The Duncombe Arms is a successful pub-restaurant opened 10 years ago by Laura and Johnny Greenall. In 2018, they added 10 bedrooms, but it wasn’t until the end of lockdown, Laura says, that these rooms came into their own.
“Until then, our overnight guests had mainly been people coming to the area on business,” she explains. “Each one would arrive with a small suitcase on wheels, order a Peroni and a burger at the bar, and disappear into their room. Covid has changed all that… the guests on business have reduced and staycation and workcation guests have come to stay and dine in droves, and not just at weekends. They’ve made such a happy, buzzy atmosphere.” For them, it is a haven in a beautiful region of England that has been hitherto overlooked.
Laura and Johnny are fine examples of a couple diving into the world of hospitality, with all its pitfalls, and coming up trumps, though innkeeping was to some extent a natural choice: Johnny is a scion of the Greenall brewing and pub dynasty (the business has now been sold), and Laura was a chef, latterly a busy private one.
But it was neither of those things that persuaded the then newly married couple, on a whim, to buy the clapped-out Duncombe Arms, in the tiny village of Ellastone, just south of the Peak District. It was the name more than anything that caught their eye. Ten years before, they had moved close by, and they often drove past the Duncombe Arms. “Is that anything to do with us?” Laura asked her mother, whose maiden name was Duncombe, an aristocratic Yorkshire family.
“Well, I hope so,” she replied, “that’s our coat of arms.”
Well, of course you buy a pub with your coat of arms on it – especially when, as Laura and Johnny pointed out, it’s on your doorstep and you had to go to Nottingham, an hour away, to get a decent dinner.
The Duncombe Arms has a natural lamp-lit warmth; it is one of those places where, the moment you walk in, you feel better. In a circle of rooms, there are open fires, eye-catching pictures and photographs (many of them equine: Johnny is a keen horseman), cosy corners, cushions, shelves of books, and the prettiest of china. I didn’t want to leave. If the Duncombe Arms reminds you of another superb northern hostelry, the Star at Harome, you will not be surprised to hear that the Yorkshire inn created by Andrew and Jacquie Pern – one of the first country pubs to offer Michelin-starred food amid sophisticated surrounds – was an acknowledged influence, for its owners are great friends.
The two places aren’t the same, but they create the same ambience, both havens of rural good living. If they were animals, they would be sleek, purring cats. How sad to hear of the Star’s recent devastating fire: it will be back for sure.
Both the rooms and the food live up to expectations. The 10 gorgeous bedrooms are located in a purpose-made building, the Walnut House, beyond the pub. Designed by Laura, they are superbly kitted out, each different, with arresting wallpapers, British pictures from London’s Crane Kalman Gallery, heavenly beds, big table lamps, plenty of natural materials and toiletries from Bamford. They could grace any smart hotel.
A plainly happy brigade in the kitchen is led by Jake Boyce and Scott Law, while Laura credits long-time general manager James Oddy with much of the pub’s success. My starter of roasted baby carrots, burnt aubergine, chervil and mustard and the ox-cheek pie that followed were both excellent. On the pudding menu there is a splendid painting of Sidney the Sheep. Sidney belongs to Johnny and the following day he came for a walk with us (honestly) around his master’s beautiful woodland garden.
While Laura works in the pub several days a week, and Johnny is responsible for both the finances and the varied playlist (a source of great pride), they have somehow found the time, as well as bringing up their children, to replant 10 acres of dramatic woodland dell and stream, including many specimen trees. In spring and autumn, a special Garden Market Menu is available for customers wishing to visit the garden; the price includes a £5 entry fee. Now there’s a treat.
How to do it
Doubles from £195 including breakfast. Read the full review.
Main Road, Ellastone, Ashbourne, Staffordshire DE6 2GZ (01335 324275; duncombearms.co.uk)