If you want to meet an Englishman in his natural habitat, you go to a pub. Let’s be honest; the great British pub is as much a defining symbol of the country as the monarchy, Rolls Royce and Monty Python. In rural communities, the village inn is often one of the oldest purpose-built stone buildings with hundreds of years of history behind it. As a result, they are frequently a superb architectural timepiece, often only beaten in terms of age by the local church and the manor house. Neither the church or manor house sold beer, so they were predictably less attractive to the local population. If there were a list of essential features for a pub to be classed as a ‘classic’, they would include an inglenook fireplace, a flagstone floor, oak beams and at least one ghost! To give you an idea of vintage, the oldest pub in the Cotswolds (and country), the Porch House, has been selling beer in Stow-on-the-Wold since 947 AD!
Pub names often recall an event in history, a person, a local landmark or the primary local industry. The Plough, The Woolpack, The Swan, The King’s Head, The Wild Duck and The Wheatsheaf are all found in the Cotswolds. Some have names that are a bit less mundane; The Green Dragon, The Angel and The Lion (either referring to the Cotswold Lion breed of sheep that made the region wealthy in the Middle Ages or the heraldic red lion from the time of James I).
Our group will have the opportunity to enjoy a visit to the pub owned by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire’s estate in Swinbrook, The Swan. This quintessentially English pub is in a truly stunning location on the banks of the River Windrush. In the summer months, you can watch a game of cricket in the sunshine as you enjoy your pint or spot wild trout rising to sip down flies. Surrounded by perfect walking countryside, the Swan is a proper Cotswold gem and the ideal introduction to the local inn. Another pub we will experience, quite different in character, was made famous by local author Laurie Lee. The Woolpack in Slad has been serving beer in the beautiful Golden Valleys for 300 years. The inn is not far from the town of Stroud, which was home to the mills built to process the valuable wool being supplied by valleys like Slad. It is popular with walkers and fans of Lee’s writing and has retained all of its charm as a simple workers’ pub.
It is because of its long-standing place within the infrastructure of the village that the humble pub plays such a vital role within the community. It is a home from home, a meeting place and a sanctuary. It would have been the place that locals met travelers with news from further afield. The concept of welcoming visitors is woven into the fabric of pub culture, just another one of their many charms. It is still completely acceptable to visit a pub on your own and catch up on the local news or the landlord’s views on world affairs. The word ‘inclusive’ doesn’t begin to describe the outlook of the British pub; children, dogs, horses…all are welcome. They have always been great levelers of status within a village—the Lord of the Manor sits elbow to elbow with the vicar and the farmhand. Nobody, regardless of wealth, wants to fall out with the landlord because he can deny you access to the beating heart of the community.
Little has changed with regard to the social value of the village pub. When it comes to food, though, pubs are now split into two clear groups. First, the thoroughly modern gastro-pub has increasingly edged into restaurant territory with cutting edge culinary science and menus that need a handbook to explain what you are ordering. The Cotswolds has several pubs that have earned the very highest recognition for their dining experience. The second group is more traditional. Pubs that serve hearty fare, the sort of food you eat after a long walk in the country, preferably whilst you are still wearing your muddy boots. Thankfully the Cotswolds offers plenty of both. There are so many winners of The Good Pub Guide’s Pub of the Year, The CAMRA’s Pub of the Year and other internationally recognized awards crammed into the region that you might think the Cotswolds has a secret winning formula. I suspect it’s a case of unrivaled location, the incredibly high quality of locally sourced produce and the natural charm of the Cotswolds.
So what about the alcohol? Glorious real ale arrives in hues of gold or amber right through to sunset reds and every shade in between. What could be more British than nursing a pint of Tanglefoot by the open fire in a building that has stood since the Middle Ages? In a society obsessed with sustainable produce, real ale is feel-good solid gold. It is often brewed within the county and sometimes at the pub itself using locally grown crops and expertise. The Cotswolds is home to numerous world-class breweries producing award-winning classics with names like Hobgoblin, Old Hooky (best beer in the world award winner), Legless Cow and Cotswold Lion. If the idea of real ale doesn’t appeal to you, then locally distilled gin, red wine or a sparkling white wine produced close to Woodchester Park are further options. It probably shouldn’t be surprising that with more than 80% of the Cotswolds being agricultural land, local farmers have included grapes amongst their crops. During our tour of this wonderful area, you will see firsthand that it is quite possible to enjoy a world-class meal entirely farmed in the Cotswolds—how many regions can make that claim? You can also be sure that every day on our new Cotswold tour takes you within walking distance of a classic pub just waiting to welcome you.
By Ben Forbes