DON'T BLAME me. Blame Richard the Lionheart. Until the middle of the 12th century there were just as many good restaurants in Hampshire as there were in London. That was in the good old days, when compilers of restaurant guides were expected to travel three months each way to eat at an inn where the chef had found a new way of spit-roasting peacocks. And then engrave their review themselves, by hand, on to scrolls of badger skin.
But then, in a notorious incident, old Coeur de Lion offended the natives of the Itchen Valley no end by taking his own cupbearers with him from London to Winchester, implying that the local ones weren't up to scratch, and bringing down the curtain on a centuries- old tradition of equality between the two cities. With the subsequent loss of Normandy, which undermined Winchester's strategic value, the more easterly city strode ahead as top capital, and all the big catering cash bailed out for London. Ever since then the South-East has to put up with takeovers of local hostelries by Caffe Uno, Starbucks, Ask Pizza and their legions, creating grim facsimiles of suburban life in formerly thriving, culturally independent communities.
Which is why places like the Wykeham Arms are the lifeblood of most of Britain. Yes, it has been there for 250 years. No, Chris and Ginger probably won't have their engagement party here, and I doubt very much that the chef spent three years scoring sprouts at Le Gavroche before going on to have his own cookery gameshow called Who Wants To Learn To Jug A Hare? But it offers hospitality the way English inns used to, before everything went wrong.
This is the sort of place Dick Whittington would have stopped to beg succour, or where Tom Jones might have had high-jinks upstairs after too much ale, and then run out in his breeches to hide in a cabbage-cart on its way to London.
In you go, through a corner door in a run-of-the-mill street in the shadow of the cathedral, and the impression is immediate. It is toasty warm, for a start, with three vast log-fires in wall-deep chimneys that open into two rooms at a time.
The Bear in Oxford may have the largest tie collection of any pub in England, but in the all-rounders category the Wykeham wins hands down. The walls are covered with pewter tankards of long-deceased regulars, as well as old teddy bears, First World War spiked helmets, faded flags, a vast array of walking sticks, pictures of Churchill's funeral, old cartoons about the glories of booze. It's all here, and it all works. Works because it does not come from the Faded Flag and Tankard Warehouse in Thurrock, but contributes modestly to a sense of history. Many of the dining tables are old desks from the adjacent Winchester College, with holes for inkwells, rivulets for spilt ink, and carved imprecations not to forget Bloggins Minor, terror of the Lower Fourth of 1923.
From the main double bar, other rooms sprout and blossom. …