The depths of midwinter are upon us and still the temperatures are poised to plummet. Farmers and gardeners are battening down the hatches; we are all resetting our thermostats. What everyone needs at a time like this is the refuge of the country pub and its glowing hearth. But therein lies the problem. We have all been deluded into the ideal of the perfect country pub.
You imagine driving along a blossom-covered road, into a tiny picturesque village and then stumbling across a low, thatched inn, with a blazing fire inside, huge armchairs beside it and a jovial landlord to bestow foamy pints of ale and a slice of steak-and-kidney pie. In the pub, you even come across a few of your oldest friends, who say hello, but leave you to read the paper in peace.
Instead, what actually happens is that you screech off the B346, your belly aching for food, the children killing each other in the backseat, and there is only a ‘coaches catered for’ pub in sight. Lunch is reheated fish and chips, with the delightful sounds of the Kerrang! music channel to prevent all conversation. (Not that you feel like talking to each other by that point anyway.) It seems that the pubs of our dreams are more often than not informed by the novels of Dickens, or a BBC drama set in Shakespearean England. The reality of them is as solid as the smoke coming out of the proverbial chimney.
Fear no more. We have scoured the land to find the cosiest pubs, with ales more real than reality television, and food sourced from the local farm. It is the next best thing to your dream?all you need to do is take a map.
Particularly fine is the handsome fireplace in The George Inn, Norton St Philip (01373 834224; (www.thegeorgeinn-nsp.co.uk). Reputed to be the oldest hostelry in continuous use, with a 700-year-old licence to serve ale to wenches and knights, the George is a Grade I-listed building. Thankfully, they have a healthy disregard for the dangers of the naked flame and are happy to keep the home fires burning. The fireplace, an inglenook, is in the main bar. But if you need to soak up some of the real ales, the dining room serves up good food beneath its sympathetically renovated oak beamed ceiling. The antique chairs are comfortable and the wooden tables well polished.
You can find a more traditional-looking pub fire in The Lamb Inn at Hindon, Wiltshire (01747 820573;www.lambathindon.co.uk). Dark red walls hung with old paintings and antique furniture make this place as snug as the eponymous corner suggests. There is a Whiskey and Cigar bar, with a collection of Cuban cigars good enough to make Castro regret his export licence. Fish that has flipped straight from the sea to the frying pan is served up, as well as game in season: they pride themselves on sourcing local food where possible, otherwise it comes from the best Scottish suppliers.
N.B nominations for this award are now closed
Finally, we want to know if you agree or disagree with our choices. If you know of somewhere better, please tell us. Explain your nomination in no more than 50 words, and send it by March 1 to: Grate Expectations Award, Country Life, King’s Reach Tower, Stamford Street, London SE1 9LS or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fox and Hounds
Comford, Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall
An 18th-century coaching inn with a blazing real log fire in winter, that you can easily pull a chair or two up to. Good food, too?they only use fresh local produce in their homemade dishes.
The Swan at Lavenham
Dating back to the 1400s, The Swan (above) is a gorgeous half-timbered listed building, with plenty of inglenook fireplaces and comfy sofas inside, as well as an award-winning restaurant. Or how about their renowned afternoon tea? The Old Bar has a collection of badges and signatures from American airmen stationed in Lavenham during the Second World War, expressing their appreciation. If you want to be stationed there too, there are 51 oak-beamed bedrooms to choose from.
The Trouble House
The low, white 1764 building is, from the outside, indistinguishable from many roadside inns, but inside is a Michelin-starred ‘gastropub’ with four cosy fires. Rave reviews have been written since Michael Bedford, a former employee of Gary Rhodes, took over the business.
The Griffin Inn
Fetchling, Nr Uckfield, East Sussex
Prince Charles is reportedly a fan of this 400-year-old inn, a Grade II-listed building with a beautiful Norman church nearby. Pies, lamb shanks and bread- and-butter pudding are on the menu. The main bar holds the large fireplace, with burning logs. Figaro comes in and sits by the fire most nights?he is the black pug that lives next door. Even in the summer, you can find some flames, when they do a hog roast in the garden.
Great Fosters Hotel
A grand Windsor hotel that opened its doors in 1930, after having been a private home since the 17th century. The main hall is grand but not cold, thanks to the blazing fire set beneath the beautiful carved wood Jacobean chimneypiece. There is even a sofa by the fire to sit on and bask in the heat.
The Falkland Arms
Great Tew, Oxfordshire
In the little village of Great Tew is this 16th-century cottage pub with a flagstone floor. The oak beams on the low ceiling are hung with an amazing collection of mugs and jugs, kindly left behind by the former owner who collected them. There is more than one inglenook fireplace to get cosy beside, and for an added touch of nostalgia, they sell clay pipes and snuff. There are bedrooms to stay in, too.
The Star Inn
Harome, Near Helmsley, North Yorkshire
Not only the Egon Ronay Gastropub of the Year 2006, the Michelin-starred Star Inn has a warming hearthside bar. Utterly traditional, with a low thatched roof and stable door, this long house is believed to date from the 14th century. The bar is lined with old, dark wood and the fireplace blazes merrily on cold days ?and there are plenty of those in North Yorkshire.
The Museum Inn
Farnham, near Blandford Forum, Dorset
01725 516 261;www.museuminn.co.uk
Winner of the Good Hotel Guide English Inn of the Year, 2005, this is a marvellous 17th-century inn with a flagstone floor and large inglenook fireplace. Magnificent stag heads loom in the lobby to welcome you. The interior is clean and airy, despite the low ceilings, due to the wooden tables and chairs, and cream walls. The owners are also proud to point out that there is no ‘piped background music’, so you can enjoy the 160-bin wine list in peace. Famous locals, who might pop in, are Mr and Mrs Guy Ritchie (yes, Madonna).