The Bath Arms
Reviewed by Em Marshall-Luck
The Bath Arms is tucked away in the sleepy village of Horningsham, near Warminster, in a handsome two-hundred year old stone building that commands a view of the village green, flanked by twelve 380 year-old lime trees and surrounded by thatched cottages, well-maintained hedges and flowering magnolias. Although a hub of the closely-knit local community, the pub is a hotel as well, with seventeen rooms split between the upstairs, and what was originally the stable block outside. All rooms are individually furnished, many of them with Eastern themes. We were in Raja, in the old stables (and thus open to the rafters and ceiling beams), which was a cool and meditative room with a colour scheme of beige and brown – the lighter furnishings contrasting the dark wood of the furniture and carpet. The room is dominated by the large and comfortable bed, with a wooden frame, and a rather lovely huge wooden exotic wardrobe, both these items of furniture appearing more Javanese than anything else in origin. The ever-welcome presence of Buddhas further the Eastern feeling of the room, with a large Buddha-head picture above the bed, and several statues adorning the room. An ornately iron framed day-bed had been made up for Tristan; French windows meanwhile opened up out of the room onto a courtyard. The bathroom needed only a monsoon shower, underfloor heating and pillar candles to be the epitome of opulent luxury – as it is, even without these items, the room is sumptuous, with a slate floor, elaborately-carved wooden tables, a raised, free-standing roll-top bath, and an old, chunky, studded door set into arches that wouldn’t look at all out place in a temple in Thailand. Behind our room – no reflection upon the occupants, we hoped! – were the pigs – a big hit with Tristan despite their somnambulant state.
The pub / restaurant is broken up into several different rooms, each fairly small, thus creating pleasantly intimate atmospheres. Candles on the table and warm wall lighting enhances the pleasantly enveloping feel, and decoration is sensitive to the age of the building, with wainscoting painted a very light warm grey; cream walls and old parchment-style engravings on the walls. Furniture is rustic – with undressed wooden tables, distressed metal or solid wooden chairs and some banquette seating. We were seated in a window bay, overlooking a little terrace outside with tables, and the green beyond.
Menus were brought swiftly, along with a bottle of tap water – although mineral water was brought on request. The food is all locally-produced and high in quality; the menu is broken up into several nibbles, and around six-eight starters, pub classics (including a Horningsham rarebit that I found hard to resist), mains, sides and desserts. Several specials were chalked up on a board. The wine list is likewise relatively short, but also impressive, with a good range of countries, wine varieties and prices represented. We went for an old favourite, in Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel 2013 – a warm, rich wine full of woodland flavours and dark berry fruits.
Bread then appeared, along with a saucer of very fresh and grassy olive oil and another of balsamic vinegar. The bread – freshly baked, like everything here – was a rather wonderful board of red wine and treacle bread, poppy seed rolls, a rather delicious soda bread, beer bread and rosemary foccacia. Extremely impressive.
My starter of asparagus set the scene for a fashionable (or “on trend” as the cringely ugly current phrase would have it) meal. Three fresh and flavoursome spears of asparagus were accompanied by a “panacotta” of a fresh, spring-like taste, with quail’s eggs (excellent), 36-month old parmesan and edible flowers. Tristan really adored the panacotta (after I’d cleared the quails eggs and edible flowers) and wolfed it down. My husband was less impressed with his wood pigeon with black pudding, which he found perfectly adequate, but not especially distinguished.
For my main, I chose the whole Dover sole and was pleased to have this offered either with or without bones (and went for the latter, especially in view of Tristan sharing the dish). It was served with onions of different varieties, samphire (which was an obvious but excellent accompaniment – the delightful contrast in texture and the salty flavour complementing the fish well) and a delicious seaweed hollandaise. The fish itself was very delicately flavoured yet was too lightly cooked, resulting in a firmness rather than tenderness of flesh. Yet again, however, Mr Marshall-Luck had less of a positive experience with his steak. He had requested that it be cooked medium, but it arrived more medium-rare (to be fair, this wasn’t the first time he has encountered this recently: there does seem to have been a ‘recalibration’ of steak cooking in the last couple of years – analogous to the resizing of wine glasses). He was also disappointed with the flavour, which he found a little lacking, and the texture of the meat, which he pronounced slightly stringy and chewy. It should be noted, however, that he is rather fussy when it comes to steaks!
The desserts were superb – a chocolate moussey dish was very rich and yet not cloying; and the panacotta (although actually more akin to a crème caramel) was extremely smooth and wonderfully flavoured. Both were very popular with young Tristan (after we’d put the accompanying cider sorbet beyond sampling – this being a delightfully crisp-tasting and refreshing item)!
As usual, I had problems resisting the goats’ cheese. This was strongly flavoured, and went well with the slightly sweet oat cakes, yet I was disappointed by the pointless celery, which was thinly shaved, thus entirely losing the complementary crunch of texture and the depth of contrasting flavour.
Service was exemplary – our waitress was friendly and welcoming, whilst remaining professional and polite. She checked that everything was fine with our meal on a regular basis but was never intrusive, and she was wonderful with Tristan, taking him off to see the bar and meet locals and visit other rooms. The staff were also extremely accommodating and helpful about our taking desserts and tea and coffee back to our room.
The next morning, breakfast was served in the largest of the dining rooms, a spacious room with elegant wall paper, carved stone fireplace with trefoil detailing and heavy antique chandeliers that rather dominate the ceiling space. A colourful replica painting of a Western noble dressed in sumptuous Eastern costume with a bird of prey on hand focuses the eye and is the only painting in the room; other decoration is provided by jewel-like glass peacock lightshades. Rough wooden floorboards and undressed wooden tables and chairs provide a rustic contrast to the elegance. A buffet provides pastries, cereals and juices, and a comprehensive menu provides hot options – I opted for hard boiled eggs (which came as hard as I had requested); while my husband and Tristan shared scrambled eggs and smoked salmon.
On the whole, ours was a pleasant, convivial and relaxed stay; in a lovely room, with some excellent food and impressively good service. Most certainly recommended.