On Wednesday night, Tiff’s dad’s friend Janet treated us to dinner at the Shoe Inn in Exton, a village in the South Downs national park just off the A32 between Wickham and Alton.
Tiff’s dad picked me up straight from work so we arrived just before 6pm. I’d directed us on a bit of a detour down some extremely narrow lanes. So everyone was relieved to arrive in one piece.
Exton is a typical Hampshire village with cottages covered in wisteria, gardens full of pristine roses and flint lining the walls. The pub itself is probably the most modern building in the village, from the outside. Inside, it’s divided into three areas and is mostly geared to eating – there’s a large dining area off to the right, a cosy bar area in the middle of the pub and another smaller dining area once you’ve passed through there. There are glimpses of Old Winchester Hill – an ancient hill fort – from most of the street-facing windows.
As well as food and drink, the pub sells local produce such as bottles of sparkling wine and jam, which you can sample at the bar. There are no menus on tables – food is listed on a chalk board by the entrance with desserts on a smaller board in the middle bar area.
If the exterior of the pub is modern, the interior is anything but. Dried hops hang comfortingly across the top of the bar while the furniture, decor and various pictures and tastefully selected knick knacks are a constant reminder that you’re deep in the Hampshire countryside. The large brown brogue on the windowsill adds a touch of the surreal but we are in the Shoe Inn after all!
The pub also boasts a riverside garden across the street in addition to some seating on a terrace at the front of the pub. We ordered some drinks to take over to the garden so that we could enjoy the balmy (if cloudy) weather. Tiff and Janet shared a bottle of blush Prosecco and Tiff’s dad had his usual Red Martini. I tried a pint of Wadworth Horizon, which tasted nice but was a little flat. The beer choice wasn’t great overall – only Wadworth beers were on offer tonight – but there was an additional hand pump waiting for a guest ale that I assume wasn’t quite ready. The clearly labelled wine selection looked impressive on show on the shelving behind the bar, but I’m no expert.
We spent half an hour or so on a bench by the crystal-clear river watching a couple of wagtails pick at the weeds, but decided to head back inside when the wind picked up. There, we chose a table by the window in the middle room and ordered our food: Tiff went for the rump steak with peppercorn sauce and fries (£14.50), Tiff’s dad chose the steak and wine pie (£13.95) and Janet went for the small fish and chips (£8.50). After much deliberation, I opted for the pork and chorizo burger with fries (£12.50). Within a few minutes, some warm bread and butter appeared on our table for us to nibble on while we waited for our mains. I also ordered another drink – the IPA – which again wasn’t really to my tastes but I don’t think that was any reflection on the quality of the pub.
By now, a few more people had arrived for meals and drinks, which made for a pleasant atmosphere. A young villager also popped in for a takeaway order of fish and chips for mum and dad. We passed some time chatting and watching the comings and goings. When the food arrived, Janet’s “small” fish and chips was more than ample and Tiff’s dad’s pie would have fed desperate Dan. My burger was nicely presented but I’m not sure that flatbread was the best choice of bun as it was hard to eat with my hands. I also wasn’t convinced that the red pepper salsa it came with was the right accompaniment, tasty as it was. However, the meal as a whole was delicious and I gulfed down the lot in my usual quick time. Tiff enjoyed her steak and praised the peppercorn sauce. Unfortunately we had to ask for Tiff’s fries as the waitress forgot to bring them out, but it was no trouble when she had to pop back to the kitchen to get them.
Once we’d polished off our mains, we decided to forgo the tempting-sounding traditional desserts on the chalkboard in favour of a selection of customised ice creams, including flavours such as Mars Bar, Crunchie, Daim, chocolate brownie and Mint Aero. The pub presumably prepares these on the premises because it also offers tubs of these custom-made ice creams for takeaway at £15 a go. I particularly enjoyed my Mars Bar ice cream.
By now, the light was beginning to fade but a few more people will still arriving for late-evening snacks. Janet kindly paid our bill, which came to just under £100 including our drinks and desserts. Then we jumped in the car to head home with me promising to take us a less adventurous route this time.
Would I recommend the Shoe Inn? Definitely. The food is good and nicely priced, the atmosphere is pleasant and relaxing, and the riverside garden is a must visit on a warm summer’s day. My only gripe was with the beer selection – maybe I’ll stick to one of the many wines that the pub offers next time…