Surrey may not seem like an obvious weekend break destination, but 45 minutes by train from London and you’re surrounded by verdant countryside and chocolate-box villages. Dating back to the 16th century, The Running Horses sits in the centre of Mickleham, on the Old London Road, and was once a popular stables for horses running at Epsom. Although it’s owned by a large brewery and has recently undergone a renovation, the pub has retained much of its cosy, period charm, with a roaring fireplace in the main bar, lots of exposed beams and character features. It’s clearly loved by the local community – both the bar and restaurant were packed on the dreary Saturday night in winter when we visited.
The kitchen here is focused on traditional, rustic dishes, with seasonality and local produce at the forefront. The lunch menu changes daily and offers all the pub classics you’d expect (pie of the day, burgers, sausage and mash) with some more unexpected dishes (caramelised onion tart tatin with mild, crumbly Dirty Vicar cheese from Norbury Park Farm, Surrey’s only cheese-maker).
Dinner is a touch more refined. Food is still served in the bar during the evenings, but the wood-paneled dining room is more comfortable (the bar gets very busy). If you can, book one of the cosy booths with stylish zinc tables and luggage racks. The effect is a bit like being in the dining car of a classic train. The menu includes starters such as twice baked cheddar soufflé with grain mustard and spinach, and meltingly thin slices of beef carpaccio with rocket, caperberries and truffle oil. The star of the meal, however, was wood pigeon wellington with hot pickled red cabbage; crisp, flaky pastry encasing beautifully cooked, rich, gamey pigeon.
Our main of succulent lamb was served studded with rosemary alongside grilled vegetables and salty nuggets of olive. While the meat was clearly exceptional quality the fondant potato didn’t come up to scratch, more baked than the buttery richness that we were expecting. Perfectly pink seasonal duck breast was served with a luxurious roast parsnip mash, winter greens and sharp redcurrants.
The portions here are very generous so we were going to forgo dessert but our charming and attentive waiter wasn’t having any of it, and managed to persuade us to try the sticky toffee pudding (a reliable classic) and a gooey but light hot chocolate mousse with sharp, intensely-flavoured raspberry sorbet. No regrets there.
There’s a good selection of cask ales on offer, including seasonal guest ales and Dead Heat Derby, a golden ale exclusive to The Running Horses. The wine list is more extensive than you might expect from a pub of this size but offers a solid, well-priced selection focusing on the classic regions.
The pub’s five bedrooms are each named after famous racecourses. We stayed in Ascot, decorated in chic muted grey-greens and cream with original paneling, dark beams, a bathroom complete with roll-top bath and the now-obligatory Nespresso machine. Though the tartan carpet might not be to everyone’s taste, the huge bed was marshmallow-soft and we appreciated the views of the pretty village church when we pulled back the curtains in the morning.
It might be short but the breakfast menu offers all the usual suspects (eggs royal, an excellent full English and smoked kippers) plus a healthy option of yogurt with fresh apple, mixed nuts and raisins.
Denbies wine estate is just down the road. You can book in for tours of the vineyards and wine tastings and stop off at its farm shop. The pub is also a stone’s throw from Box Hill, a favourite cycling hill climb. If you make it to the top (however you choose to tackle it), you can reward yourself with spectacular views, plus tea and cake, at the National Trust café.
Double rooms at The Running Horses start from £110 per night, b&b (therunninghorses.co.uk). More info: visitsurrey.co.uk