The Five Bells Inn, in the quiet Kent village of East Brabourne, surely boasts one of the prettiest approaches of any pub in the southern counties. Steer a bucolic route down narrow country roads, over the rolling hills of the North Downs, and you’re met with a 16th century hostelry, its monochrome paintwork embellished with rows of cheery red and pink geraniums, each lined up in miniature battalions of little terracotta pots.
Unsurprisingly, you’re unlikely to have such prettiness to yourself. When we arrive, on a Friday evening, there isn’t a single parking slot left so we promptly turn around and drive off to find a space on the street (next time we’d consider going by train: from London it’s less than 40 minutes’ ride to Ashford, a 20-minute taxi ride from the pub).
Inside the pub, it’s as packed and buzzy as the car park suggests, with a super-cosy vibe. Part of a trio of pubs owned by Ramblinns in the North Downs region (the other two are The Woolpack Inn, in Warhorne, and The Globe Inn, at Marsh in Rye), this one caters both to dedicated regulars and down-from-London weekenders looking for a bit of country comfort.
The food at The Five Bells Inn
The bar sets a foodie tone, with its deli-style display of local cheeses and hams – and a long list of local beers, wines and spirits. But while the bar menu covers many bases, from burgers to fish pies, we headed next door to a separate restaurant area.
Here lighting was low and candlelit, casting an atmospheric shadow across the room’s wooden tables, and the hops cascading from exposed beams above. The same all-day menu (think posh pub classics) is available at all the Ramblinns but each property also has an additional menu exclusive to its own kitchen.
Choosing from a bank of blackboards, in all shapes and sizes, we started with a smoked ham hock terrine, super-soft yet slightly crunchy Scotch eggs, a creamy mint purée with pea shoots and miniature crispy pork scratchings (somewhat reminiscent of French Fries crisps).
We followed this with freshly caught, pan-fried Dungeness plaice; this was well seasoned and came with buttery new potatoes and roast cherry tomatoes. Plus a locally sourced rib-eye steak, packed with flavour, that came with hand-cut chips and a rich blue cheese sauce. Beware: portions are very generous.
To finish we ordered a velvety white chocolate panna cotta topped with raspberry compote and served with a crunchy slice of vanilla shortbread, plus a syrupy warm berry almond crumble, with an extra thick dollop of vanilla ice cream.
The drink at The Five Bells Inn
As well as the usual spirits, local wines and beer, the bar stocks an impressive range of 45 gins, seven of them local (here’s our guide to the best British gins). Each gin has a recommended tonic and garnish to match; we opted for Brighton gin with orange peel and Hoxton with grapefruit, both with fever tree tonic.
The wine menu stretches to both Old and New World wines; the former includes local Kent wine Biddenden Ortega but we opted for a French Pinot Noir – Le Fou 2012 – mellow with hints of honey.
There are four bedrooms at the inn, each a spin on the contemporary-rustic theme, with it’s own individual style. Each one is also named after well-known local grapes and hops: Fuggle, Golding, Ortega and Bacchus.
We stayed in Ortega. It’s the largest room, with a comfy double bed, but soft lighting, a wood-burning stove, a supply of Chegworth Valley fruit juices and classical music playing from the vintage radio make us feel instantly at home. In one half of the room is a well-stacked bookshelf and a pillowy corner sofa. The other half leads through to a spacious bathroom equipped with a gleaming copper bath tub, and his ‘n’ hers sinks.
In the morning we were gently greeted by a knock on the door at 9am, the time we’d stated we’d like our morning cappuccinos and papers delivered. Sitting in bed, sipping our coffees with a view of the Downs, was a real highlight.
The breakfast at The Five Bells Inn
Breakfast is served until 11am (12 on a Sunday) so you can enjoy those coffees and papers at your leisure. Breakfast is laid out, farmhouse-style, on rustic boards. Take your pick of freshly baked croissants and bread, homemade granola, berry compotes, Kent-produced marmalade and raspberry jam and Chegworth Valley juices (apple and strawberry, and blackberry on the morning we were there). If you have a day of walking ahead of you, you can also add on all manner of hot breakfasts, from thick bacon sarnies to bubble and squeak with local pork sausages.
A 40-minute drive brings you to the cobbled streets of Rye, and its many antique shops. We did just that, stopping for a lunch of king prawns, Dungeness plaice and mackerel fishcakes (the latter fresh from the harbour in Rye) and nutty pistachio ice cream at Five Bells sister restaurant The Globe. Plus glasses of apple-y Chapel Down sparkling wine and house ale Hookers and Lookers (Looker is a local word for shepherd).
Another 12 minutes’ drive along the coast brings you to the village of Camber, and its famous beach (one of very few sandy beaches on this stretch of coast). Or head out in the opposite direction and it’s 40 minutes’ drive to Canterbury. However, you don’t need to get in the car to enjoy this corner of Kent. Right on the doorstep are great walks (the inn was once a stopping point along the Pilgrims Way) around the North Downs, as well as farmers’ markets, cafes and historic sites.
Double rooms at The Five Bells Inn cost from £120 per night, b&b (fivebellsinnbrabourne.com)
Words by Amanda James
Photographs by Amanda James, The Five Bells Inn