Secret Drinker reviews The Bell Hotel in Clare
Welcome to the first in our series of pub reviews by SuffolkNews' own Secret Drinker, who will make their way round the county's watering holes and give you their honest opinion.
The British pub is a unique phenomenon.
In Suffolk alone, there are around 612 pubs, although that number could have changed due to the difficulties the hospitality industry has faced since the pandemic.
The pub is a fascinating concept in my eyes. It is a place where friendships are forged, where arguments are had and memories are made. They are a fantastic place to people watch and bide your time, catch up with friends and even dance the night away.
I could spend hours recounting stories from times spent in public houses across the land. During a recent trip down south, I found a real contrast of pubs. One had people sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar, with a vicious stare greeting me and my acquaintance as we entered. Another had people dancing on the tables into the early hours (it was not 10 Downing Street, although there was a Co-op a couple of doors down.)
So here we are, I guess - a quest to savour a pint and the atmosphere of every watering hole in our proud county. Logistically, this is a column that will take time to reach its end goal, but that's okay. We are here to enjoy the good, the bad and ugly of one of Britain's national treasures, right here in Suffolk.
And the first pub on this adventure was The Bell Hotel in Clare. Armed with a companion to start this journey, I found myself at a crossroads. Unfortunately, this was not a crossroads I wanted to face, with music blaring through speakers.
Unexpectedly, it was disco night. This meant that renditions of Baby, I Love Your Way by Big Mountain and green strobe lights were already under way by 8.30pm. On any other occasion, like the table dancing above, I would have probably enjoyed it. This was not one of those evenings; I just wanted a couple of pints.
There was a decent selection on tap, both in terms of lager and ale. My companion and I both went for an Adnams Ghost Ship, which was both cold and enjoyable. The bar staff were attentive and on the ball with customers, so there were no faults or complaints from me.
Now, here is the thing - what makes good pub décor? It's a discussion rarely had, unless something really stands out. It might be taxidermy, or it might be fake flowers strung onto every wall.
Taking a seat in the bar, the latter were everywhere. Around wooden beams, in windows - even a huge pink display on one of the walls. The pink display was particularly interesting, as it looked like something that should be in Ocean Beach club in Ibiza, rather than a tiny town nestled in Suffolk. This is a pub, not Instagram.
Despite that, I actually thought the décor suited the pub quite well in the main bar area. There was a nice selection of old photos showing Clare through the ages, and on the whole, it was a well-presented pub.
Now, here is the crux of my review, and why I came away a bit underwhelmed. There is great potential for The Bell to be a good pub. It's in a central location, has lots of space and plenty of room to impress. The beer garden is a touch on the small side, but life comes with its compromises.
But there is one room which I was left thinking was really underused and undervalued. Head out to the back, and up the stairs on the right you will find the Cavendish Room. A huge screen and projector adorned the wall at one end, with tables, chairs and two pool tables filling the space between that and the bar.
Fine, it's a decent enough space as it is anyway. It must double up nicely as a function room for special occasions, and people probably do use the pool table and dartboard.
However, I can't help but feel it is still underused. Maybe it is the cost of having a Sky Sports package, but on a night of sporting action (Tyson Fury was dancing his way round the boxing ring), it felt like that room should have been packed. Put football or any sport on in there, some good bar food/snacks, and you could fill it comfortably.
Like I say, having to compromise is part of life. I'll have to test the food on a return visit, and hope that some of my wishes for it to fulfil its potential as a good pub are answered.
So here we are, the scores (stars out of five):
Decor: A bit of a mismatch, but fake flowers aside, it was fairly modern and well-presented. ***
Drink: Me and the companion both savoured the well poured Ghost Ship. It was actually my first ever pint of it, so it gets a good mark to kick things off. ****
Price: Ghost Ship was £4.75 each. We'll have to see how that fares as time goes on. Icebreaker Pale was £4.60, but I couldn't see how much a Budweiser was. For the sake of democracy, we'll go down the middle. ***
Staff: Admittedly didn't have time to chat, but they could pour a decent enough pint. They couldn't locate the key for the pool table so our game was finished rather abruptly, but they did give us our money back. ***