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.
The Queens Arms has been owned for four years by Victoria and Rupert Reeves. Victoria says that the only way to keep a pub alive is to transform it. "The days of the quiet-drinking country pub are over," she says. "The people who live round here now aren't the pint-pounding types."
Still, the pub itself pays serious tribute to beer: A memorial to recently deceased beer expert Michael Jackson hangs on a wall. And after dinner, I sit by the fireplace and have a strong, cask-conditioned ale from nearby Yeovil. One of the great benefits of staying at a pub is that you don't have to drive home.
If the Queens Arms is the offspring of modernity and tradition, The Swan Inn is more like a polished outpost of London. It's in the Surrey town of Chiddingfold, about 10 minutes' drive from a commuter rail station. The village's buildings are clad in elaborately patterned red shingles, and up the road stands the Crown, a pub so old it sheltered King Edward VI in 1552 while his 4,000 men camped on the town green.
The Swan, a renovated 19th-century inn, is a snapshot of where Britain is today: run by a British couple, Daniel and Hannah Hall, but staffed--like all of London--by a mix of Brits and Eastern Europeans, and unapologetically stylish. My room has putty-colored headboards, gauzy Roman window shades, and a bathroom floor of porcelain tiles. Clearly the place is playing to a more upscale crowd: Its two pub rooms are sleek and austere, and through a door I glimpse a dressier dining room.
I'm meeting my friend Peter for dinner, so I order a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape from the Swan's fancy wine list. We start with a soft pickled mackerel topped with julienned turnips and an airy salmon cake. Then I go for the most homey dish of my trip--bangers and mash, the classic pub dinner of sausage and mashed potatoes, which comes with competing mustards, a bright yellow English one and a grainy brown French.
The Swan is clearly beautifully done, and has Wi-Fi and air-conditioning in all the rooms. If you want a romantic getaway and things to be arranged just right, this is the place. And it's highly accommodating: Peter and I stay up talking into the night, and the Latvian night porter pours us beer until well after 3 a.m. But I'm glad to know that Brigadoon is still out there.
- The Kings Head Inn Bledington, Oxfordshire, 011-44/1608-658365, kingsheadinn.net, from $139, entrées from $20
- The Riverside Inn Aymestrey, Herefordshire, 011-44/1568-708440, theriversideinn.org, from $139, entrées from $20
- The Royal Oak Inn of Luxborough Luxborough, Somerset, 011-44/1984-640319, theroyaloakinnluxborough.co.uk, from $149, entrées from $24
- The Queens Arms Corton Denham, Somerset, 011-44/1963-220317, thequeensarms.com, from $178, entrées from $18
- The Swan Inn Chiddingfold, Surrey, 011-44/1428-682073, theswaninn.biz, from $149, entrées from $20