The Castle Inn, West Lulworth, Dorset – hotel review

A couple walk into a bar … and ask for a room. We wonder if the joke is on us when we arrive at the Castle Inn in West Lulworth because the door marked “hotel entrance” is locked. So we trundle our bags into the pub, which is heaving with happy customers on a Saturday afternoon. Eventually, we manage to tell the barmaid we’re here to check in and are steered away towards a tiny reception desk.

Not the slick welcome of a smart hotel, then, but the Castle Inn – once a free house known for muddy dogs and real cider – is now steering a tricky course between country pub and boutique hotel.

“Pub & rooms” is the modest declaration on the outside wall, and it is hard to imagine a more inviting pub. A long, low thatched building, more than 400 years old but freshly whitewashed, with woodwork in duck-egg blue, it sits plum in the middle of the village, at the foot of historic Bindon Hill. Generations of farmers, fishermen and smugglers have sunk flagons of cider here over the centuries but customers these days are mainly day trippers going to Lulworth Cove, half a mile away.

It is this market that Bristol-based Butcombe Brewery had in mind when it took over. A refurb finished last year included smartening up the 12 bedrooms and, to some local dismay, knocking together the ground floor’s dark bars and snugs to make a continuous bar-dining area with plenty of nooks and alcoves.

We have no complaints: returning near dark after a walk round the cove, we settle with drinks and nibbles in one of two alcoves that are so snug you have to lift a hinged flap on the table to slot yourself in. I have a view through an arch to the main bar area, all handsome golden retrievers and moppets rosy-cheeked after a run on the beach. The ceilings are as low as ever, and Mind Your Head signs abound.

Upstairs, things are more boutique hotel, with rooms named after local beauty spots. Ours is decorated in grey and dark greeny-blue with lots of reclaimed wood – design feature du jour – on walls and in the sleek, compact bathroom. (Can there be enough old floorboards in the country to satisfy interior designers. Are they secretly distressing new planks to meet demand?)

We like the big bed, cute two-seater sofa in the bay and fresh milk in a fridge up the corridor. Some features seem to be whimsy for its own sake, though – the desk lamp is a grey ceramic puppy – and the metal cog light fittings are a bit industrial chic for this country setting.

At dinner, it’s back to pub mode. Drinkers stand chatting by the bar, people are playing cards, and there’s no table service. You order drinks and food at a busy counter, collecting cutlery and napkins as you go. The old pub was known for welcoming man’s best friend and that hasn’t changed (six bedrooms are dog-friendly). I’m quite happy when a neighbouring table’s black retriever settles at my feet, though some might prefer a canine-free dining experience.

The grub is high-end pubby: burgers, fish and chips, steak and “flatbread” pizzas. Starters of ham hock terrine studded with peas (£8) and potted chalk stream trout (£7.50) are imaginatively garnished with pickled bits and bobs, and husband’s main of Brixham Bay mussels with coconut milk (£12) is fresh and tasty. But a portion of sticky toffee pudding (£6) is served too tepid to melt the scoop of ice-cream on top.

There’s plenty of heat upstairs, though! The inn’s thatched roof sits like a luxuriant monobrow over the first floor windows and we come to understand the advantages of this quaint feature. Central heating plus that thick hat of straw make the room so toasty we have to open windows to the January night.

At breakfast there’s a return to trendy hotel territory. As well as the full English, there are two fishy and three veggie choices. I eschew the millennials’ favourite of avocado toast and go for excellent black bean hash with peppers, onions, spinach and poached eggs. An establishment with a split personality, then: chic rooms and on-trend breakfast but the offhand (though friendly) service of a busy pub.

However, it’s a good-humoured, affordable bolthole in a gorgeous village walking distance from iconic coastal spots: the Cove is 15 minutes, Durdle Door about 45. And finding such a place in 2019 is no joke.

Accommodation was provided by the Castle Inn, Main Road, West Lulworth, Wareham, Dorset, which has doubles from £80 B&B

Ask a local

Rob Rowe, landscape photographer
Most people stick to the coastline when they come to Lulworth but Dorset also has beautiful inland walks. Park in the main car park in Lulworth, stopping for a takeaway baguette from Finley’s Café (taking in my photography exhibition upstairs). Walk up and over Hambury Tout, following everyone else up the white path, worth it for the panoramic views of the Jurassic coast. At Durdle Door Holiday Park head away from the sea and leave the people behind, go to Daggers Gate then walk across fields and through the valley to Chaldon Herring, where a pint at the friendly Sailor’s Return awaits.

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