The Bankes Arms, Studland, Dorset
The Bankes Arms – 2/5
This is a magical corner of Albion. It’s the sort of place so perfectly green, you expect the animals to start talking. Hares gambol in the grass and the cattle are lowing, with the sway of the sea never far. All the long midsummer day, we pottered about in R’s boat, gathering samphire from the chalk cliffs around Old Harry Rocks (a good name for a band, someone said). Now we arrive at one of the finest pubs in England for a spot of supper.
A vast garden, almost too big, spreads out on unbroken views of the bay. The inside should be sepia. Through the ivy-hugged gable, it cosies with curled-up rooms, dark oak tables and open fireplaces. Halters, blinkers, hunting horns gather dust on the old stone walls. They display the menu on a blackboard by the door, which I like. They serve pub classics, including plenty of seafood, which I like even more. They price it reasonably, which I like most of all. And yet...
Farmed Spanish seabass. Supernaturally coloured salmon. Wet slabs of tuna from God knows where. Just one concession to local seafood – Poole Bay crab – and presumably that was cooked up the coast, possibly days ago. Anyway, it’s off the menu. So here we are, with the spray of the sea virtually lashing our faces, the gulls calling overhead, and the only fish available has travelled for soggy, stinking miles.
Meat it is then. Chilli con carne (out of a tub, I think) tastes of little except mince in a sweetish slop; though the rice, which contains some nutty brown husks, is well cooked. G has spag bol, and his Parmesan is freshly grated rather than the putrid dust that often pongs its way to the table. Yet the two dishes could share passports. Their sole distinguishing feature is a dose of obligatory kidney beans in the chilli. H pronounces her ham, egg and chips ‘very yummy’, but the chips are pallid and inadequately seasoned and the egg yolk, though a nice, deep orange, inches by the second towards congealment. Prime pig country is only a few hillocks away, but the pale specimens of S’s bangers and mash look bland and fingery, and his onion gravy is at best out of a bottle. Never has food been shown up so dismally by its setting.
It truly saddens me to see such potential go to waste. The Bankes Arms has everything going for it: a picture-book setting, seclusion, comfortable rooms, almost a captive market. Yet the Polish and Russian staff bark out customers’ orders across the endless expanse of garden, stomp over, slam down the plates and march off again. There’s barely a moment’s thought behind a single dish. Next to a miserably generic curry sauce, lamb chunks collapsing within it, is a ‘salad’ containing shredded iceberg, quartered tomatoes from a Dutch greenhouse (in the heart of the Dorset summer!), furry slices of dry cucumber and raw red onion curls. What chef could acquiesce to this? What criminal mind conceive it?
It’s all washed down, and rescued, by some glorious beers – two brewed inside the very pub we’re in. Riddled with barley, heady with froth, the Isle of Purbeck pints demand deep, hearty draughts and taste gloriously of pink noses and laughter. They serve at least half a dozen ales here, almost all of them local, brimming with Englishness. The landlord is a member of something called the British Institue of Inn Keeping. I haven’t the first idea what it might be, but by gum, I like the sound of it. It’s a shame we’re missing the August real ale festival, when 150 brewers will descend on the little pub. But as that old alky, Goldilocks, would no doubt say (and she wouldn’t look at all out of place, skipping round this garden), that beer is just right.
So. What the kitchen of The Bankes Arms needs is a good, hard shaking of its shoulders. Beyond its weathered doorstep rolls some of the most fertile soil in the land, and its bay is teeming with fish. It should grapple this plenty to its soul, instead of slumping lazily against refrigerated vans and cash-and-carry bulk buys. If it only gave equal attention to its food and ales, it could become a true foodie destination, rooted to its heritage but with a discerning nod to the revamped tastes of today. After all, the much-trumpeted, ‘new’ British cooking amounts often to a rediscovering of neglected, seasonal classics. It wouldn’t take a huge amount of time or effort to achieve any of this. The question is, will anyone be bothered to do it?
The Bankes Arms, Manor Road, Studland, Dorset. Tel. +44 (0)1929 450 225.
Dinner for five, excluding drinks and service, costs £70.