Shipton Gorge is a very pleasant little Dorset village nestling in folds in the hills just off the A35 west of Dorchester. It's a place that traffic hurries past, largely oblivious to its existence and charms, which is probably just how the locals like it. To sustain a pub these days, however, it seems locals alone are not enough, even though no village could have done much more to save its pub than Shipton, as the background story on its website testifies.
Having successfully done so, however, the village really needs to get behind the pub and make a point of using it, or risk losing it finally and forever. Like many pubs that have succumbed to changing usage habits and patterns, if The New Inn closes again there is little doubt that its owners will seek a change of use to sell it off as a house and that will be that - another pub joining the 50+ that cease to trade permanently every week.in the UK.
We were visiting a relative in Shipton who had booked a Saturday evening meal at The New Inn. We had been there before, but not since a change of landlord and the new one (landlady, more accurately) had made quite a few changes, not least to decor and furnishings. Out with the swirly carpets and in with bare wooden floors - much more attractive - and wood burning stove, which was alight, giving the bar a cosy feel. Other changes included giving the darts team the heave-ho and scrapping quiz nights (the latter since reinstated), presumably with the intention of dragging the place more upmarket. That's fine with a commercially-viable destination gastropub, but a big gamble with a little local inn struggling to shake off a chequered past, and one that doesn't seem to be paying off, because when we arrived there were only two other people there and they were only drinking at the bar.
'It's going to be a long evening', said the landlady feelingly and quite audibly to one of the drinkers, after we had ordered drinks and food, feeling somewhat exposed and lonely in our corner of the bar. As the drinkers departed, leaving the whole place to us, we couldn't help agreeing with her, but for different reasons.
The menu is pub grub staples, but very short. Again, nothing wrong with that in principle if the chef (the landlady prefers the term cook) is mega-talented and you are being treated to some daily specials that showcase his/her talent) but a bit more choice would make the place feel a bit less like one of those village shops where there's too much space between the goods on the shelves, giving the distinct impression that the owner can't really afford to stock the place properly and interestingly.
The food when it came was competently prepared if unremarkable (except for the fact that it was prepared at all, since apparently the cook was suffering from gout and had dragged himself in for a limited service, for which our thanks). No-one in our party said they didn't enjoy what they had to eat and we had a very nice bottle of Rioja to go with it, so went home feeling sated but slightly uneasy - you really want The New Inn to succeed, but both the landlady and the villagers are going to have to try a bit harder for that to happen. I wish them luck.
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