A town pub can go one of two ways. A few weeks ago we found ourselves in London, enjoying a drink in one of the city’s many street-corner hostelries. The Victorian pub was a single small room with a bar, and that was about it. No food was served, everybody stood up, good beer and good cheer all round. This was a novelty for us Island-dwellers.
Fifty years ago, towns on the Isle of Wight, along with most other parts of the country, would have had many such pubs. No longer. With a very few exceptions (on the Island the Volunteer and the Old Comical are examples) town pubs outside of big cities have had to either close down, or start selling food. The Castle Inn, at the top of Newport’s High Street, has adapted itself rather well, managing to keep the undeniable character and ambience of a building which dates back to the thirteenth century, whilst still offering something for drinkers and diners alike. You can guess which of these two aspects we chose to explore.
When we visited, the twin scourges of Veganuary and Dry January had yet to make themselves apparent at this delightful hostelry. Liver and bacon was on the menu and ale was in the pumps. It was not quite Twelfth Night, and the Christmas lights were squeezing out a last twinkle. A real log fire blazed in the grate and the floor was scattered with sequins, presumably remnants of New Year celebrations. We liked the vibe and settled in a cosy corner by the fire.
One of the many cliches of the hospitality industry is the well-worn – we would say out-worn – homily “A warm welcome awaits”, often used by establishments where their lack of imagination might invite the blunt but more informative description, “Indifferent service, ungraciously delivered”. But at the Castle Inn, we can truly say that a warm welcome was what we did indeed receive. Locals standing at the bar greeted us, and our hostess was keen to give us the lowdown on curry night which, as it happens was that night. “Choose your meat and choose your heat!” she said. An excellent invitation and one Matt decided to take her up on. For an extra quid he accessorised his curry with naan bread.
The ladies on the table next to us had got in a fluster about curry night. One was perplexed by the multitude of choices, “I chose my meat but I don’t think I chose my heat!” Her companion was having none of it: “Don’t be ridiculous Karen!”. To our amusement, this dismissal was followed by, “Shut your curtains, lassy!”
Obviously curry night is a popular attraction here, and when Matt’s bowl turned up he understood why. The pub curry is a genre all unto itself, and this one was a fine example. A modest spoonful of hot rice came alongside a single poppadum and a dish of curry. Matt had no trouble sorting out the meat and the heat, and had chosen a medium beef curry loaded with big chunks of meat, which despite its ‘medium’ pretensions packed a fair punch. The two slices of hot naan were a beneficial addition to this satisfying winter warmer and with the whole thing weighing in at just under £9, very much worth it.
We usually take our fish supper at Ryde chippy Wight’s. It has options for all sizes of appetite and wallet: children, pensioner, lite bites and regular. Or kiddie, codger, compact and classic as Cat likes to call them. The Castle Inn also has smaller options so she decided to have beer-battered cod to see how it compared with her usual fishy dishy.
For a light bite, Cat’s plate had a decent pile of handsome triple-cooked chips, a goodly spoonful of garden peas, languishing on top was a long streak of fish. Surprisingly skin-on, Cat anointed it with fresh lemon, then scraped the tender white flesh from its skin substrate. Perfect. The batter was light; nicely-seasoned and with pleasingly crispy bubbles. The chips were outstanding; soft and fluffy innards, hugged by golden coats.
One of the old gubbers at the bar ambled over to the fireplace to stoke up the cheerfully-crackling real log fire, and passed the time of day with us. “You’ve got the best spot ‘ere” he said with a wink, indicating the cosy corner seat. We couldn’t disagree. On a chilly evening this pub was turning out to be warmly welcoming in every sense.
Light bite cod £6.95
Dessert (2 @ £4.50) £9
Christmas was not yet over in the Castle Inn, and pie of the day was turkey and stuffing. Traditional Christmas pudding served with brandy sauce was still on the dessert menu. Astonishingly, Matt had been denied Xmas pud over the holidays and was feeling the lack. So when he saw his chance to get a last shake of the bag, he was keen to make amends. The pudding was suitably solid, and if the brandy was present only in homeopathic amounts it was no matter – the hot custardy sauce was just the thing to go with the classic Christmas morsel.
For Cat, warm chocolate brownie just pipped the apple, sultana and cinnamon crumble tart. Like the chips, the warm cake had a pleasing outer crust protecting a warm soft interior, which was nice and spongy save from the occasional stud of chocolate. The brownie’s flavour was more sweet than chocolate; a triumph of texture over taste, and its yellow ice cream bonnet was of no consequence.
We liked the Castle Inn. We enjoyed the ambience, friendly staff and homely interior. The Castle is not only a successful town dining pub but also keeps up the ongoing tradition of drinking and socialising. It was good to see a bunch of locals pontificating over pints at the bar, as patrons will have done for hundreds of years. We took pleasure in being part of that continuity, and the enjoyable pub grub made that pleasure all the sweeter.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.