Inn with Freddie — The King’s Arms
The King’s Arms 30 High East Street Dorchester DT1 1HF 01305 265353
Published in July ’08
I don’t know why, but when thinking about somewhere to eat in Dorchester, I usually overlook the King’s Arms. Then I go there and wonder why on earth I don’t patronise it more often. Not only is it by a long way the county town’s most historic hostelry (first mentioned in 1618) but it is comfortable, with a pleasant ambience and, to judge by our experience, good food.
The thick carpets and soft chairs provide the comfort, but the whole place also has style. The bar is a long room with a much lower ceiling in the middle section, which effectively divides the room into three parts and prevents it from being too barn-like. The walls are decorated with a dazzling range of pictures, from old prints to botanical drawings. Mrs Freddie was especially fascinated by what looked like a small ship’s figurehead of a Moor: on a recent trip to Holland she was told that there, such figures were used to identify pharmacists’ shops. For myself, I enjoyed the interesting pictures of old Dorchester in the hall outside the bar. We were both impressed by the prolific orchid showing off its many flowers in the fireplace.
Thomas Hardy was a regular at the King’s Arms and describes it in The Mayor of Casterbridge as ‘the chief hotel in Casterbridge’. The passage goes on: ‘A spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico and from the open sashes came the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses and the drawing of cords.’ The description is entirely recognisable today.
Hardy is only one of a galaxy of historical figures to have patronised the place. George III visited and Queen Victoria actually stayed the night there in 1833. Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, was an incognito guest and more recently both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew have lunched there. Lord Nelson and Lawrence of Arabia were visitors and there is rather a charming story of William Barnes falling in love at first sight with his future wife, Julia, as she alighted from the evening coach while he was having supper at the King’s Arms. Augustus John drank there – is there a pub in Dorset where he did not? – and Pavlova used the inn as a base while visiting Abbotsbury to study the swans in preparation for her dance as the dying swan, for which she became famous.
The pre-eminence of the King’s Arms in the 18th and 19th centuries was because of its role as a coaching inn. At one time forty coaches a week changed horses there. One coach left the inn for London at 11 o’clock each morning and arrived in the capital fifteen hours later.
The historic atmosphere put us in a good mood for our food, which we had chosen from the twenty or so main courses; there are also a dozen each starters and desserts and a bar menu of baguettes, baked potatoes etc, so the choice is impressive. Mrs Freddie chose a beef lasagne, to which her immediate reaction was ‘Mm, good flavour.’ She also appreciated the light mustard vinaigrette on the accompanying salad.
I used to eat gammon steak a lot in my youth: either it was the height of sophistication back in the ‘sixties, or I naively thought it was. I remember one concoction which involved melted cheese, banana, pineapple and egg on top of a gammon steak; the inevitable indigestion I have mercifully forgotten. I went off gammon years ago after a couple of steaks which could only be compared to boot-leather. Happily, the one with which I re-made gammon’s acquaintance at the King’s Arms was succulently tender, with a nice bit of fat to add to the flavour (no Jack Sprat am I). The accompanying chips had just the right amount of salt in my view: that is, enough to give the Health Police a fit of the vapours.
The King’s Arms is not one of those places where they think that you want your plate loaded with more than one person could possibly eat at lunchtime. Yet the helpings are more than adequate and at £8.95 each, we thought that our meals were excellent value. Apparently a two-course steak lunch at £12.99 is about to be introduced.
Hardy, Queen Victoria, Pavlova and the rest may have given way to Dorchester businessmen and older people enjoying a quiet lunch, but they would still recognise the King’s Arms not only by its distinctive frontage but by the continued excellence of its hospitality.