Bel and The Dragon is tucked away within the Surrey countryside, not far from the Devil’s Punchbowl, run by the National Trust, and several other Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), such as the Surrey Hills.
Packing up and heading there feels like a real escape from the city: countryside all around, cosy crackling fires in the hotel’s lounge-cum-reception and, perhaps most importantly, very little phone signal. Of course, there is free Wi-Fi but on a weekend away it was liberating to be able get off the grid and really relax into our surroundings.
Each room comes with a bottle of Sipsmith sloe gin or damson vodka
The Surrey surrounds have been popular with authors too, including Jane Austen, who created fictional towns based on the region, including Highbury in Emma. Bel and The Dragon has chosen to celebrate her here: each of the 13 individual rooms is named after a character in one of her novels – we had the Bingley – and contains copies of several of her books. The peaceful study on the first floor holds yet more reading material, which guests can help themselves to, along with a coffee or even a drop or two from the decanter of whisky.
Our room was plenty welcoming, though, with its cleanly rustic style, the bed a squashy, feather-pillowed mountain, the bathroom decorated with beautiful old-fashioned white tiling and vintage ceramic jars. There was also a huge, fancy smart TV, but it was something else much simpler that made it for me. Each room contains a bottle of Sipsmith sloe gin or damson vodka so guests can grab an in-room apéritif before a dinner reservation in the restaurant downstairs.
Book lovers will be happy here...
If we weren’t hungry when we arrived in the restaurant, we soon were when we saw the huge grills and fat chips appearing on the shining stainless steel open kitchen. The dining room was almost full on our visit as it’s a popular venue with locals as well as the hotel’s residents, and the buzz was lively but still intimate thanks to the generously spaced tables and low lighting. The menu is full of comfort food done with flair, with marinades and rotisserie cooking to add interest to dishes such as a sirloin steak or confit leg of duck. I went all out on the comfort side, opting for a macaroni cheese; granted, it was one with truffle crème fraiche and wild mushrooms. It came as a huge portion of crispy-on-top-gooey-underneath pasta, particularly indulgent when accompanied with a couple of my companion’s thick-cut chips, but I still made room for dessert. The selection was traditionally British, from blackberry crumble and custard to the Eton mess, which is what I ended up going for in an attempt to achieve some kind of overall balance.
Bel and The Dragon's restaurant
The rest of the hotel lives up to the restaurant’s homely promise – the lounge and bar each have a crackling fire and plenty of cosy sofas and the staff so pleasantly chatty I assumed they knew everyone – it was only when they gave us a few tips on nearby walking trails I realised they were just plain friendly.
The lounge is decked out in modern farmhouse style, with wooden beamed ceilings, wooden floors and low sofas hidden in nooks created by tall bookshelves. Of course, there were yet more Austen works on these shelves, alongside more recent literature, history books, encyclopaedias and kids’ books, plus the day’s papers and supplements. Whiling away a couple of hours with a coffee and a novel would’ve been all too easy and clearly a treat, but after a Sunday morning breakfast of banana pancakes followed by some of the fluffiest, tastiest scrambled eggs we’ve ever eaten, something a little more active was required.
Beautiful countryside is a stone's throw away
Mike the hotel manager recommended we head for one of the three hills of Devil’s Jump a few hundred metres down the road - a steep slope, worth climbing, but not too punishing on a full stomach. From the top we sat for a while on a bench, admiring the view over the Surrey Hills. Back down by the hotel and directly opposite there’s a sculpture park, one of the quirkier attractions in the area – entry gets you access to a route dotted with several hundred unusual statues and sculptures, many of which are for sale. It makes for a pleasant enough walk in itself, spotting the hidden artworks between trees, through clearings and across brooks.
Farnham high street
It's also worth heading into Farnham for a dander around the historic town. The town lays claim to prehistoric roots thanks to the Palaeolithic axes and mammoth fossils found here and was also associated with figures in the 19th century arts and craft movement – we might’ve checked the museum for proof but since it closes on Sundays we contented ourselves with a stroll along the quaint high street.
The many Georgian buildings here hold a mix of independent and chain shops, with a handful of charity shops and local craft and homeware stores that were worth a look. The primary attraction in this part of the world is the sprawling Surrey Hills on the doorstep, and Farnham is also the starting point for the long-distance walking trail, the North Downs Way. On our short stay though, the town itself was a pleasant way to ease back into city life after the utter escapism of the Surrey countryside.
Bel and The Dragon is just over an hour from central London by car or around two-and-a-half hours from Birmingham. Rooms range from £75-£95 per night, bed and breakfast (excluding VAT). Trains from Waterloo to Farnham take 55 minutes and cost £30.50 for an off-peak return. A taxi from Farnham to Bel and The Dragon costs around £15.
Words: Siobhan Morrin