Eccentricity at its best

The Anvil, Bishop's Waltham.
The Anvil, Bishop's Waltham.
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Fred Woodbine laughs. ‘I think I run a community need,’ says the owner of The Anvil and Just in Case, his two businesses under one medieval Bishop’s Waltham roof.

One is a wine shop which ran for years before he opened the front of the small space for the café.

A most unlikely-looking owner in his pink shorts, orange top and nautical beard (‘30 years a sailor!’), he’s not averse to bursting into song. He knows the names of all his customers.

The beamed shop-café is crammed with knick-knacks, wine area maps, a mass of candelabra on the fireplace, pictures and flowers. Delightful, helpful staff weave their way around the 12 close-together tables. It is one of most friendly places in this neck of the woods, their desire to please shining through.

The menu (many dishes are gluten-free) is extensive for such a small place. There are six soups such as pea and ham, tomato and tarragon and French onion plus 40 or more dishes including all-day breakfasts; home-made salmon and asparagus quiche; pizzas; organic pies; venison with ‘important Guinness’; navarin of lamb; filled baguettes, paninis and ciabattas; sausage and mash and ‘cheesy hammy eggy, an old Navy favourite.’ Prices: £6.50 for the soups, £6 for paninis, £10 for navarin and venison.

Pea and ham soup and Welsh rarebit took a while getting to my table by the very cold door and window (sit closer to the wine part of the operation if you don’t want to sit in your coat). The place was packed one cold Saturday lunchtime.

The pea part of the soup was just what was needed, warming, tasty and plentiful. But the ham came in large strips instead of the more usual chunks which are easier to eat. Croûtons and a bog-standard brown roll joined it.

A Welsh rarebit (£7), usually made with strong cheese, Worcester sauce, plain mustard and beer or stout, was made to Fred’s preferred recipe – lashings of wholegrain mustard added to a runny, cheesy mixture, the bread sodden and overlapping. A right royal mustardy mush. A memorable dish for the wrong reasons. A perky salad of lettuce, cucumber and tomato was not helped by Fred’s dressing, the man loving abundant wholegrain mustard.

Fred is proud of his bread and butter pudding, the dessert menu also boasting an unseasonal raspberry and white chocolate roulade as well as Mövenpick ice creams and cakes ‘from the chiller’. There’s cafetière coffee, specialist teas, wines and beer.

There’s no doubt Fred and his team have a huge following at this Bishop’s Waltham institution. Eccentricity at its best.

My bill came to £13.50 for those two dishes excluding a tip.

ESSENTIALS

The Anvil, Symes Corner, Bishop’s Waltham, SO32 1AN 01489 892969 Open 9am–5pm (9.30–5.30 Suns).

Food: ***

Service: ****

Atmosphere: ***

Disabled access: wheelchair-tricky inside (courtyard garden OK), downstairs loo.

How to get there: take the A27 west, exiting for Wickham then follow the B2177 to Bishop’s Waltham. At town roundabout, follow signs to centre to High Street, following one-way system. Turn right along Bank Street, the Anvil on the next corner past the sweet shop. Nearby carpark or on-street if you’re lucky.