George Orwell famously set out the key attributes of his perfect pub, the fictitious Moon Under Water, in his 1946 essay of the same name. Welcoming, friendly and with none of the annoyances that plague other establishments, Orwell’s detailed description seemed too good to be true. However, as far as we know, he never visited The Hampshire Bowman.
Since The Moon Under Water is a now a favoured name of JD Wetherspoon – there are 14 bearing the title up and down the UK and it’s a fair guess that none of these would meet with Orwell’s approval – it is up to others to take on the mantle of living up to the great author’s vision.
This former coaching inn with roots in the 1700s and set in beautiful Hampshire countryside at Dundridge, is a free house that has been a staple of the CAMRA good pub guide for more than 25 years.
Proudly proclaiming itself “dog friendly and mobile phone unfriendly”, the Bowman has signs stipulating that any patron responsible for sounds produced from a mobile or tablet device faces a charity fine. There were, of course, no mobiles in George Orwell’s day, but this rules chimes perfectly (and noiselessly) with his key requirement that the dream pub “is quiet enough to talk, possessing neither a radio nor a piano”.
Another Orwellian challenge – that “you go through a narrow passage leading out of the saloon, and find yourself in a fairly large garden” is more than met by the Bowman. This beer garden is very large and very green with spectacular views and plenty of tables to enjoy it from. On the very hot Bank Holiday Saturday we visited, kids roamed freely on bikes and in Little Tikes cars, enjoying the rush of speeding down a little natural ramp behind us while mums and dads sipped from their glasses.
Orwell’s description of the Moon Under Water’s garden could just as easily apply here (given his era, we will forgive him his old-fashioned approach to parenting): “Many as are the virtues of The Moon Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.”
As it happens, on the day of my visit, Mum actually was at home looking after the kids – this was a rare Dads’ afternoon out, in the company of two fellow fathers who both live with their young families in nearby Swanmore. The pub is a decent walk from that village – one friend is a running fanatic whose Strava app tracked it as a 30-minute amble along a very pleasant 1.8 mile route. Due to the quality of the ales on offer, there are no records in Strava, or in my memory, of the timing and route taken back.
As this was an afternoon and evening out organised by men, food wasn’t considered until it was too late to get any, but a chalkboard inside the pub offers an ever-changing range of specials that make use of the chef’s own on-site herb garden, with mains priced from £6 to £12. Since most of my pub visits these days are with the family, the offer of a children’s menu increases the appeal of a more responsible return visit. The stunning but rural location really means that for most visitors, a designated driver will be required, aside from the lucky few who are fortunate to live within walking distance.
Like the menu, the ales and cider on offer also change regularly – pints of Summer Lightning went down very well, as did a sweet strawberry cider that was perfect as dusk fell and the beer garden emptied.
Inside the pub, a selection of board games and other non-electronic distractions give the feeling that even on the coldest of winter days, this would be a great place to hole up, grab a roast dinner and a pint and settle in for the afternoon. Bar staff are friendly, knowledgeable and welcoming and the surroundings are glorious. From this family man and real ale-lover, the Hampshire Bowman comes highly recommended – it’s just such a shame that Orwell isn’t around to raise a glass to it.