METAL Bridge is one those prosaically named communities that County Durham seems to specialise in.

A hamlet just a few miles off the A1 south of Durham, it is notable chiefly for its two pubs, one of which, The Old Mill, has a reputation which has spread far and wide.

The building began life as a paper mill, became a cotton mill and then in 1910 the Tursdale and Metal Bridge Workmen’s Club and Institute, in which guise it continued for 75 years.

It was converted into a pub and small hotel in 1989 and we would guess it underwent refurbishment at some point in the last ten years although some of the decor is looking a bit tired.

Describing the look of the Old Mill is a bit challenging. Distressed bordello chic meets baronial pastiche was my take on the tapestry wall hangings, antique-style lamps, subdued lighting and smoky colour scheme.

There are three dining areas – a galleried balcony space, a big conservatory and a comfortable, low-lit bar/restaurant where candles burn on the tables. Bizarrely, there is a separate, small balcony where two shop mannequins dine in the shadowy gloom. Spooky.

The Old Mill doesn’t do bookings. You just turn up and hope. The place is big, seems to have a high turnover most days of the week and sometimes you may have to wait for a table to come free.

The menu is humungus and set out on a chalk board covering almost all of one wall next to the large U-shaped bar where food orders are taken. Just in case diners can’t find anything to suit from the list of 35 main courses, there were three weekly specials too.

Usually, when a pub menu is that long, two words – freezer and microwave – come to mind. But happily there was evidence of some decent cooking techniques in the kitchen.

The other big thing about the Old Mill is portions. They are massive.

My prawn cocktail (£6.55 – not £6.50 mind, or £6.60 or even £6.95) was served in a soup bowl – no dinky little wine glassfuls. The prawns had been frozen but were decent enough quality and the marie rose sauce perfectly serviceable. There was a mountain of salad and two doorsteps of wheatmeal bread. The only element that was skimped on was the butter – two small catering pack tablets.

Sylvia’s haddock rarebit (£5.40) was a huge slab of lightly smoked haddock fillet smeared with a mustardy, cheesy topping perched on top of another salad mountain. The haddock was perfect, the rarebit topping a bit overpowering but subtly of flavour is not what the Old Mill is all about.

Waiting for our main courses, there was slight sense of dread, heightened by watching the mixed grills being served on what looked dustbin lids at the next table. How big would ours be?

In the event, they were manageable. Although the dishes were big enough to satiate a hungry hod carrier, we both made decent inroads into our choices – lambs liver and bacon with black pudding mash and red wine and onion gravy (£10.25) for me and a chicken with tiger prawn stir-fry with hoi sin sauce (£14.95) for Sylvia.

The liver was well cooked with a bit of springiness left in the four large slices. The mash was okay if a little lacking in black pudding flavour but the red wine gravy was excellent – really rich and deeply flavoured.

Some vegetables – broccoli, carrots and green beans – were served separately and they were really remarkable for being utterly tasteless and flaccid. We couldn’t work out what had been done to make them so limp and characterless. A culinary masterpiece.

This is probably not a big deal for most of the Old Mill’s customers. The lads who had demolished the mixed grills on the next table had, with grave suspicion, looked at, and carefully removed from their plates, the mushrooms. The handled them as if they had been spiked with polonium.

Sylvia’s stir-fry, served with fluffy long-grain white rice, was notable for the huge tiger prawns, lots of tender chicken, nicely crunchy beansprouts and noodles, and rather too much hoi sin sauce.

Desserts were out of the question and as our waiter cleared our table he clearly knew better than to suggest it. We’d had ample sufficiency.

Our bill of £48.45 included a gin and diet Pepsi and two bottles of alcohol-free lager. That seemed quite steep for a two-course pub meal but taking account of the amount of food served no grounds for complaint.

The Old Mill, Metal Bridge, Thinford Road, Coxhoe, County Durham, DH6 5NX

Telephone:01740 652928 Web:

Food served every day from noon until late evening. No bookings. No problem for the disabled.

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 8 Service 6 Surroundings 6 Value 7