It’s easy to see why people make such a fuss about The Olde Bell Inn—all rush matting, pewter pitchers, colorful Welsh woolen blankets, local high-backed chairs handcrafted in nearby High Wycombe, and a flock of sheepskin throws tossed in every direction. Plus, it’s only 45 minutes from central London. With a makeover by Ilse Crawford (the revered former editor of Elle Decor known for bringing modern design to the English masses), the Olde Belle is the oldest functioning inn in England. The paint is peeling, the stairs creak, and there isn’t a single right angle in the entire place. There’s a tangible sense of place at Ye Olde Bell, as the sign reads out front next to the namesake iron bell. Crawford honors the long storied history dating back to 1135, instead of trying to recreate a new interior all glossy and pristine.
Old photos and postcards tell the stories. An ancient passageway through the fireplace runs from the pub to the old priory down the street. Monks used to welcome visitors in the bar when they heard the bell clanging; Elizabeth Taylor was a regular; Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower stayed here prior to the Normandy Invasion. The place has seen lifetimes of political upheavals, generational turnovers, natural disasters. Once, the present owner, who invested all his savings in wine, woke up to a flood and all his wine bottles floating in the street.
But the Olde Bell is not some kind of touristy living museum, preserved for show. And you might never guess it, but it’s also a fantastic spot for kids. I was there on assignment for a travel story and not ready to leave my 10-month-old at home (my then three-year-old happily stayed with his grandparents), and it couldn’t have been more suitable for a lazy, relaxing weekend. After waking up every morning in a room that overlooked the gardens and moor, we headed down to breakfast (where we never felt even a tiny bit awkward with a baby, who was doted on constantly), before heading out for a long walk along the Thames. After Ollie’s nap, we spent afternoons in the pub, planted in front of the picture-book roaring fireplace with a pint—or glass of cider from a nearby mill–playing heated games of Scrabble. The bartenders squeezed his toes, and after three days, all the regulars knew his name.
I couldn’t help thinking about how much my three-year-old would have loved running around the grounds, exploring the maze of gardens and taking meals at the mini table outside. And the food? I was blown away by the intimate level of service and impeccable local food effort. Hailing from famous farm-to-table London restaurant St. John’s, innkeeper Neil Irving, who pulls off red suspenders without a hint of irony, sums it up perfectly. “It’s been here for almost 1,000 years. We’re insignificant, just here as caretakers. The building is the character… Some people are annoyed because there’s no minibar in the room, but we want to interact with people. It’s not about pushing people into a room and forgetting about them because we have their credit card.”
We ate local English comfort food: Wood pigeon! Salt lamb shank! Pheasant pie! Jam and bread! Raised beds in the brick-walled garden feed the kitchen with rosemary, thyme, oregano, arugula, strawberries, artichokes, and tomatoes, while colorful jars of preserves and pickled vegetables decorate windowsills. One evening, the staff even brought up a four-course meal and a bottle of wine to our room after the baby had fallen asleep.
Perhaps the biggest indulgence of all: the freestanding in-room soaking tub, from which, yes, I did, in fact, read a few chapters of the complimentary Pride and Prejudice.