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The White Lion in Thakeham

Julia and Ashley at The White Lion (©AAH/Alan Wright)

Published: 1st November 2022

The White Lion in Thakeham reopened its doors in October. The idyllic 16th century coaching inn has long been at the heart of village life, but had been closed for 18 months before the arrival of Ashley Chapman and Julia Sullivan. They hope a combination of good food and a homely atmosphere will revive the pub’s fortunes… 


Ashley and Julia both have experience of working at Michelin-starred restaurants. Ashley has been a chef for 14 years and has worked with renowned chefs including Michael Wignall at The Latymer at Pennyhill Park and Stephen Terry at The Hardwick Restaurant in Abergavenny, where he met Julia. He then made his name as head chef at Sorrel Restaurant in Dorking, maintaining a Michelin star for four years and picking up further accolades including four AA rosettes and an AA Restaurant of the Year award. Meanwhile, Julia has spent the last four years at Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens, most recently as head pastry chef. She said: ‘Working at a Michelin-starred restaurant like Interlude is hard work, but it has been a fantastic opportunity. Now, we both feel it is time for us to do something new as a couple, focusing on our own business.’


Ashley left Sorrel in January and during the summer balanced freelance work with hunting for the right location for their new venture. They considered several options before stumbling on The White Lion in The Street. The much-loved pub’s doors were  closed, leading to residents fearing for its future. Ashley said: ‘We could see immediately that the pub had character and history. It was owned by Johnnie and Emma Kennedy, who have taken on several pubs in West Sussex. However, they were never able to open The White Lion. It has been extremely difficult since COVID, as many pub and restaurant workers found work in other industries. I have known the Kennedys for a while, as a friend of mine helped them establish The Welldiggers Arms in Petworth, and they have been very supportive of our venture here.’ 


Since its re-opening, locals have been regaling the pub’s new occupants with stories. Many of these involve legendary landlord Bill Newton. When he passed away in 2000, The White Lion closed and there was a campaign to save the pub. Ashley said: ‘The locals have welcomed us with open arms and told us many tales. There was a missing plaque on the bar, and we were told it was in honour of a dog called Scrappy. The plaque has since been returned and is back in its old spot. Others have brought in relics, pictures and even trophies from a shooting party that used to be displayed or hung here but were taken back when people thought it might not reopen. Others are bringing in tankards and gin glasses for behind the bar.’ ‘We were made to feel part of the community very quickly. We’ve seen The Toffs, a group of local gentlemen, returning and once again booking the Gun Room for their get-togethers. I think the residents of Thakeham are just relieved to see a friendly team here. Although it is our pub, it is theirs too.’ 


The White Lion’s rural setting means it attracts many walkers with muddy boots and dirty dogs. Despite backgrounds working in acclaimed kitchens, Ashley and Julia have embraced the spirit of the country pub and appreciate that many people just want to enjoy a pint of ale or a glass of brandy by the fire. As a free house, the pub isn’t tied to a brewery. However, it has already established favourites on its taps. Julia said: ‘Everybody seems to love a pint of Harvey’s around here. We have two Harvey’s pumps (Sussex Best and Old Ale) as well as one each from Langham Brewery and Hepworth’s. We have another guest pump and are hoping to offer beers by local breweries. We also serve Amstel, Birra Moretti, Beavertown, Inch’s cider and Guinness.’ 


However, the focus is really on food. They have kept the menu simple, with five starters and six main courses, although seasonal dishes will appear on the specials board in due course. Starters include pumpkin soup with spiced pumpkin seeds, chalk stream trout rillette with toasted lemon rye, game terrine with cornichons and toasted sourdough, raw and baked beetroot with pink grapefruit and cashew feta, and buratta with chargrilled purple sprouting broccoli. Ashley said: ‘Our focus is on creating pub classics with a certain quality and standard. There isn’t anything over-complicated, but most dishes have one element that includes something different in terms of technique, or an ingredient that elevates it, without it becoming too pretentious. In time, some dishes may lean more towards fine dining, but mainly it’s about demonstrating our understanding of flavours in classic dishes.’ 


Mains include pure wagyu beef burger with smoked cheese, tomato relish, baby gem lettuce and skinny fries, beer battered fish and chunky chips, sausage and mash with caramelised onion gravy, Cornish cod with creamed leeks, new potatoes and seaweed butter sauce, and braised short rib of beef with pomme puree, hispi cabbage and red wine sauce. Ashley said: ‘We work with some fantastic suppliers who we know and trust. Bread comes from our friend Ben White at Gwyn’s Bakery in Horsham, and we source meat from Aubrey Allen, who provide the quality we need, while vegetables are from Thornicrofts of London. Although they’re not all local, I know these suppliers and can rely on a consistently great product. It is a similar story with our seafood suppliers who can provide fresh, clean fish off the day boats, and our potato supplier, who offers seasonal produce that gives us the golden crispiness we’re looking for.’


All of this is offered at a reasonable price, with the wagyu beef burger £16.50 and the beer battered fish and chips priced at £16.95. The rising cost of living is having an impact and we’re all counting the pennies. With that in mind, the menu has been priced to offer good quality yet affordable dishes. ‘Some pubs are microwaving meals to keep costs down, but everything we make is fresh,’ says Julia. ‘It is difficult, as everyone in the hospitality industry is having to cope with rising costs. But at the same time, you need to attract customers and we aim to do that by delivering good food at a reasonable price. We love the idea of sharing too, especially on Sundays, when we see families with kids and grandparents coming here. So, we offer roast chicken for two to share (£28.50) and our roast beef (£19.50) is served with Yorkshire pudding and potatoes on the plate, with everything else served to encourage sharing. If you want more cauliflower cheese, gravy or more potatoes, we’ll bring it out!’


With the new owners having both had experience of working and even leading Michelin-starred restaurants, is there a temptation to pursue similar accolades at The White Lion? Apparently not, claims Ashley. ‘We are not going to obtain a star here and it’s not our goal. We have been in the industry for long enough to know that success depends on knowing your area and clientele and running a Michelin-starred restaurant in Thakeham would not be financially viable. We have worked hard over the past 20 years and the last thing we want to do is go into a business to fulfil our own ego, rather than run a profitable venture that benefits us and the community. However, if we could achieve a couple of AA rosettes and perhaps even a Michelin Bib Gourmand, that would be a huge achievement. It will take us a while to find our feet, but if we establish The White Lion as a destination, perhaps we can build a brand and – who knows – maybe five years down the line, we’ll be able to invest in a second site.’


Further information: The Street, Thakeham, RH20 3EP

Tel: 01798 813141