REVIEW: The Guinness Arms in Elveden

PUBLISHED: 14:33 14 May 2020 | UPDATED: 14:54 14 May 2020

Guinness Arms

Guinness Arms

©Emma Cabielles Photography

A major revamp and an impressive local menu has breathed new life into Elveden’s local pub | Words: Tessa Allingham - Photos: Emma Cabielles

This article was written prior to lockdown and some information may now be incorrect. Please check all local information for the latest updates.

Venison’s from the estate?” As opening questions go it’s pretty flaky. The Guinness Arms is on 20,000-plus acres of Breckland where deer – red, roe, fallow, muntjac – roam and where a gamekeeper is tasked with keeping numbers at habitat-friendly levels. I think I know the answer.

“Of course,” Ben Hyde, the snappily waistcoated general manager, comes back in a gracious, smiling heartbeat. “I’d be killed if it wasn’t.”

And so out comes a plate of carpaccio, apparently from a 120kg red deer culled on the Elveden Estate, hung for two weeks and broken down in the pub kitchen.

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Sweet, butter-soft slices of raw fillet give instantly to the knife. The herb-crusted meat has been seared over fierce heat to colour the outside but leave the inside a rich, deep crimson.

Black garlic mayo, dotted around, asserts its flavour without dominating, as do the pickled and fresh walnuts, and the lightest of dressings on some perky salad leaves.

More crimson follows, this time of a sort that vegan and vegetarian diners would approve – beetroot wellington, the golden-glazed pastry as satisfying to break apart as the sweet-sharp root is to slice and eat.

Like the carpaccio, the key ingredient – beetroot – is champion, even though accompanying kale and carrots with a gloss of butter and flecks of flavour-lifting salt are good support acts.

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The menu doesn’t set out to challenge or mystify. Head chef Matt Hearn sends out food that pleases, satisfies, nods to East Anglia (the pork is Dingley Dell’s, most of the fish is Lowestoft-landed), and celebrates the Estate’s abundance. Try the sharing plates.

From the Farm sings loudest with its venison scotch egg (a rich-yolked duck egg), a sausage roll that’s fit to burst, chicken rillettes and Lord Iveagh’s Dublin wings.

“They’re a favourite of his,” says head chef Matt Hearn. “But we did tone down the fieriness, and we use maple syrup to get a lovely crispness on the skin.”

Mains have muscle, and game leads the pack. Venison sausages are made in-house and come with champ and – of course – Guinness gravy. Suet pies are brim-filled with daily-changing meats, maybe pheasant or pigeon or more of that venison.

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“We have a couple who are already regulars, come every Tuesday evening,” says Ben. “They’ll call in the morning, ask what the pie is, and always order that.” A venison wellington special sold out in 30 minutes.

The Red Lion burger, served with a suggestion of pink – its name an homage to the pub’s previous identity – flies too. Come on Sunday when three meats are roasted, and the hungry or undecided can have all at once in an appetite-defying, table-filling sharing platter.

There are fish and vegetarian dishes – stone bass with polenta, or monkfish with a coconutty Goan curry, or a chickpea and courgette tagine. And fish and chips of course, this being a pub. Desserts have ready appeal.

A fruit pie and custard will change with the seasons, and a sultry chocolate fondant that slips moltenly towards the edge of the plate, in front of a nearby guest, is a pudding to make choc-lovers sigh.

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Matt is no newcomer to Elveden having worked at the Elveden Inn for two years before periods at the Fox at Bulmer Tye, and at Bourgee in Bury St Edmunds and Chelmsford. The lure of working so close to produce – game in particular but also estate-grown vegetables and the mushrooms and plants to be foraged in woodland – was powerful.

“We pick the animals we want, and Rob [Minty, gamekeeper] delivers them whole,” says Matt. “We butcher them here. Nothing is wasted.” Shin and haunch goes into pies, prime fillet is kept for that carpaccio, bones enrich a stock.

For a Monday lunchtime in late November, there’s a busy-ness in this 90-cover restaurant that many a restaurant would envy – young families, friends catching up, retirees checking out a new lunchtime haunt, staff from the nearby American airbase.

“This is quiet,” Ben says. “We’ve got 60 in tonight, we’re full tomorrow evening. On Sunday we did 122 between 12pm and 5pm, another 60 between 5pm and 8pm. Christmas sold out before the menus were even printed.”

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What’s the secret? Ben shrugs. Coming from Côte (he opened the Bury St Edmunds branch in April 2012 and managed it till October 2014) and the Chop Bloc steakhouse in Chelmsford, he thinks nothing of brisk, high-volume business, but loves that here it’s balanced by a family feel.

“The gamekeeper, the gardeners, the electricians, the directors, Lord and Lady Iveagh. . . they pop in all the time.”

Business has built as word has spread. Invitations to an opening party went to every household in Icklingham and guests packed the pub, lured by the potent combination of curiosity, canapés and prosecco, some also wanting to check that rumours of expensiveness were false.

By all accounts the place rocked. “Nineteen seconds it was taking for canapé plates to come back empty,” says Matt. It was worth the effort. “We wanted local people to know that we are their pub,” says Ben.

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“I hope they feel that. We thought we’d have carnage through October because we were new, then November would be calmer, but that hasn’t happened. I just wish the restaurant was twice the size.”

The Guinness Arms re-opened back in October after a 10-month, £2.5million refurbishment. Formerly the Red Lion, the listed building, set back from the road between Bury St Edmunds and Mildenhall, had languished for several damp, unloved years before Lord Iveagh decided to put things right.

A major overhaul, including a bright extension to the dining space, was finished with the previously forgettable shade of magnolia being painted a sassy Farrow & Ball Hague Blue, the pub’s new name writ in proud golden letters on the wall.

Inside, there’s 16th century detail aplenty. The bar is still very much a bar, a place to lean into and prop up – think exposed brickwork, beams in all states of wonkiness, wood-burners, leather armchairs, Guinness family memorabilia.

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There’s a coppery glimmer to the main dining room, nods to industrial chic toned down by bare wooden or tile-topped tables and muted paint colours. A striking tree mural covers one wall, plants in macramé holders hang from the ceiling. Vast windows look onto a vast terrace and a vast garden that slips down towards the river Lark.

The importance of family is evident in the eight bedrooms adjacent to the pub, each room being named after a Guinness relative. Book the Lulu (she of handbag design fame) for a contemporary four-poster and wall painted with tangled roses, or the Bunny (gardening fans will love it) with its deep shades of green and dusty pink.

Matt and Ben look out at the November terrace, shiny with rain, the grass patchy with just-planted saplings, trees along the river boundary dark and bare – and imagine summer.

There are plans for a play-area, and to erect an outdoor screen for film nights with beanbags on the grass, picnic hampers, a barbecue.

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“I’m looking forward to long summer evenings, people enjoying a picnic or barbecue, lounging on beanbags,” says Matt.

Guinness Arms, The Street, Icklingham, Bury St Edmunds IP28 6PS

Discover Elveden’s heritage

The Elveden Estate is owned by Lord and Lady Iveagh, Edward and Clare Guinness. It has been the Guinness family seat since the first Lord Iveagh bought it 1894 following the death of previous owner and last Sikh Maharajah, Duleep Singh, who had been exiled to England.

About half of the estate’s 22,500 acres is given over to onions, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, cereals – and Christmas trees. Conservation is important too.

Habitats for endangered species of plants and birds (notably stone curlews and barn owls) are preserved, and deer are culled to ensure healthy numbers.

A busy farm shop, café, and gift shop connect the estate with the public. A Blue Diamond garden centre is set to open in the Walled Garden during 2020.

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