It’s safe to say that Lancashire knows how to do a good gastropub – three of the region’s pubs came in the top 10 in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs 2023 list, one of which was Freemasons at Wiswell. Based just outside Clitheroe in the rolling countryside of the Ribble Valley, Freemasons was awarded third place at this year’s awards and has consistently secured a top ten spot for over a decade. With its four boutique rooms, it’s also an awarded place to sleepover, having made the The Sunday Times top 100 places to stay in Britain selection for 2023. High time then for a journey up north.
There are four individually-styled rooms in the building adjacent to the pub – we stayed in Mr Fox, a split level room with a super king bed, huge en suite bathroom with walk-in shower and two sinks, 50-inch smart TV, Sonos sound system, Nespresso coffee machine, and a freestanding tub on the mezzanine with another TV up there so you can watch while you soak. Foxy accents, including some taxidermy and fox printed cushions, reminded us what room we were in.
Next door it’s a proper country pub with old wooden tables, flagstone floors, period paintings, and cask ales on the bar. You can sit in the pub for dinner but if you want to get up close to the action, you can book the chef’s table or even a spot at the kitchen bench, which is where we found ourselves. You walk through the kitchen to get there, just like in Goodfellas, if Goodfellas was a gentle movie set in a quaint English village and not the mean streets of New York. There’s an a la carte and an early supper set menu but we opted for the six-course Taste of Freemasons menu, which is excellent value both in terms of the portions (northern, generous) and the price (£75 per person).
Chef-owner Steven Smith and his team use the best seasonal Lancashire produce in the kitchen and as well as top ingredients, there’s some serious skill on show too. The food perfectly treads the line between classic, albeit elevated, pub fare and modern restaurant dishes. A sprinkling of Asian flavours across the menu, like a Japanese dressing on a beef tartare and oyster emulsion snack, a Singaporean black pepper sauce and tempura claw on a brill and Manx lobster dish, and a moreish miso aubergine puree served with Herdwick rack of lamb (which also drifts to the Middle East with a well-spiced kofta and yoghurt sauce), help push the cooking up a level.
Traditional and familiar flavours still have their place too. There’s brioche rich with lamb fat and rosemary, served warm with whey butter. A bang in season asparagus soup is topped with a fondue of Procters Kickass Cheddar and paired with a signature Freemasons invention, the cheese hot dog, which is a deceivingly light fried finger of cheese in a little brioche roll, smothered in truffle mayo, crispy onions and parmesan. There’s a juicy cornfed chicken breast stuffed with fermented black garlic and a clever little black truffle Kiev on the side. A perfectly risen and beautifully light banana souffle is served with rum, both in a rum & raisin ice cream and a boozy chocolate sauce.
Just in case there wasn’t enough to eat the night before, breakfast at Freemasons is a whole new tasting menu experience. It kicks off with a fresh smoothie and homemade granola with natural yoghurt and a seasonal homemade jam (ours was strawberry). Then comes a bread basket, including plump sourdough crumpets and cinnamon swirls warm from the oven, followed by porridge topped with honey, candied hazelnuts and orange. Finally your cooked course arrives, which you select the night before and, having not known we had all the food ahead of us, we went for a full fry-up with Burford Brown eggs, fried bread, local sausage and bacon, homemade black pudding, tomato, mushroom and beans.
You certainly don’t leave Freemasons hungry and the generosity of spirit here makes it well worth stopping by – stay if you can because you’ll be glad of the short walk to bed after dinner (and again after breakfast).
8 Vicarage Fold, Wiswell, Clitheroe, Lancashire, BB7 9DF