1 Wharf Hill
Just off Chesil Street in the lovely historic city of Winchester there is a very unique, traditional free house called The Black Boy that, although a little out of the way from the pedestrian shopping district, is well worth a visit. Originally built in the early 1800’s, the pub has seen many additions over the years, giving it a higgledy-piggledy rabbit warren feel. Each room and corridor is on a slightly different level, so that one must take care when moving from one room to the next. Step up to go from the bar to the dining room on the left, then two steps down for the narrow corridor housing the loos. Some rooms are windowless and dimly lit - great for boozing - while others are bright and cheery with a bank of windows and walls of books. A warm fire beckons on chilly days and a table laden with newspapers keeps you up to date on current events.
Free houses in England are becoming quite rare, as most pubs these days are tied to large breweries and even larger food, hotel and property chains. A free house is a pub that is free of the control of any one particular brewery, but a shingle hanging in front of the pub proclaiming “free house” does not necessarily mean that the pub is independent or a guarantee of quality. So to stumble upon a truly free house (independently owned and operated) is cause for great rejoicing. The Black Boy is a truly free house. Queue the Snoopy-happy dance.
Owned by a languid, mischievous chap named David, whose independent spirit and whimsical taste is evident wherever one looks, the pub is a wonderfully peculiar place to quaff a few pints on a drizzly autumn day. We were certainly not alone – the pub attracts a wide ranging clientele, from office workers, farmers, and students, to professional barflies and several of man’s best friends. I was excited to see the range of real ales on tap and made a mental note to thank our friends Pete and Caroline for recommending the pub to us. Thanks P&C!!
There is plenty to look at in the Black Boy. Taxidermy seems to be a specialty, with dogs, alligators, pheasants…even a little burro stands nearby, as if waiting for someone to put a pack on his back and lead him away. Steve thought there was a grey cat sleeping on one of the many leather sofas, only to go up to give it a stroke and discover that it was instead a stuffed stoat, curled up as if happily napping. It can be a little unsettling. Pete, who has spent many a night at the pub (it was his local as a university student), said that the critters are always being moved around by the staff, and after a few beers one’s perception of reality becomes quite bent.
Good luck locating the bathrooms. The doors masquerade as bookshelves, so first-timers may find themselves groping their way along the dark wall to find it. I felt like Nancy Drew searching for a secret passage. Once inside, ladies should avoid looking at the ceiling; dozens of gynecological implements hang from wires overhead. Best not to think too hard about it and get out quickly.
Everywhere you look there is something new and different: Odd signs tout the benefits of teeth extraction or warn of dangerous bridges; creepy paintings and fake cuts of meat hang from the walls; children’s school chairs are twinned with regular-sized tables for an off-kilter dining experience; game boards have been turned into dining tables and there’s an old-school video game table with classics like Space Invaders. Look up – there’s a miniature German fighter plane from World War II, hundreds of old fashioned keys, and an impressive collection of gentlemen’s smoking pipes. One wall is lined with old fire buckets, while faucets and taps jut from window sills and various nooks and crannies. Hang on, is that a stuffed bear? Look at the tiny piano! Oh my gosh, I wonder if that Aga stove still works? Where do you suppose they got all those safes? Did I just see a baboon wearing a kilt?
Now the food at The Black Boy is traditional English fare like cod & chips and toad in the hole (sausages wrapped in bacon and baked in a soufflé), but they also offer a small selection of cold sandwiches and a few hot specials, which include several veggie options. I waffled between the penne pasta with mushroom sauce and the goat cheese tart, with the latter winning out. It was decent but not something I would order again – the tart reminded me of a slice of pizza topped with red bell pepper, mushroom, corgettes, onions and parsley with a thick helping of goat cheese plopped on top. The cheese really overpowered the rest of the ingredients and I ended up removing two-thirds of it. The tart came with a rather tired salad of romaine, cucumber and tomato. Steve thought the burger he ordered was tasty but a bit pricey at £8.50. I think the next time we visit (and there will definitely be a next time – Pete, the first round is on me) I’ll try one of their vegetarian cold sandwiches instead.
The beer on the other hand more than made up for the so-so food. I chose the Itchen Valley Pure Gold, an award-winning blonde ale with a sweet, malty flavor, brewed in the heart of Hampshire at New Alresford. With a bitter bite and a smooth, sweet finish, it was absolutely delicious. The pub serves only locally brewed ales, normally from the Ringwood Brewery, Triple FFF Brewery, The Hampshire Brewery and the previously mentioned Itchen Valley Brewery. It is no wonder that everyone seems to refer to The Black Boy as a “traditional backstreet boozer.” It is, and marvelously so.
The Black Boy is, in my humble opinion, the best boozer in all of Hampshire. Go for the beer, stay for the fun!