In the increasingly competitive pub and restaurant market, establishments often hang their Unique Selling Point on some small featurette, extrapolating it into an entire theme – see, for example, the Island’s only capital punishment theme pub – the Hare and Hounds; a venue which developed its identity from its geographical proximity to an 18th century gallows. Consider too, The Orrery, an audacious combination of a globe museum with a cafe.
But what of the common pub – how can it distinguish itself from the many others? The Sun Inn at Calbourne is a 1930s style red brick roadhouse, perfectly situated at a crossroads to maximise opportunities of passing trade. Just to make things even more challenging for the marketing consultants, there is another popular pub known as the Sun Inn within a few miles. However, the Sun at Calbourne has risen admirably to the challenge: it has a feature that marks it out above all other pubs for small boys and grown men alike. How many other eating-places can boast their own miniature railway? With part of the track actually going around the inside of the bar (at ceiling level) the Calbourne Mid Western Railway is described as “a vast outdoor model railway with hills, rivers, bridges, tunnels and buildings”. Matt and Cat have never actually seen this celebrated apparatus in operation, but the fact of its existence alone is probably enough to bring the odd railway buff to the Sun.
On a recent journey into the Wild West (of the Isle of Wight) Matt and Cat had no interest in trains, but were instead on the look-out for a place to get some food. The Sun Inn was conveniently located, and they drew up in the massive car park. As it was a winter evening, it was perhaps no surprise that half the pub was in darkness, and it was only when they had circumnavigated half the building that they were actually certain that the place was open, so snugly were the windows curtained. Entering the bar, they found a traditional pub with a dining-room, modest lounge, and a large public bar adjoining complete with bench seats and dartboard.
The Sun has not been cruelly refurbished, and still has an air of authenticity and welcoming homeliness that many modernised pubs find it hard to emulate. It was a quiet night, with only a handful of other customers, but nevertheless the place was cheerful enough. A distinct smell of gloss paint gave a hint of the reason for the closed-off dining room’s darkness, but the friendly chap behind the bar was able to show Matt and Cat to a table in the corner.
Matt supped a pint and Cat punished her teeth with some fizzy pop as they scanned the appealing menu. Pub standards, with a decent grill section, sandwiches and baguettes, ploughman’s and jackets, a good ‘Young Persons Menu’, and a few specials on the board. Both your reviewers went for the specials. Cat picked the Pie of the Day, which proved to be Steak and Ale. Matt went for the locally-sourced Westover Burger, served with the interesting-sounding gourmet chips and handmade relish.
Soon after the order was placed the courteously apologetic lady from the kitchen came and confessed that all the hand-made relish was gone. She offered shop-made instead, which Matt accepted, although as this was a top-price burger, a free side dish or something off the bill would have also been a nice gesture.
The only other party in the pub was a gaggle of old ladies who were having a splendid time. They wolfed down their suppers, had that delicious moment of indecision over dessert for an almost imperceptibly short time, and then laughed and chatted garrulously for ages over coffee, all the time calling over more gin and Bristol Cream. the Sun Inn obviously suited them well, and their evident pleasure was quite infectious. Indeed had it not been for them the loudest sound in the pub might have been the solitary fellow in the public bar throwing darts.
The food arrived, and Matt and Cat discovered what ‘gourmet chips’ were. A neat cordwood-style pile of ten chips was arranged on Matt’s plate, alongside a fairly standard burger offering which also boasted cheese and bacon. He was quick to establish that there were indeed only ten chips, and couldn’t help feeling a little as though he’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book – did ‘gourmet’ in this context actually mean ‘meagre’? But once he’d gingerly tried some of these sizeable, golden slabs he was soon mollified. Cut much more thickly than standard chips there was in fact quite a lot more taste and substance to them, and undoubtedly they had plenty more soft flesh inside to make up for the neat but modest portion. The burger was unexceptional though pleasant enough, and as Westover Park is visible from the pub window it couldn’t really be any more local – very commendable.
Cat’s pie came with a good supply of lean, tender meat in it, and even if it was a little dry the remedy was certainly close at hand in the form of a brimming gravy boat. Her non-gourmet chips were fresh and tasty, and in very plentiful supply.
Leaving the chattering old ladies still cackling with glee in the corner, Matt and Cat stepped back out into the darkened countryside to drive back eastwards towards civilisation. Fortified by an enjoyable meal in a pub with some real character, they wondered if they’d ever get to see the Calbourne Mid Western Railway in operation. Regardless: even if model railways don’t make your mouth water, the Sun may succeed in pleasing its visitors in other ways and is worth the journey.
Sun Inn, Calbourne