Big skies, swooping sight-lines, fields of oilseed yellow: The Candover Valley is high-wattage Hampshire.
It’s also Jane Austen country, and an open-top carriage would do very nicely as you process along the poplar-lined ridge before dropping down to The Woolpack; squat, settled, comfortably moulded into the valley floor.
The Woolie, as it’s affectionately known, is a Hampshire institution. I first heard about it from The Crown Inn, Upton’s Amanda J’Blair and Lewis Spreadbury: it’s where they met.
Since then friends have bombarded me with tales of its food, walks, and friendliness. And I’m not the only one.
On arrival I met a couple who’d walked here from Basingstoke on a colleague’s recommendation; expectations were high then.
I was hardly through the door before locals swept me into conversation — come-in don’t be shy.
This is clearly a place that celebrates its community; plaques running along the bar name local characters and families: some now perched on that barstool in the sky, other still very much extant.
There’s an air of ease, a nod to rural huntin’, shootin’ roots, washed down with a cheeky measure of English eccentricity.
So we have leather armchairs; foot puffs; black and white photos from the local shoot; gun butts for curtain tiebacks; a gloriously gnarled wooden table; and a boar’s head replete with pork-pie hat, scarf and chipped tooth (thanks to a late night tussle with an inebriated local).
Sounds like a random mish-mash? Not at all, thanks to the clever use of textures: wood, tartan-wool, worn leather and hessian, creating a sense of warm sophistication.
The bar extends into a snug, fire-side eating area then up some stairs into the dining-room proper.
There’s also a private dining area replete with antlers and sepia-tinged, family photo wallpaper.
Food and Drink
There’s a decent selection of spirits behind the bar, although no Hampshire gins. A shame with the locally distilled Twisted Nose, Test Valley Gin, Gorilla Spirits et al doing so well.
No Hampshire wines either, although Sussex’s Nyetimber fizz flew the English flag.
There’s a clear commitment to real ale with a pump dedicated to showcasing local breweries.
The winelist is balanced and reasonable, prices range from £19 to £55, and the knowledgeable Agne knew her stuff guiding us to Allegrini’s smooth, Italian Valpolicella. She’d been to the vineyard too, an interesting touch.
Chef Alan has a Michelin background working at the Ramsay group before spending time in Spanish, Australian and Danish kitchens.
This is an interesting cultural mix which gives a real breadth to the menu, think Spain’s love of tapas-y crunch-fried nibbles and warm spice, Denmark’s penchant for mayonnaise and curing, grounded in an Antipodean respect for local fresh produce. Homemade paprika crisps with wild garlic mayo anyone?
Onto the evening meal.
To start, I plumped for the glazed sweetbreads, cauliflower purée, black pudding and chicory — think grown-up sherbert Dip Dabs, tongue-melting, tender and counterpointed by earthy, rough-textured black pudding.
Kirsten, my official partner in crime, went for the pig cheek croquettes with a fennel and pomegranate salad. Crunchy, porky flavour bombs — crisp on the outside soft on the inside, with the sour-sweet, aniseed tang of fennel and pomegranate seeds.
After the meat-fest that was the starter, and on Agne’s recommendation, I braved the veggie option casting a desolate gaze on the confit suckling pig which sounded marvelous.
Don’t get me wrong, I love vegetarian food.
I often cook without meat and was veggie for two years (broken by a bacon sarnie), but I do think a veg-only meal often lacks the deep, umami satisfaction that comes from truly great meat or a properly prepared stock. Not true here.
Alan’s balsamic glazed, smoked aubergine gnocchi with beetroot, celeriac and fennel purée is a masterclass in how humble vegetables can compete with the big ol’ bully boys of the meat world.
That smoked aubergine flavour, the crispy yet soft texture of the baked-not-boiled gnocchi balanced by the sweetness of beetroot, balsamic and fennel? More-ish. Dangerously so.
Kirsten, Muddy’s carnivour-in-chief, had hanger steak for her main: succulent, full-bodied — all that a steak should be, and the mayo-clad pesto potato salad nodded to Alan’s Danish influence.
And then t’was pudding time. No bleeting about being too full, us girls dived (belly-flopped?) straight-in sharing the burnt white chocolate cheesecake and salted caramel.
Creamy, crunchy-sweet, dairy shot through with salt: delicious.
The passionfruit, milk chocolate and amaretto mousse was a little sweet and heavy to my taste, but I’m not a big pudding person anyway to be honest.
Elsewhere on the menu you’ll find pub classics — your burgers, pies, fish and chips. Not tried this time, but we were assured by Agne that the burger is the best she’s ever tasted.
Staying at The Woolpack
There are 8 rooms including Golden Pheasant, the family suite where we stayed which had two good-size, warm rooms plus a large bath and shower area one with views across the valley.
That eye for texture comes into play again here: rustic-luxe, all exposed flint and brick, soft-as-down quails-feather quilts, metal lampshades and olive walls.
Tea, coffee all provided. The main thing was the rare joy of tumbling into bed post-meal, instead of the usual schlep behind a wheel.
All the usual suspects are on the breakfast menu: eggs benedict, full English and so on. Kirsten went for the eggs florentine with spinach and raved about the rich hollandaise. I had the smoked salmon and poached eggs.
This is walking country so we took a brisk hour-long loop through fields of oilseed rape, hares, buzzards and the occasional sky lark. The Wayfarers trail passes through as well (read my review of the Kingsclere section here). There are stiles so you’ll need a carrier (or shoulders) if you’re bringing children.
Children are very welcome here, in fact offspring of the locals are given their own bar-plaque, this time at toddler height! There’s a fenced in play-park and the outdoor pizza oven is fired-up on Sundays.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
This is a really special Hampshire hostelry. It’s warm, loved by the community with great food and wine, cosy-chic rooms plus endless walking options.
Good for: Lovers of pubs that maintain that tricky balance between keeping the atmosphere welcoming whilst creating a modern feel and a special menu. Walkers, families, couples: all catered for.
Not for: If you want a cosmopolitan wine bar, then you’re in the wrong place. That said there is space to land a helicopter here so you never know who might turn up.
££: Very reasonable for the quality of the food. Starters around £7, mains hovering at £16 and a bottle wine averaging at £25.
Please do mention Muddy Hants when booking.
The Woolpack, Totford, Alresford, SO24 9TJ. Tel: 01962 734184, thewoolpackinn.co.uk