Monday, 16 September 2013

Notes From Home - Part III

 - The Hunters Lodge

Old Bristol Road, Priddy, Wells, BA5 3AR.

 Many people forget that the Mendip Hills march belligerently across the northern end of Somerset and their relative height, rising from the marshy Levels, leads to a stark contrasts in the aspect of the land and the ferocity of the weather. Just below the huge communications mast above Wells, sits a lonely chunk of moorland, some despondent looking sheep, a cross-roads and an old pub.

 Here is another fine example of what is missing from so many pubs up and down the land, and which almost by default crafts an exceptional hostelry; continuation of ownership. This pub has been in the watchful hands of Dors family for three generations, and the fourth is currently in training. Originally a farm which had a licensed room to supplement its sheep business, the pub slowly became the mainstay of the operation (although current governor Roger still has a few acres under pasture). Nothing much changed in this utilitarian agricultural pub, until the early 1960s when Roger inherited and ‘did the old place up’. The result is an eclectic, delightful and surprisingly mellow mixture of flagstone, authentic brass and inglenook with curved deco woodwork, Formica and tat.

 Three bars, set around a single servery, each have their own distinct feeling. The public bar is as it should be: Spartan and child free, with not a scrap of shag-pile or upholstery to be seen. Here the local farming community and other hill-folk mix in good, and occasionally raucous, humour with the new money finding its way slowly up the Mendip escarpment. Good, micro-brew ale is racked behind the bar and dispensed into proper handled and dimpled glasses, unless otherwise requested, at a price which can keep even the hard-up drinking most of the night. The little Snug to the right of the entrance usually hosts a few Mendip geriatrics, supping at the same schooner of sherry they ordered some days ago, but who will generally involve you in their conversations of declining moral standards and the dark agenda of the EU. Finally there is the Family Room at the back, reached by a separate entrance from the street frontage. Barbour clad parents often walk here to park their broods in the ample garden adjacent, while they heal their fraying nerves with buckets of Wilkins' Farmhouse Cider by the fire.

 Mobile phones are strictly prohibited throughout, as is moving the furniture or rushing the landlord. Exceptional value, simple but pleasing food also features during trading hours, and there is also a large function room and skittle ally if you have need of them. Go especially when the weather is at its bleakest, when this portion of Mendip becomes a little piece of wind-blasted Hebridean heath, and sit inside this warm bastion of civility as the tempest batters impotently at the door.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Bourton-on-the-water: The prettiest shit-house in England.

 I recently holidayed in the Cotswolds. Now, I hate a great deal of the Cotswolds - or rather I hate what has been done to the Cotswolds over the last 20/30 years. There is no doubt that at one time it must have been a truly stunning area; beautiful pastoral farmland enclosing time-forgotten little villages, looking as though they had grown out of the landscape and peopled by honest hardworking country folk of a modest and good humoured bent. Today though, virtually all that once made this area special is gone, swept away under a tide of London money, suburban housing, Farrow & Ball, pony paddocks, tourists and Range Rovers. Business (ecumenical stonework mainly) has taken me to this part of the world on many occasions meaning I can safely say that, bar a few little islands people have forgotten to spoil, the Cotswolds must vie with Cheshire, Surrey and Knightsbridge for the title of most over-moneyed, culturally barren and disconnected of lands in Britain.

 One morning, the group I was with requested to leave the nice little corner of north Gloucestershire we were staying in (actually the Vale of Evesham, but has been enveloped by the Cotswolds thanks to the work of greedy estate agents who keep expanding its boundaries) in order to ‘see the sights’. Regrettably, the warnings I issued about the dinky bourgeois tourist towns clustered around the Fosse were not heeded and I found myself on a sticky Monday afternoon in August trapped in one of the worst places I have ever had the misfortune to enter: Bourton-on-the-Water.

 I would rather spend a cold wet afternoon wandering around the fish gutting yards of Peterhead than 10 minutes of Bourton in the height of tourist season. The little town was utterly engulfed; bus after bus lined up in the car park, pouring two thirds of Coventry, half of Birmingham and most of Japan into the single long street by the river. The average age was 65, the average weight 19 stone. Every scrap of grass was covered with sprawling people, every bench occupied, every pavement an impassable morass of the doddery, the camera-wielding and endless ranks of pushchairs. It was as though a madman had built a little market town in the middle of a large municipal park, or else created a huge open-air and overly popular exhibition of Richard Curtis’ England. I found myself wondering, as I absentmindedly kicked small children into the stream, what brought all these people to this nasty little town? Why here, what’s the attraction? Clearly I was missing something.

 It cannot purely be a sense of history, after all lots of places in England are old - indeed some far older than Bourton and have a much more interesting narrative than this sleepy little backwater. By the same token, it cannot be the ‘unspoilt’ nature of the place - the town is like looking over the ravaged carcass of what England once was, a corrupted and ruined husk trampled underfoot by the hoards and cynically usurped for the purposes of fleecing the gullible masses who pass through. To that end, the town’s shopping is beyond a joke- where once there would have been butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, there now exists a vast parade of pointless and pretentious boutiques selling the very worst kind of tasteless crap, artfully displayed in delicate little gatherings; the kind of shops which ought to trade under the single generic name ‘Tat: Old and New, Equine and Chintz’. In fact the nearest thing to reality on the main street is a lone branch of the ever present Spar, left almost ironically and presumably for the convenience of restaurant and shop workers - no one can possibly live here.

 Finally, I am aware this blog is primarily about pubs. Bourton’s pubs are certainly not worth travelling for - in fact there aren’t any. There are a few buildings which outwardly profess to be pubs, but in reality they are like the rest of the town, a shoddy and risible sham trading on the lure of jam, Jerusalem and a delusion of adequacy to hoodwink the weak-willed, the unimaginative and the na├»ve.

 To those who maybe planning a trip to this part of the world, go anywhere else but here: the Slaughters are pretty (but poncy) the Swells are pleasant and the Guitings are genuinely lovely. If it is a town you are after, Stow on the Wold is slightly less ghastly than Bourton and has one good pub (Donnington’s Queens Head), Chipping Camden is pleasant though disgustingly rich while Winchcombe, a 20 minute drive away, is a real delight. My advice to those who may find themselves trapped here would be to do as I did; kill or estrange yourself from whom ever inflicted a visit to this ungodly place upon you, get out quickly and never go back.