge! At the turn of the industrial revolution Weighbridges were used in station yards and at railway depots to weigh goods before they were sent onto their destinations.
Our building is pretty big as it had to be able to house massive amounts of freight. It was nearly derelict when it was purchased and renovated and now is a fantastic dining space with room for 120 downstairs and 30 on our mezzanine level which houses a beautiful glass piano.’
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’.
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.