Barry Nelson tackles the journey to The Carlbury Arms, at Piercebridge, and comes away enriched

BUSINESS is tough enough for restaurants and dining pubs these days, without extreme weather events and what used to be known as “acts of God”.

But for sheer determination to overcome whatever the fates decree, a great deal of credit needs to go to Mark McNamee and Phillip Grocott, co-owners of the recently re-opened Carlbury Arms in Piercebridge.

During a post-prandial chat, it emerged that they had barely taken over the premises when the pub was badly-hit by serious flooding last November, causing thousands of pounds of damage.

“We had to start all over again, putting in new electrics, new heating and new flooring,” says Mark, who grew up in Lisburn, in Northern Ireland.

Then, imagine how you must feel if, after refurbishing, refitting and moving heaven and earth to re-open, one of the key roads serving your pub – the A67 between Darlington and Barnard Castle – is closed for an indefinite period because of a severe landslip.

“The day we re-opened our pub, the council closed the road,” says Mark.

Some of us might throw in the towel at this point, despite the diversions which mean you can still get to the pub from any direction, but Mark and Phillip, from Chilton Moor, near Houghton-le-Spring, are made of sterner stuff.

I suppose it was the landslip and concerns about the impact on businesses in the area that partly made us book a table at the Carlbury Arms.

We had dined at the pub several times in recent years and always enjoyed the experience.

Having heard it was under new management, it seemed the right time to go again.

When we arrived, we realised the interior looked a bit different, although the overall sage green colour scheme has survived. A less cluttered, more modern look, seems to be favoured along with a few quirky touches – such as the art deco-looking chromium deer’s head over the fireplace (maybe a reference to the pub being on the old Roman road known as Dere Street?).

After being shown to our table, the evening did not start particularly well.

Asked if we wanted a drink before we had even sat down, let alone seen the wine list, my wife was presented with what we assume was a house rose. The rose was perfectly drinkable – and my pint of locally-brewed Dere Street bitter was very nice – but that’s not the point, the choice was not properly offered.

Moving swiftly on, we perused the menu. Sensibly concentrating on relatively few dishes, it seems to offer something for everyone. Along with steaks, sausages, beef and Guinness pie, burgers, oven-baked salmon and battered cod, it also offered a vegetarian leek crumble option and even an all-day breakfast for anyone with a big appetite.

My wife opted to start with garlic mushrooms on Irish wheaten bread, followed by supreme chicken breast with pan fried potatoes, red onion, peas and chorizo, while I chose “old-fashioned”

prawn cocktail as my first course, followed by pork fillet and slow roast belly pork.

This was accompanied by an outstanding black pudding mash, with cabbage and a lovely rich pork gravy.

While the waiter was quick to take our order, once again he didn’t ask us if we wanted to see the wine list. A minor irritation, but a pretty basic mistake. A few minutes later we attracted the attention of the landlord and chose what turned out to be a memorable Alto Pampas del Sur Malbec, from Argentina.

Within a few mouthfuls of her first course, my wife was singing the praises of her garlic mushrooms.

Presented in a creamy sauce on delicious wholewheat bread, it was altogether very good.

I shared a forkful and agreed. My prawns tasted sweet and there were plenty of them, so many, that I offered some to my wife in return.

Encouraged by the first course, we were not to be disappointed by the arrival of our mains.

Both pork and chicken dishes were imaginatively created and presented, and most importantly, tasted excellent. This is the work of no mean chef, Rachel Telford, who has moved from The Pump House, in Durham, to head up the kitchen at The Carlbury.

Finding room to enjoy the delights of the dessert menu, my wife chose a warm chocolate brownie with a rich, chocolate sauce and pistachio ice cream. I opted for sticky toffee pud in a butterscotch sauce with vanilla ice cream.

Sadly, the Eton mess had run out, but another temptation could have been an old-fashioned knickerbocker glory, which my wife eyed enviously at neighbouring tables. However, we were more than happy when our dishes arrived – in fact my wife declared the chocolate sauce on hers to be positively illegal, such was its depth and sheer lushness.

So, all in all, a very positive dining experience, apart from some rather inexperienced waitering.

This, however, is easily fixable, whereas the food needs no fixing whatsoever. So go on, give the guy a break and visit The Carlbury Arms sometime soon for what you will find is a fine night’s eating.

Food facts

Food quality: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Ambience: 3/5

Value: 4/5

Carlbury Arms, Piercebridge, Darlington, Co. Durham, DL2 3SJ Tel: 01325-374286