FEATURE

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.

By Stephen Heuser, Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008, 12:00 AM

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.

As evening falls, the parking lot starts to fill up. Couples and families from the surrounding towns converge on the Riverside for dinner. They pack a room whose walls and heavy ceiling beams are garlanded with dry hops and hung with enough rustic objects to supply an antique fair. When I sit down for dinner, my head grazes a bugle.

The farm country of Herefordshire is quietly emerging as one of the best places in Britain to eat, and my dinner is like a map of the neighborhood: pork medallions from a pig raised nearby, gravlax made with trout from the nearby river, vegetables plucked a few yards away.

At night, I pull on a sweater and sit on the grassy terrace behind the stable. The sky is remarkably clear. The Milky Way stretches overhead; I see one shooting star, then another. At moments like this, it's hard to imagine that anything of much importance has changed in the past 400 years.

The Riverside felt remote, but it turns out I've only scratched the surface of remoteness. I've left Herefordshire, crossed the massive Severn River, and twisted my way into the highlands of West Somerset. Sue Hinds, at the time one of the owners of The Royal Oak Inn of Luxborough, has insisted I call so I don't get lost, but my cell phone keeps dropping its signal. "After you pass a pub called the Valiant Soldier, turn right," she says when we finally connect. "Keep going, even if it seems like you're lost, and eventually you'll come to about five cottages and a stone bridge. That's us."

This is pheasant-shooting country, and hunting prints line the Royal Oak's walls. One room displays a series of huge mounted river fish, some caught in the 1930s. Most of the 11 guest rooms are along a rambling upstairs corridor and identified by a teddy-bear theme. (My bear is from Harrods.)

There aren't many guests, but at dinner, tables miraculously fill up. The food is rich. A rump of lamb comes with some of the fat left on to give it a startling crackle and moisture. On the side is a bowl of red cabbage, zucchini, carrots, and buttery new potatoes. I order grilled Cornish sardines--a staple of the region, I've been told--with chorizo. The fish defeat even my practiced attempts at deboning.

After dinner, Sue pulls pints at the bar, then joins a table of locals. When I go upstairs, well past the nominal closing hour of 11 p.m., they're still there.

The next morning, Sue explains that the pub makes money on out-of-town guests, on dinners, and on the big lunches it throws for the men who work the pheasant shoots. But at heart, it's still an unofficial living room for the village. On Thursday nights, there are free snacks for neighbors; on Christmas, the owners shut the place to outsiders and throw a party. "Everyone mucks in together," she says. "It's very gregarious."

I can't shake the impression that this whole world, including the ghostly old woman who supposedly haunts Room 4, might just disappear once I drive off. Sue knows what I mean. "It's like Brigadoon," she says.

Well to the east, out of the valleys and into mellow pastureland, is Corton Denham, a sweet village with a square-towered church nestled against a bright green ridge. I feel as if I've walked into a painting by a completely different artist. You wouldn't call Corton Denham the suburbs, but it's only two hours from London, and compared to ­rustic Luxborough, it's almost trendy.

The Queens Arms is a yellow stone building from the 18th century, but the interior is painted in stylish sage and white. Upstairs, in my room, I punch the light switch, and the room illuminates very slowly. The room is country, with pine beds and gingham curtains, but the shower is a modern glass box raining fantastic quantities of water. The college-age pub worker who gives me my key doesn't just apologize that there's no TV in my room--he offers to wheel in a flat-screen.

The staff wear sneakers and talk like foodies. In the dining room, appetizers arrive on smart wooden planks, and for the first time on my trip, when I look at my fellow diners, I see people wearing black. You can't imagine teddy bears in the rooms, or a bugle on the wall, but the inn displays the same mania for local produce as other gastropubs. In fact, the Queens Arms owns its pigs, and one was butchered the previous week. "We're still eating him now," my waiter says. "He's delicious."

No kidding. The humble-sounding potted pork might be the best thing I eat on the trip: Like rillettes, it's shredded meat preserved in its own fat with bits of spice and served with grilled brioche and an apple compote. Instead of beer, I have a glass of chenin blanc from South Africa.

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.

TASTE OF ENGLAND