Art gallery canvases and designer wallpaper on the walls of your room, Michelin Bib Gourmand food on your plate; The Duncombe Arms, on the winding road through Staffordshire to the Derbyshire Dales, shows just how far the humble British pub has sometimes travelled.
Although locals pop-in for a drink, a chat and a bite to eat, The Duncombe Arms is a sophisticated local with a national reputation. It is the welcoming local pub that we would all love to have, with its nooks, crannies, open fires and wood-burners. Local artist Wendy Darker has her bold portraits of farmyard animals displayed on the exposed brickwork walls. Only some of us, for such a pub, have to travel a little further than others.
The ten rooms in Walnut House, with their designer good looks and air-conditioning are encroaching on boutique hotel territory. But each of the 10 rooms has tall picture-window-views over Dovedale and Worthy Island Wood that few destinations can compete with.
A decade ago, the Duncombe Arms, built in the 1850s for blacksmiths, coopers farmhands and a dozen lost Victorian trades, was boarded-up and derelict: another sad example of the decline of the British boozer. Every day as she drove past, Laura Greenall, a member of the Duncombe family – and you can study the family tree on the walls of the pub – felt the urge to rescue and revive the pub. So, she and husband Johnny Greenall did just that with the pub opening its doors again in 2012 and another reinvention to follow in 2018 with the couple introducing rooms.
“I had colour charts, wallpaper samples, dozens of swatches of material and hundreds of ideas,” says Laura of her plans to build Walnut House, a barn-conversion style house, appropriately and peacefully separated from the Duncombe Arms by a walnut tree.
Although there’s a rural-chic look to Walnut House, it is firmly rooted in the 21st century with two (free) charging points for electric cars in the adjoining carpark, a security camera and a glass-plate front door that swings open on the touch of a key-card. Victorian novelist George Elliott loved Ellastone and probably used the setting in Adam Bede, her first novel, but she would have been astonished by this contemporary world.
Each of the ten air-conditioned rooms has its own identity. Nameplates on a round of oak, cut at a local saw-milk, proclaim every room’s unique identity. No characterless numbers here, there is Blue Fern, Peony, Shetland plaid, Golden Maple, Green and the particularly restful Hops. Flying Ducks and Game Birds, two reimagined heritage wallpaper designs with colourful touches of Bohemian elegance, are popular with those visiting for a spot of shooting.
Through a Juliet balcony there are glorious bucolic views over the Dove Valley and within a couple of minutes you can be walking past bleating sheep and alongside the babbling River Dove.
After long walks through the Dales, there is a blissfully deep bath to wallow in, tiles are by Fired Earth and the grapefruit, lavender and peppermint toiletries are from Bamford.
Pub food, elevated to new heights, is at the heart of the ever-evolving menus. Jake Boyce, a chef with a dozen years’ experience in London and also as a culinary consultant in Australia, obsesses over sourcing. The delicate golden beetroot comes from a smaller supplier in Ashbourne, his meat supplier has been instructed to rub Himalayan salt into prime beef and hang for precisely 36 days, whilst potatoes are selected from the 100 varieties that Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes offer.
Even pub classics come with an upgrade. Torched mackerel is accompanied by a tangy ponzu sauce and rests on a bed of samphire with the coastal herbs of sea rosemary and oyster leaf, while an immaculately sourced veal chop is seasoned with a touch of garlic, black pepper and thyme.
Johnny Greenall learnt his trade at the family brewery, so The Duncombe Arms has its very own ale and there is also a choice of around 30 gins, 30 whiskies and around 100 wines, many of which are available by the glass.
Ellastone is just six miles from the border of the Peak District. The 13-mile Tissington Trail, along the former Ashbourne to Buxton railway line is just one of many biking and hiking routes, though some antique collectors never get any further than Ashbourne’s antique shops.
Back in Staffordshire, steam enthusiasts enjoy the Churnet Valley Railway and horse racing fans head for Uttoxeter, while gin aficionados can design their own gin on a day at Nelson’s Distillery and School.
Although Alton Towers is Staffordshire’s best-known attraction, the National Arboretum at Alrewas attracts many visitors with the peace of its 150 acres, 25,000 trees and 330 memorials.
In a nutshell
The local pub goes gourmet, the pub with rooms becomes designer tasteful, but is warm and homely, Laura brings in flowers from her garden and waitresses bring in courgettes and tomatoes for the kitchen from theirs. It’s a remarkable, classy Renaissance of a country pub.
Rooms can be booked from £85 pppn.
Address: Main Road, Ellastone, Ashbourne, DE6 2GZ
Phone: 01335 324275
Getting there: The Duncombe Arms is on the B5032 in the picturesque village of Ellastone on the Staffordshire and Derbyshire border, not far from Ashbourne and just three miles from Alton Towers. It can easily be accessed from either Junction 14 or 15 of the M6.