As a predominantly rural branch West Berkshire CAMRA is blessed with some excellent country pubs. Among them is the Five Bells at Wickham, voted the Central Southern England Pub of the Year for 2014, which earned it a spot in the top 16 pubs nationwide. Naturally it’s been on the Fueled by Beer radar for some time; this past weekend we braved the wilds of Wickham to check it out…
The Five Bells is part of INNformal Pub Co and is home to INNformal Brewery whose 2½ BBL plant is housed in a purpose-built brewhouse in the garden behind the pub. The brewing kit, which previously saw service with Two Cocks Brewery, receives pure Berkshire Downs water via a dedicated borehole drilled down to the chalk aquifer below.
In addition to the Five Bells at Wickham, INNformal has a pub in Hungerford: the John O’ Gaunt Inn located a short walk from the train station. It was here that INNformal Brewery originally started on a tiny ½ BBL kit which is now being used at the Five Bells for test batches and very small brews. The main brewery, which is fired up on alternate Saturdays, is still very small scale producing up to 700 pints per brewing session. This is just enough to keep a couple of cask ales and maybe a keg going on the bars at both pubs; and to have some bottled beer available for sale at the pubs and at the Inn at Home shop in Newbury.
On the day of our visit there was a very respectable lineup of nine cask ales on hand pump and three craft keg beers on tap including three INNformal brews (2 cask, 1 keg); plus eight real ciders were available too. For the non-CAMRA inclined there is a good selection of wines, single-malt whiskies and other spirits so this is very much a destination pub worth dedicating a trip to regardless of your favourite tipple. For food times check the website.
By the end of our visit we had sampled almost the entire board with 6 oz tasters and as you would expect, with this number of cask ales on at once, there were varying levels of condition however everything was good and nothing had reached the point of needing to be replaced – kudos to the pub’s cellarmanship. The pub is CAMRA LocAle and Cask Marque accredited.
The only downside that warrants a mention—and it’s a nit-pick—is the location of the pub out in the boonies; you really need a car to get there. To be fair there is a bus service (Newbury-Lambourn #4 – download timetable); it passes the pub on weekdays and Saturdays (no Sunday service) but its frequency is so limited as to make it impractical. At least the bus makes it theoretically possible to travel in accordance with the Fueled by Beer ethos but I have to concede that most people will choose to drive there. With this in mind it may only be practical for non-locals if a trip combines some tasting at the pub, maybe a meal if the kitchen is open; and some local walking around Wickham—which is what we did and would recommend to others.
The nearby parish church of St Swithun is well worth a visit. Occupying the site of Wickham’s original Roman settlement, a waystation or ‘Vicus’ on the Ermin Way, the earliest church was founded by Caedwalla, King of Wessex, in 686 AD. Today’s church features an 11th century Saxon tower, the oldest in Berkshire. The interior, though considerably younger, has some really interesting features making a visit worthwhile.
For history buffs among us it is fascinating to note that the main street through Wickham is still Ermin Way. In Roman times it was the the main road from Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) to Corinium Dobunnorum (Cirencester), Glevum (Gloucester) and Isca Silurum (Caerleon). The route is documented in the 3rd century Antonine Itinerary as “Iter XIII” and is still easily followed on modern maps from Wickham along the B4000 to Baydon, continuing through Wanborough and Stratton St Margaret thence to Cirencester on the A419, a distance of 31 miles with virtually no deviation from a straight line.
Another interesting observation is the origin of the place-name “Wickham”. Let’s imagine an Anglo-Saxon at the end of the Roman era, newly arrived on the scene and hearing the locals describe the place by the Latin ‘vic’. To his ear it would be as if they were saying “Wick”. So, when his friends asked him where he’d been, he simply added the suffix “ham”, Old-English for a settlement, then replied “I was at Wick-ham”.