The Isle of Wight is great in the summer; there’s so much to do and many places to do it. Matt and Cat like nothing more than to sit in a sunny tea garden feeding scone crumbs to squabbling sparrows while indulging in the food of the gods.
The depths of winter however, are closed season for the teashops. Even if they could find one, Matt and Cat would probably not want to eat in a chilly leafless garden. What is required on an inclement night is a hearty meal eaten in front of a roaring log fire in a friendly location. So, with this mental image burned into their collective cerebellum, M and C headed to Sandown. Although typically the home of the beachside diner they wondered how this classic seaside town would measure up in January.
The town wasn’t quite as unoccupied as Seaview in the skiing season; lights twinkled optimistically from several windows and there were people in the streets. Heartened by these signs of life, Matt and Cat drove along the esplanade past some surprisingly busy hotels and headed inland to the Caulkheads.
The pub has occupied this little corner of Sandown for generations and, although historic, it looked pretty unprepossessing from the outside. There was also little of architectural interest inside; it seemed that almost all the walls had been knocked through to create a barn-like interior. However, the few vast beams and the log fire were perfect for the winter mood.
Also, any description of the Caulkheads should not neglect to mention the children’s indoor play area. Cat’s only previous visit to this pub was one summer back in the last millennium, when the place was positively riotous with scarlet-faced children whooping with unrestrained delight in the confines of Cap’n Caulkhead’s ball pool. Although the decibel level was well-down on her 1990s visit, the play area was still proving to be a draw, with a few jolly tots hopping about in delight at being let out to play at so late an hour, while their parents sat chatting, knowing that their nippers were playing safely.
Like dogs treading down imaginary grass, Matt and Cat made a couple of laps of the pub, finally settling at a nice round table under a speaker. BBC Radio 4 once carried out an unscientific survey of their listeners’ daily encounters with music, encouraging them to note down every jingle, overheard iPod and piped muzak they heard. The results were unsurprising; the daily aural assault is endless – presumably because it’s what the performing rights society and maybe the people want. Matt and Cat, however, are not ‘the people’ and relish a muzak-free pub. Often their friends will try and lure them out for a drink with the added enticement of a live band. Matt and Cat nearly always refuse these invitations. Who wants to spend an evening shouting at their friends then nodding in feigned agreement at their unheard replies?
As it was, the Caulkheads’ choice of music was right up Matt and Cat’s street; an eclectic mix of 80s favourites, rock ‘n’ roll classic and the Venga Boys. As the introduction to the Eurotrash medley ‘We Like to Party‘ pizzicato-ed its way out of the speaker, Cat thought it reminiscent of sixties electronic pioneers, Perrey and Kingsley – composers of Popcorn and the much-sampled EVA – and bobbed her head in appreciation.
Food? Oh yeah, the food! Matt had surf and turf. It was brutalist in its execution: a pile of unadorned prawns, fried scampi and a slab of rare-cooked meat were the main players, with a supporting cast of chips, onion rings, mushrooms, good fried tomatoes, roughly-shredded fresh undressed salad and a curiously over-onioned coleslaw. Despite this range of good ingredients, the dish seemed somehow unfulfilled. Those naked prawns could so have benefited from a squeeze of lemon, a sprig of parsley, or indeed any dressing. The chips, whilst of a decent size, were not freshly cooked, and too soon reached a disappointing level of tepidness. Nonetheless, it was wholesome and Matt chomped his way through the lot.
Steak & ale pie: £7.95
Surf & turf: £15.50
Cat had a spectacular steak and ale pie. It was one of those puff-pastry hat affairs but the meaty contents were really surprisingly rich and the flesh was lovely and lean. Once Cat had decanted it from its stoneware pot, it spread and cooled on the plate, although there was barely room for it among the chips and decent range of veg. However, Cat had to admit defeat at quite an early stage; perhaps she needed to do more training for such a hearty winter dinner. Matt, never knowingly underfed, swooped seagull-like and pecked up her remnants. He concurred with Cat: this was a good pie filling. If it had been in a proper pastry case it would have been outstanding.
The Caulkheads may at first glance seem like a fairly generic large family pub but, as Matt and Cat eyed the mementos on its walls they discovered that the venue had a well-documented past. Previous tenants and patrons stared unblinking from their sepia portraits, their captions indicating a satisfying continuity. The other occupants of the pub seemed to be the latest in a long line of locals; some were even greeted by name. Looking on were pictures of summer revellers, laughing children and community events from decades and centuries past which gave the lie to those ‘heritage’ pubs that bulk-buy this sort of memorabilia.
Matt and Cat liked the Caulkheads; it was superficially a very family-oriented venue – with even a communal microwave for customers to heat their babies’ suppers – but not far beneath the surface retained the core of a local pub with the character and service to match. The food was rudimentary but plentiful in the pub grub mode and priced accordingly: not sophisticated, but hitting its intended target dead-centre.