It’s easy to see why people make such a fuss about The Olde Bell Inn—all rush matting, pewter pitchers, colorful Welsh woolen blankets, local high-backed chairs handcrafted in nearby High Wycombe, and a flock of sheepskin throws tossed in every direction. With makeover by Ilse Crawford (the revered former editor of Elle Decor known for bringing modern design to the English masses), the Olde Belle is the oldest functioning inn in England. Paint peels, stairs creak, rooms slant. And for it, there’s a tangible sense of place at Ye Olde Bell, as the sign reads out front next to the namesake iron bell. Crawford honors the long storied history dating back to 1135, instead of trying to re-create a new interior all glossy and pristine.
Old photos and postcards tell the stories. An ancient passageway through the fireplace runs from the pub to the old priory down the street. Monks used to welcome visitors in the bar when they heard the bell clanging; Elizabeth Taylor was a regular; Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower stayed here prior to the Normandy Invasion. The place has seen lifetimes of political upheavals, generational turnovers, natural disasters. Once, the present owner, who invested all his savings in wine, woke up to a flood and all his wine bottles floating in the street.
But the Olde Bell is not some kind of touristy living museum, preserved for show. When I stayed there (while writing a travel story for Interiors), I was blown away by the intimate level of service and impeccable local food effort. Hailing from famous farm-to-table London restaurant St. John’s, innkeeper Neil Irving, who pulls off red suspenders without a hint of irony, sums it up perfectly. “It’s been here for almost 1,000 years. We’re insignificant, just here as caretakers. The building is the character… Some people are annoyed because there’s no minibar in the room, but we want to interact with people. It’s not about pushing people into a room and forgetting about them because we have their credit card.”
We ate local English comfort food: Wood pigeon! Salt lamb shank! Pheasant pie! Jam and bread! Raised beds in the brick-walled garden feed the kitchen with rosemary, thyme, oregano, arugula, strawberries, artichokes and tomatoes, while colorful jars of preserves and pickled vegetables decorate windowsills. We spent afternoons in the pub, planted in front of the picture-book roaring fireplace with a pint—or glass of cider from a nearby mill.
We took long walks along the Thames, which we could see from our second-story room with a peaked-roof and long view of the moor. There was even a freestanding soaking tub, from which, yes, I did, in fact, read a few chapters of the complimentary Pride and Prejudice.