I visited an unpretentious country pub set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It was perhaps the best I’ve been to in years, and now I want to return.
Travelling in England can lead to a lot of pub lunches. As nice as they are, by and large, they can become a bit samey after a while. Too much greasy beer-battered cod. Too many so-so steak and ale pies. Too much time trying to catch a server’s eye.
But sometimes a pub stands out so much that you long to return even though you know deep down it’s unlikely you ever will.
It’s not just that the food is a notch above the rest, or that the beer is more interesting. It’s not even that the service is more attentive. It’s a combination of all of these and more besides that makes these jewels of hospitality gleam in the memory.
Slad shares its name with the valley in which it is situated and the road that runs through it. This road clings to one side of the valley as it winds itself around the fingers of the hills. Descending into the village it runs through woods where the trees meet overhead to form dark tunnels. It’s picture-postcard rural England.
The Woolpack sits hard by the roadside, with the valley dropping away behind it and rising again on the other side as a patchwork of lush green fields and dark hedgerows. You couldn’t ask for a more bucolic view to accompany your pint.
There are five ales and four ciders on tap to choose from, all locally brewed, all watched over by a slightly baleful portrait of Laurie Lee. I chose a bitter I didn’t know from a brewery I hadn’t heard of. Something about the place gave me confidence that it would be delicious and well kept. I wasn’t disappointed.
The pub dates back to 1640. I wondered how much of it a time-travelling drinker would recognise. The decor at least – unpretentious and falling just on the comfy side of austere – seems like it might seem familiar.
There are scrubbed wooden floors, weathered and worn by countless footsteps. Dark settles and wainscoting are set against rough, whitewashed walls. Mismatched wooden tables and chairs complete the furnishing.
The staff add subtle touches to soften what might otherwise be hard. Small vases of local wild flowers decorate the tables and windowsills. Brass candlesticks huddle in twos and threes on ledges and surfaces.
The menu was ambitious but approachable and displayed a focus on quality without making a fuss. I had puy lentils with roasted tomatoes and ricotta — light, wholesome and revitalising after too many days of meat-this and meat-that.
I could have opted for quail, which was served with celeriac remoulade and watercress. But there were also simpler dishes: ham, egg and chips or a cheeseburger. (The kids had this and rated it very good.)
As well as being fresh and high quality, many of the ingredients are local. The cheeses, for example Sinodun Hill or Stichelton, are often made close by too – although they make a there-and-back trip via Neal’s Yard first.
I felt lucky to encounter all this in a small village that I could easily have overlooked. I felt even luckier that we’d booked a table the night before. Despite being remote the pub was packed, and looked to be popular with a wide range of people: foodies, walkers, families, locals.
The Woolpack has all the ingredients that a great pub needs, be it traditional village inn or city boozer. First of all good beer, good food and good service. The focus on quality gets you through the door, the lack of pretence and the welcoming ambiance gets you to stay, to linger a little longer and perhaps order one more beer. That is the essence of hospitality, the idyll.
I want to return when the valley is blanketed in snow and enjoy a Sunday roast; to linger at the table as the white hills turn blue and the afternoon slides into evening. I want to try the ciders with the cheese, the beer with more beer. I want to relax there with friends and perhaps make new ones if only for an hour or two. I realise it’s unlikely, but in my heart I want to keep a small thread of hope alive. You never know…