The Five Bells Inn, Brabourne (near Ashford), Kent: hotel review | Travel

This must be the most eccentric room I’ve slept in: everything’s oversized, slightly mad or both. One side of the fireplace is taken up by a framed floor-to-ceiling black-and-white photo of sculpted Renaissance bottoms, while on the other a leopard-print chair almost reaches the ceiling. There are toiletries on a huge brass tray by the freestanding bath, a sunburst mirror, some modern wallpaper and lots of exposed brick, all reflected in another mirror – gilt-framed and two metres high. Only the loo, behind a door in the corner, is reassuringly normal.

The Five Bells Inn is one of three pubs under the Ramblinns brand

Bonkers it may be but it makes a refreshing change from the ultra-tasteful, safe decor of many contemporary hotel rooms, with their muted colours and genteelly distressed wood. And the offbeat style does not get in the way of comfort: on a cool autumn evening, a log fire is crackling in my fireplace, and the bed and bedding are sumptuous.

This is the Five Bells, one of a group of three pubs in the Romney Marsh area that architect John Rogers has been building up since 2013; the others are the Globe in Rye and the Woolpack in Warehorne, both of which had previously lain empty for some years. All are in lovely walking country – particularly around the 1805 Royal Military Canal, dug to stop Napoleon marching across the marsh. John promotes them under the (rather cringey) Ramblinns brand, with a minibus service so that guests can walk the 10 or so miles between the inns, perhaps with a picnic dropped off on the way.

Five Bells Inn Brabourne

The dining room

Silver-haired, blue-eyed John is a larger-than-life figure, and his ideas about pub interiors are as idiosyncratic as his rooms. His pet hate is the way a bar can be a barrier, particularly if buttressed by the backsides of a row of locals on bar stools. So all his pubs have a low bar, or just a table piled generously with nuts, olives and other nibbles. The idea is to offer an instant, friendly welcome, and at all three pubs it seems to work.

My son and I arrive at the Five Bells as the light is fading, having done quite a pub crawl: lunch at the Woolpack, a nine-mile hike to the Globe, then a minibus ride here. So I’m ready for some downtime in my room, Bacchus. (Son’s room is Fuggle, after a famous Kentish hop.) All the rooms – four here, five at the Woolpack – have freestanding baths, which is OK for couples, less good for sharing friends. There are also no in-room televisions, which I’m fine with, and no kettle or tea things, which I’m not.

Bacchus Room, Five Bells Inn

Bathing beauty … the Bacchus room

Nevertheless, soaking in the bath watching the fire flicker feels quite special, as does dinner downstairs. John may have a thing about bars, but he’s passionate about his pubs. His public spaces are welcoming and intriguing – garlands of fresh hops, lots of reclaimed wood, lobster pots, sheepskins and shelves of local wines, jams and juices – and with no tables formally laid for meals, they’re as welcoming to drinkers as diners

The Woolpack Inn, Warehorne

The Woolpack Inn, 10 miles away in the village of Warehorne

The three pubs share a core menu, but each chef adds their own “Daily Doings” list, from which I pick a main of Dungeness plaice (£15) with samphire and spinach. It’s deliciously fresh, but the standout dish is our witty shared starter of “mini ham, egg and chips” (£7) – little ham hock patties, crushed peas, thread-like “chips” and a glorious soft-yolked scotch egg. Son’s plum and apple crumble is delightfully tart but enormous – big enough to feed an entire family. Like much else here, it’s bonkers and oversized – but then generosity is an endearing fault.
Accommodation was provided by the Five Bells (doubles from £90 B&B)

Ask a local

Jo Dorey, co-founder Ethel Loves Me gallery, Rye

Rye harbour nature reserve.

Rye harbour nature reserve. Photograph: Alamy

A circular walk round Brockhill country park near Hythe, takes around an hour, so is great for a family outing. There are woods, a lake and a playground, and a vegetarian cafe. Rye Harbour nature reserve has free parking and a footpath to the beach with views to Winchelsea and Dungeness.

Don’t be put off by the shed-like look of Bosun’s Bite on Rye Harbour: it serves tasty breakfasts, doorstep sandwiches and veggie sausages.

Once the home of Victorian actress Ellen Terry, 16th-century Smallhythe Place in Tenterden has a collection of her theatrical items, a gorgeous garden and a theatre in the grounds where Shakespearian plays are performed. Animals saved from slaughter, abuse or neglect live out the rest of their lives in peace at the Retreat Animal Rescue in High Halden. Visitors can wander around and see contented horses, chickens, ferrets and more.

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