The Six Bells, Billingshurst
Published on 4th December 2015
The grade II listed Six Bells has been a feature of the Billingshurst High Street since the 16th century. Indeed, some people still insist on a traditional 'Ye Olde' prefix...
There's some fascinating history relating to this historic coaching inn, most notably the cast iron tombstone behind the beautiful fireplace, that have inspired the occasional supernatural tale!
It is one of life's great, unexplained mysteries, that buildings from a particular period possess a certain aura; an aura that tempts the spirits of the dead to stick around for a few hundred years. Nobody knows why, but whilst apparently unable to alter their attire, these spirits are able to drift along corridors and pass through walls, without ever properly engaging with the building's present day inhabitants.
Ghosts grew tired of such antics around the 17th century. There was something about baroque architecture that they didn't like. So you don't hear about them so much in modern buildings. However, at The Six Bells, manager Kirsty Cooper-Johnstone and her sister Vicky, the assistant manager, claim that things have a tendency to go bump in the night. They are not the only people who claim to have seen a spirit, of one form or another, haunting the pub.
Whilst we cannot verify what the sisters can or cannot see out of the corner of their eyes after a long, exhasting day running a busy pub, we cannot question their commitment to the cause at The Six Bells.
Having grown up at The Five Oaks Inn, run by their parents James Johnstone and Barbara Cooper-Johnstone, Kirsty and Vicky are helping to revive the fortunes of the attractive timber-framed public house in the heart of Billingshurst.
Still only 22, Kirsty has been the pub's manager for about five years. Vicky first came on board to organise the pub's increasingly popular fun day, in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. Now, they hope to attract more diners with a family-friendly menu and affordable prices.
We spoke to Kirsty as we sampled The Six Bells menu...
You're young for a pub manager...
I have been the manager at The Six Bells since I was 18. I started working in the kitchen when I was about 14 and gradually worked my way up. When I first came here, the tenants were Richard and Bridget Hall. Now, I manage the pub for Mo Toal and Julie Diggens, who are business partners operating several Hall and Woodhouse pubs. I live here with my family, so I am a landlady of sorts. It certainly feels like my pub to lead!
With the help of your sister...
Mo and Julie were impressed by our charity fun day in July. It is a special event that we've hosted for five years and without Vicky organising everything, it wouldn't happen. I've now taken her on as the assistant manager and we haven't killed each other yet! Vicky is good at marketing and organising events and allows me to focus on running the pub.
It is a beautiful pub, isn't it?
It is lovely, both inside and out. It speaks to you and you have to listen to what it needs and look after it. The pub has been through ups and downs. About 14 years ago, the pub was extended, with a room built to the rear. The tenants were given an extended licence as they hoped to make The Six Bells a late-night venue and sports bar. In what is now the dining section, there were television screens and a dart board. It didn't work, so gradually we moved towards being a food-orientated business. But it is an old building; the original parts date back to the 16th
century and it can be pretty creepy at times. You do hear noises!
What kind of noises?
I'm sure that I have seen a maid walking in Victorian dress, but you never know! The building has a number of surprises. Under the fireplace, there is a tunnel that follows pipelines to the Church. We also have an iron gravestone behind the fireplace, and a huge slab of Horsham stone that we think is the biggest around. We could be here for years and not know all of this pub's secrets.
But for now the focus is on the food?
Different landlords have not always enjoyed great success with different ideas, but Richard and Bridget did start turning it around several years ago by serving good food and making it a family pub. The fun day helped generate the right atmosphere.
How did the idea for a fun day come up?
I spoke to Bridget about the idea, and four of us, including Vicky and a brilliant lady called Wendy, organised the event. The day went really well, and when it came to taking it forward, Vicky took the lead. Without her, it wouldn't happen. The fun day has gone on to be a really successful family event. In five years, we've raised about £21,000. We're now known as being a nice family pub, which Billingshurst didn't have. The Kings Arms is a very sports- orientated pub whilst The Kings Head is perhaps more of an ale drinker's pub. We do appeal to families and the elderly as there is something for everybody on the menu or specials board.
Where do you think your food is pitched?
We are traditional pub grub, and we know that. What we offer is good value for money. There are a lot of working-class families and older people in Billingshurst, so the menu is traditional and main courses are priced around £10. On the specials board, we can add surprises. A winter menu is being introduced soon with a few local dishes including a suet pudding. The food side has improved a lot since Mo and Julie came in back in April, and we are seeing customers returning. Christmas Day is nearly fully booked and we have 85 people here on 16 December.
Who leads the kitchen?
The head chef is Rory Webster, who has been at The Six Bells for two years, and our kitchen manager Miles Steff-Wood joined in June. They work really well together, brainstorming ideas and calling each other 'chef.'' They enjoy their work. They have brought the kitchen and the food back up to where we want it to be, so things are going in the right direction.
Do you source your produce locally?
We buy our produce from the same suppliers used by other pubs that Mo and Julie operate, so our main supplier is Brakes. Some people may turn their nose up at Brakes, and five years ago we probably would not have used them. But Brakes have improved their food and service massively. Our starters are all about £5 and main courses are £10, which you can't do with the finest ingredients. It is a balance, but we do only select the best from Brakes. We do buy our bread from the Jengers Craft Bakery every morning though!
You've managed to maintain a drinking area?
We have a dividing area between the pub and restaurant, which is very difficult to do. We do have regular drinkers and we find that a lot of women come here to enjoy a glass of wine after work. Perhaps they feel more comfortable in a pub run by women. As the food side of the pub picks up, we are looking to make changes. At the moment, some diners need to walk through the pool table room to sit down, which isn't ideal. We would
prefer a smoother transition.
Is Billingshurst collectively starting to attract more people back to the village?
I think that when they pedestrianised the village, it had a detrimental effect on trade. Now people are actually coming back through the village rather than using the bypass. People are also coming out to Billingshurst to eat as there is more variety, with The Six Bells, The Chef (Thai food) and Blue India. A little healthy competition can be a very good thing for the village.
Goats Cheese Tart: The goats cheese and caramelised onion tart was a pleasing starter. Served on a bed of rocket and Parmesan, there was a nice balance to the dish. The pastry was light and well-presented.
Salmon Fishcakes: A perfectly adequate starter, the cakes had an enjoyable, wholesome taste, and as with our other starters came with a fresh salad garnish. The sweet chilli dipping sauce was the same reliable fare you'll find anywhere, but again it was a good value dish.
Peri-Peri Chicken Skewers: The skewers, served with a salad garnish and sour cream, was the pick of the starters, which were all selected from the Specials board. The regular menu had failed to excite! The marinated chicken offered a moderately spicy kick, carrying good texture and flavour. Again, it was neatly presented
on a woodent slab.
Honey and Mustard Chicken: The chicken was tender and well cooked, although the flavour of the Dijon mustard was barely evident against the pleasant cauliflower and spring onion mash. A perfectly adequate, albeit
farily unremarkable, main course.
Chinese Pork Belly: The Chinese-style sticky pork belly was nicely presented on a bed of seasoned noodles. There was plenty of rich, sticky pork on boldly flavoured noodles, with a liberal dousing of peppers and spring onion spicing up the dish. We really enjoyed it!
Cod Fillet: The cod fillet was really disappointing. We can forgive the overpowering pesto and olive crust, as it just wasn't to our taste, but not the dry, tasteless fillet of fish. This one needs a rethink as it was by a distance our
least enjoyable dish.
Desserts: All of the desserts were neatly presented and cost less than £5. The pecan and almond tart was on the small side and didn't quite offer the same value for money as the delicious sticky toffee pudding with custard, or the Italian moreish chocolate fondant with cream, which was beautiful despite the lack of an oozing central filling!
That's all from Kirsty, so it's back to us to summarise our experience...
Firstly, The Six Bells is a beautiful pub, and being set back from the roadside, it is a lovely spot for families, particularly in summer when you can take advantage of the garden.
It has a large dining area and it does need bodies to provide some atmosphere. Sat near us were a family with young children, as well as a small group of elderly friends, suggesting that the pub's efforts to appeal to all are starting to work.
In all honesty, those of you who seek out the best food pubs and restaurants in the district will not find a great deal to excite them on The Six Bells menu. That's not a criticism, as the focus here is providing a good meal on a budget. The Six Bells hits those targets, offering well- presented and consistent dishes in good time. Based solely on one poor cod dish, we'd suggest that a review of suppliers for certain produce might help ensure that everything on the menu tastes freshly-prepared.
The service was warm and friendly, although it was clear that Kirsty and Vicky were balancing their food responsibilities with pulling pints at the bar. There's nothing wrong with that, but it could result in the more demanding diner feeling isolated.
After some difficult times, The Six Bells feels like a pub on the rise. With fantastic history, pleasant decor and a
traditional menu at low prices, The Six Bells offers good value for money for Billingshurst diners, and the hard-working young team driving it forward deserve support.
For more information about The Six Bells, visit the website at www.sixbellsbillingshurst.co.uk To book a table call 01403 782124