An English Gastropub Crawl
It used to be that you'd drive the English countryside despite the food, not because of it. Traveling from pub to pub, Stephen Heuser finds out just how deliciously the times have changed. Even bangers and mash has gone upscale.
I'm an hour northwest of London, zipping along a country road, when I'm stopped short by a hay wagon. There's no way to pass, so I watch as flecks of golden hay rain down on my car's hood. Eventually the farmer turns, I punch the gas, and the hay flies off my car in an instant. So goes the strange experience of modern England.
Map pressed against the steering wheel, I tick off the last few miles to the townlet of Bledington. It consists of a small bridge, a flock of ducks that scatters before my car, and exactly one commercial establishment, a celebrated gastropub called The Kings Head Inn.
As pubs across Britain close their doors, victims of shifting populations and chain ownership, a handful are surviving, even flourishing, by transforming into rural gastropubs, where an upscale restaurant is fused to the tradition and atmosphere of an ancient tavern. "Thirty years ago, you'd have thought that staying in a pub was a bit grotty," said my English cousin Catherine when I told her I'd be staying nowhere but pubs for a week. Now, she's jealous.
At the edge of a lush village green, the Kings Head has an almost-blank stone front and a steep slate roof tufted with moss. It looks inviting, picturesque without being twee. I poke my head in the side door. There's a cozy bar with benches hugging the wall, a dining room with chunky wooden chairs, and a fireplace big enough to shelter a family.
Behind the pub is a converted stable with guest rooms, but I'm staying in the oldest part, above the bar. A cheerful young woman walks out from behind the desk, opens a tiny door in the opposite wall, ducks up a narrow stairway, and ushers me to a door propped open with rocks.
The room bears the unmistakable signature of a 400-year-old building. The antique armoire leans one way, the bathroom sink another. The only window, a tiny dormer, looks out on the green. My double bed lies under a white partial canopy. The bathroom, I note happily, is modern, even a bit luxe. (What would the neighboring farmers make of the "stimulating sea rocket body wash"?)
Through the floorboards, a sonorous voice floats from the pub below. I soon discover that it belongs to Arthur, a white-bearded character who keeps cows and runs a cement mixer and is generally full of opinions. When I join him at the bar, he crows that he has managed to do something for the first time. "I've just sent one of those texts," he says, waving a cell phone. "To me granddaughter." At least three generations of locals are crowding in for drinks or dinner, and Arthur knows the names of every one--or at least every young woman.
It's late, so I take dinner in the bar. I order a pint of Hook Norton, a traditional ale made at a family-owned brewery a few miles away. The menu spans the globe--duck spring rolls, mint salsa--but I stick with the home team. I start with a mackerel pâté and then have a plate of deviled lamb's kidneys and a local steak. I offer Arthur one of the kidneys, which glisten pinkly when I cut into them, but he declines, preferring to describe in jubilant detail what it's like to eat a particular part of his bulls.
onsidering its popularity, I expected the Kings Head to feel almost suburban, renovated, inauthentic. It's none of those. "I've known it better," says Arthur of the pub, but I find that hard to imagine. After another pint, or maybe two, I stand up and leave the pub for a walk.
"See you here later?" I ask.
"I wouldn't bet on it," says Arthur. "But then, I wouldn't bet against it."
I booked a room for the next night in a gastropub farther north, in the upland farm country of Herefordshire, so I can't linger. I climb a tower where William Morris once lived, grab lunch at a local cheese shop, and make an impromptu U-turn into a farm stand to buy three plums for 37 pence.
North of Hereford, north of Leominster, I rocket away from civilization along the narrow, brisk A4110 road. The hills grow taller, the hedges dense. Golden stone houses give way to black-and-white Tudor farmsteads. I arrive at the bridge that marks the tiny town of Aymestrey.
The Riverside Inn is a long half-timber building that wouldn't be out of place in a movie about Elizabeth I. The nearest neighbors are a handful of sheep across the River Lugg. For hundreds of years, the Riverside was known as the Crown, until it fell into disrepute. In the 1990s, it was bought and reinvented; those owners then sold it to a former engineering executive and his wife, who runs the kitchen.
I'm staying in the Hayloft, the upper floor of a converted stable. My key opens the broad wooden door to a huge, eclectic aerie--burgundy slipcovers, a rustic wood-framed mirror, a coffee table with smoked glass.