The Old Sawmills Inn, Watermouth Valley
Before the birth of Otter Brewery back in 1990, Dad had a brief sabbatical after his days with Whitbread. Believe it or not, when it came to furniture making he was as sharp as most of the chisels in his box. He made (and I sanded) everything from little wooden mice that were destined for cheese boards, through to bunk beds for the likes of Nigel Lawson who requested them for his kids. I’m assuming Nigella snuggled into one of them….. enough! It seems fitting then that Dad would join me for this trip and we could reminisce about old times where I seemed to do nothing more than sweep up the saw dust.
Re-opened in June 2016, The Old Sawmills is the latest addition to a stable of four North Devon pubs managed and owned by a local family business. In 1667 this property would have been part of the large Watermouth Estate. Now, with its great thick walls and big fire centrepiece, this previously dark and tired space has become an expanded version of a proper rural pub within easy reach of the South West Coast Path.
You’ve all heard of the Famous Five…. well we brewed them! Amber, Ale, Bitter, Bright and Head, they love it around here. This area of woodland between Combe Martin and Ilfracombe is where the TV adaption of the original adventure story was filmed. Suffice to say the rugged coastline is rich in history, tales of piracy and smuggling and home to secret caves and shipwrecks. Luckily, this is a pub for all seasons and their four New England beach style bedrooms mean that you can stay as long as you want.
With its choice of local ales, craft beers and Devon scrumpy rotating on the pumps, this is somewhere that has reassuringly kept the character of what a good pub should be whilst also moving with the times. The atmosphere in the split level, open plan dining room adapts quickly as different people fill it. Breakfast is served until 11.30 am and ensures North Devon’s lumberjacks are well catered for. After that the kitchen shifts gear and confidently turns out everything from flame grilled Exmoor steaks with wood fired sweet potatoes to glazed ribs, spicy chicken wings and tapas. By cooking low and slow in ‘Big Bertha’ the chefs use their charcoal fired oven to great effect and cleverly impart a unique flavour into different ingredients.
We dropped in the day before the Exeter Chiefs were set for action at Sandy Park. Sat in a pub that regularly shows live rugby what better chance to try out their match day scoff. This is food designed to go with a drink. The kitchen trim down the beef brisket and then slowly braise it in stout and bourbon for 10 hours. This is served with garlic mayo and chips and ideally a pint of Amber – so that’s scoff, cheer, slurp or cheer, slurp, scoff? Whichever you choose it’s a marriage made in heaven.
A lot of my brewery life is focussed around our East Devon heartland so it always feels good to head north and blow off the cobwebs. When you do find somewhere new that has set out its stall so well it’s definitely a journey worth making. Oh yes…. Dad still maintains I was useless in his workshop – better stick to the brewery then!
The Old Sawmills Inn, Watermouth Valley, Ilfracombe. EX34 9SJ.
Tel: 01271 883388