At the heart of the recently-opened Hall & Woodhouse bar-restaurant on the north bank of the Wilts & Berks Canal, in the as-yet-mostly-unbuilt ‘Canalside’ area of Wichelstowe, South Swindon, sits a barge. We’ll get to the inside later, but from the outside, its prow pointing proudly to the north, it looks like nothing so much as one of those RNLI collection boxes you used to see in pubs and sub-post offices. You half-expect a celestial hand to emerge from the clouds, clutching a giant 10p piece which, when dropped through a slot in the pub’s roof, will cause the narrowboat to shoot forth, launching itself into the car park. But sadly the barge is high and dry, and going nowhere. Could the same fate ultimately lie in store for this new venue?
Not for the time being, certainly. Shortly after it opened, my partner and I called in at Hall & Woodhouse for a drink. Like many, we’d watched it going up; weekly shopping trips to Waitrose, on the canal’s south bank, kept us up to speed with progress. So we were curious to see the finished article.
As was most of the rest of Swindon it seemed, that Saturday afternoon; the joint was rammed. No matter – we found a space at the bar, ordered a couple of beers, and I struck up a conversation with the barman that went something like this:
Me: “Congratulations – you must be delighted! Place is heaving…”
Barman: “Thanks. We haven’t stopped for a minute – but hey. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Me: “I know it’s early days, but word is the food here’s great…”
Barman: “Yeah – better than the bloody Bayberry.” This with something between a smile and a sneer. A snile? A smeer?
Me: “That so? Apples and oranges, surely?”
Barman (smeer now more of a snarl. Smarl. Whatever): “Yeah – we’re gonna wipe the floor with that dump. We’re great, the Bayberry’s rubbish. Fact.”
As I say, something like that.
As we leaned against another bit of bar – the seating all very much taken – I pondered the barman’s words.
I couldn’t – and still can’t – see the comparison; but since he insisted on making one, I thought: let’s give him a hand.
Built to slake the thirst and fill the tummies of the denizens of the then newly-built East Wichel, the Bayberry boasts all the atmosphere and olde-worlde charm of an airport departure lounge: nondescript pine furniture atop a swirly maroon carpet, in a pub that’s probably too big for the constituency it was built to serve.
As you enter, leading away to your left towards the far-distant loos is arrayed a mixture of benches, booths and traditional table-and-chair configurations; some or all of which, depending on the time of day, are apparently the playground of choice for a kind-of rolling parent-and-toddler group. Personally, my window of tolerance for little ones clanged shut when my own ones were no longer little, but then I’m not a very nice or tolerant person. For the Bayberry, I guess it’s a customer base of sorts – though I can’t imagine a very lucrative one.
Immediately ahead and to the right is a lounge-y drinking-and-eating area, while beyond a rather half-hearted partition lies a more restaurant-like zone. Parking is ample, and there is a small garden, though no pretty planting, nor views to speak of.
Not exactly a place of pilgrimage, then. And yet…and yet… and yet… the Bayberry has found what H&W hasn’t: a niche.
As well as being child-friendly, it has earned a place in its community. Short on character it may be; but the pub is not trying to be anything it isn’t. The staff are smiley and welcoming, the range of drinks is as extensive as you’d expect, the beer is well kept and reasonably priced. And while I don’t suppose the good folks of East Wichel love the Bayberry – it’s not been there long enough to love – I’ll wager they’d rather have it there than not.
And then there’s the food – and this is where mine host at Hall & Woodhouse got it wrong. The food at the Bayberry is not haute cuisine, not ‘fayn dayning’, because it doesn’t have to be. What it is, is decent, and cheap. H&W might be on a mission to take pub gastronomy to a new level, and good luck with that; but the Bayberry is where Wichelstowers, South Swindonites and Wroughtonistas go to feed their faces when they can’t be bothered to cook. A couple dining at the Bayberry can get on the outside of dinner and drinks, and walk away with change from £20.
Which won’t get you far at Hall & Woodhouse. But this is not – or not only – about price; it’s just as much about a venue attempting to forge an identity. A new venue. A parvenu venue. (Sorry.)
And, at first glance, failing. Propping up my bit of bar that Saturday, eyes smarting slightly from the frantically overdecorated interior of this brave new boozer, I donned my Wayfarers and looked about me.
Lordy – if ever somewhere is trying too hard, this is surely it. It’s as though the board of H&W have hired an interior design company, said “fill your boots,” and the designers have done just that. Nowhere, but nowhere, have they held back. According to H&W’s own website, this venue is “designed around the Woodhouse family and their interests and passions” – in which case, the clan’s interests and passions are eclectic, eccentric, extensive and in no way suited to being confined to a space such as this. The place is a migraine-inducing riot.
Then there’s that barge, the middle and stern-end of which invade H&W’s interior. The side is cut away in a manner which brings to mind a Haynes Motoring Manual; but instead of the inner workings of a 1978 Ford Granada, observers can instead feast their eyes on Hall & Woodhouse’s ‘party space’, a pub-within-a-pub with (worryingly) its own beer taps and optics, wherein H&W patrons can host their own 21st-birthday celebrations, wedding receptions, wakes, bar mitzvahs and so on. No problem with that – but when I host a party, I prefer to do so without onlookers peering in through my windows. Which perhaps says more about me and my soirees than I would wish. But partying for an audience? Not for me.
And then there’s the food. I’ve not eaten at H&W, but my partner has, following that first visit. Her verdict? Fine, but not great. Not as great as it wants to be, anyway – and not great enough to justify the slightly-too-high prices. To be clear, nothing is a rip-off; but everything is a couple of quid more than it should be.
And it’s all ever-so-slightly desperate. Hall & Woodhouse have apparently spent £5m on this place – but it fronts onto a canal that, unless and until it gets renovated, is currently just a long pond, leading nowhere. Mooring posts await pleasure craft that can’t get there, never mind tie up. Meanwhile, of the 4,000 Canalside homes for which H&W is supposed to be a centrepiece, there is little sign as yet. Diggers are digging, certainly; but surely that whole project must be in some doubt (or at least undergoing revision) now that both Honda and BMW are packing their bags and leaving town. So there it sits in splendid isolation, surrounded by unsightly earthworks and stockpiled building materials.
At the moment, the shiny new H&W remains busy, and tables for dinner are booked weeks or months ahead. I hope it stays that way – and that the dust is allowed to settle, that the canal gets redug, that the promised new homes get constructed, and that Hall & Woodhouse matures into the kind of convivial yet upmarket pub-cum-eatery that Swindon deserves. A destination gastropub, drawing punters from the locale (once it’s built) but also from further afield – by road, or waterway. But whatever happens, H&W and its people need to relax.
And stop worrying about competition where it doesn’t exist.