A tale of two pubs (Lizard, Cornwall)

Before our recent holiday in Cornwall I read up on the local pubs. Where the village of the Lizard was concerned, this didn’t take long. There were two choices: the Top House and the Witchball.

Commenters on Beer In The Evening were very scathing about the Top House. One wrote:

The new owners simply want to run it as a restaurant and have completely excluded their local trade through a number of means. For instance one of their first acts was to get rid of the folk evening and stop all other local fund raising events such as the quiz nights. An immediate stop to entertainment. OK so it is the summer season but you will now be asked to move if you sit at a table without buying a meal and from experience anyone who has argued has since been asked to leave. The locals are now boycotting the Top House in favour of the nearby Witchball.

And the Witchball?

A small but friendly pub with a lovely beer garden in the summer. Free house so use only local ales from a local brewery. Since the locals were excluded from the Top House we have been using the pub regularly.

(On inspection, both these comments were written by the same person.)

Anyway, I’ve been to both and can report back. The Witchball was small, pleasantly busy and friendly. It certainly appears to be frequented by locals and does an excellent range of beer; I had a pint of Chough’s (brewed a few miles up the road) and one of Gray’s Best (presumably the Mansfield brew, although the pump clip was unfamiliar). The Chough’s wasn’t in the best of nick, sad to say, but the Gray’s was rather fine. We inquired about eating there but the dining room was booked out for the evening; also, the chef hadn’t turned up for work yet, so the landlady wasn’t entirely sure what was going to be on. It was that kind of place. Great atmosphere, though – I’d go back there like a shot.

Still in search of something to eat, we headed for the Top House. I told my other half dark tales about the Beer in the Evening comments, although these lost their impact somewhat when she pointed out that we (a) weren’t locals and (b) actually wanted to eat. Fair point. My first impression was that the comments about the new landlord pitching for the food trade were not wrong: the furniture seemed to consist entirely of wooden chairs arranged around oblong tables with a number screwed on, plus a few stools at the bar. We were shown to our table by a young lad in a uniform teeshirt, and had what was actually a fairly pleasant meal. There was something distinctly corporate and impersonal about the place: the lads serving seemed to have been drilled in a few stock phrases, all redolent of an up-market chain restaurant (“OK, that’ll be with you guys shortly”; “Enjoy your meals” (I hate that plural)). Our main courses were very nice, but it has to be said that they were with us very shortly after ordering – certainly in less time than it would have taken to cook the meat through. Our puddings, on the other hand, seemed to take forever (despite only requiring fairly basic assemblage) and weren’t brilliant when they arrived. One member of the party, who has a nut allergy, ordered a dish served “with grated chocolate” in preference to one “with chocolate and nuts”; it came with chocolate and nuts, and when we complained was replaced by one with neither. And I had the cheese, which was pretty awful – a brie, a blue cheese and a smoked cheddar, all of which somehow had the same rubbery, pasty texture; I wonder now if they’d been frozen. (Nice biscuits, though.)

And yet, and yet. The locals haven’t all deserted the Top House or been barred – the bar stools at the front of the pub weren’t there for decoration, and later in the evening there was a lively conversation going on there. It also turned out to be Folk Night, much to my surprise; in practice this meant a group sitting in one corner and playing tunes to entertain the diners, rather than the more participative session you usually expect from a ‘folk night’, but it was better than nothing (or piped music). And then there was the beer, which was (predictably) a bit too cold but otherwise very nice indeed. The pub is a St Austell house and has a full range of their beers; I had an IPA (a bit of an oddity these days, with a strength of 3.4%) and an HSD, both of which were full of flavour and in very good condition.

Verdict: a friendly pub is a wonderful thing, but a bit of efficiency doesn’t go amiss – particularly when it comes to beer quality. (I’ve had some very good pints in some large and soulless Wetherspoons’.) The Witchball is still streets ahead in my personal estimation, but if I were judging on the beer alone it would be a much closer call. And it seems as if the Harvesterisation of the Top House was exaggerated, or else has been partly reversed – which serves as a reminder that reviews can’t give you the whole story. There’s no substitute for seeing for yourself.

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