Our glorious pub, The Royal Oak in Bishopstone, near Swindon
Walking, eating, drinking, sleeping, talking--five human fundamentals that we try to provide for at our eccentric pub in the middle of the farm in Bishopstone. We like to provide good service, informally. We are slightly scruffy – The Times called us ‘ramshackle’ in the same article that nominated us as their food editor’s second favourite place to eat in the UK, in June 2015. We have decided not to sue the Murdoch empire over this perceived slight. The gently satirical magazine The Oldie described us as a ‘bullshit free zone’ in a deserted countryside, also June 2015. They loved the food, the beer and the welcome. Actually, we’re happy with both descriptions.
At the same time, the comic strip that is Trip Advisor constantly rates us as only the 33rd best place to eat in Swindon, quite some way behind the pizza bars and wrap emporia in Swindon’s haute cuisine town centre, eight miles away. We are happy to be there, and our caustic and occasionally generous TA responses in themselves draw customers to find out who writes them, and to see if they can enrage, and engage, him.
There is no arrogance about this place; we thrive on humility, believe it or not. We’ve never said we’re any good at anything. We just try our best! Our gut instinct, as farmers and publicans, is that if the whole is underpinned by a food as good as we can make it, drinks as clean and beautiful as we can provide them, and service that makes you happy and comfortable, the rest of it is down to us to behave and talk as we feel. We would say that we achieve this state of nirvana about 85% of the time, and you will agree if you like our style. The other 15% is when we make mistakes, we are too bold, or careless, in our offer, or we have failed to train our staff properly. Some people don't like The Royal Oak at all, for reasons we will never be able to solve.
We took this place on as a certifiable dump in November 2006. No heart or soul; no place of any sort on the local community. Our customers were two cheap cider drinkers and a failing darts team that wanted Iceland sausage rolls. Helen Browning and Tim Finney (that's us) thought we could make it work better – for everyone, the farm, the village, the neighbours – and 9 years on, we're starting to make progress. There's still huge amounts to do. Better accommodation – on the way, early 2016; better food – progress all the time, but we're constantly narrowing the box our kitchen works within – more and more local, more and more seasonal, more and more organic. A menu that changes every day, and is unrecognisable from season to season; better children's food – hit and miss, to be honest, but trying; better non alcoholic drinks; and better cocktails of course, we're getting there; clean beers, well brewed. We're tied to Arkells, the 170 year old Swindon brewers, and their beers are better every month after years of stagnation.
Tying the pub to the farm – still lots to do. We’re perfect for walking, biking, running, horse riding, or just lying around. We’ve just got to help you get out there more. Apart from our own (tenanted) 1400 organic acres and 9 miles of boundary, our farm boundaries to the south give access to thousands more acres of open land, criss crossed with paths and bridleways; The Ridgeway runs through us; the glories of pre-historic Wiltshire lie all around us, white horses, burial chambers, hill forts, ley lines if you can feel them.
On the whole, we love our customers, whether they have dogs, kids, muddy boots or soaking wet anoraks; supercars or muddy bicycles; conversation in any week (let's take this week!) can range from the way the British and French split up Syria in the 1920s – to our eternal shame – to the agenda for the British Menopause Society's annual conference, taking in test match cricket, motor racing, the state of The Liberal Party and the welfare of pigs along the way.
Food from the farm – depending on the time of year, our own beef and veal; occasionally our own lamb; always our own pork, and bacon and sausages; our own small allotment occasionally produces some interesting veg. Milk comes via Berkely Farm five miles away – they process Eastbrook’s milk, and we buy it back as pasteurised milk and cream; plus staggeringly yellow butter! 90% of what we cook with is organic, and probably 90% could also be described as local, according to anyone’s definition.
Loved by Good Food Guide, Good Pub Guide, 2009-2015
Alastair Sawdays Special Places, 2009-2015, Gold Award Winner 2010
Michelin Good Food in Pubs, 2009-2015
Waitrose Kitchen; ‘Best place for a family meal’ Dec 2011
The Times Top 50 UK Pubs Jan 2011
The Times: Tony Turnbull's favourite places to eat, June 2015--The Royal Oak, at no 2
New York Times: 'Amazing pork bellies'
Our suppliers – Helen’s the boss, and we obviously use her stuff whenever it is available--don't miss her organic pork and veal; but we also like Laverstoke Park for its buffalo milk products; Butts Farm grass fed beef when our own is in short supply; Sophie Stoye and Dai Wilson's organic lamb; Clive Hill’s mutton; Westmill Organics for the veg; Good Egg Co for most of the eggs; Wing Fish at Newlyn for their careful fish supplies – we trust Rob Wing not to sell us anything endangered, and we chat to him often about his cod policies! Neighbours for their watercress, rhubarb, courgettes, broad beans, runner beans, lettuce--by the wheelbarrow load, sometimes.
Drinks – always 4 superb changing real ales from Arkell’s, including an organic Bees; sometimes ale from Donnington Brewery; organic soft drinks and cordials from Belvoir, Big Tom and others; organic wines from Vintage Roots – huge commendations for their Malbec house red and their glorious Fleury champagne; a superb range of gins (Hendricks, Gordons, Juniper Green, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire) and whiskies, usually at least a dozen blends and malts.
What we’re good at:
Parties – generous, gregarious, noisy, chatty, semi private or public, bespoke. Just ask. From two of you to 45 of you. And garden barbecues if you like, just for you. Our default answer is usually 'yes'.
Sport, cars, literature and politics; we host suppers previewing the major cricket series, and this autumn, the Rugby World Cup; we love writers talking over lunch about their books--there are possibly 250 books and intelligent periodicals in the place to borrow, read, return; we think politics is important, and hosted two events pre this year's election to get the village political blood moving. Classic car days; track days, our own private affairs; occasional music, always local, and surprisingly talented people who want to play here (Pigstock in August is usually fun).
Pig Racing; yes, the world renowned International Pig Racing Festival is held here annually, always the last weekend of May or the first weekend of June. Ten great pigs, one trainer, on line betting, road closures, and beer; a great mix for an entertaining (English) day out. Often as many as 600 people will give up their Sunday to watch this farce!
What we’re not good at:
Parties where lots of people who want sparkling water and a piece of toast after a morning’s walk insist on paying their £4.27 individually by credit card. That’s just cynical of me and I wish I’d never said it.
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