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As the five-ring circus rolls into town and the hordes of sports fans descend, Londoners may find themselves hard pressed to enjoy a quiet pint or a leisurely meal. One solution: head for the hills. Keith Barker-Main suggests some alternative drinking and dining locations within easy striking distance of the capital.
A bottle of summery Picpoul de Pinet (£22.75) with the fish you just caught in the river, cleaned and grilled to order by a local chef? That’s just one possibility at The Greyhound in Stockbridge, every angler’s dream. With its own private stretch of the sleepy River Test at your disposal, this Hampshire hostelry is a great spot for fly-fishing trout, grayling and other freshwater species. Apart from a full range of fish dishes on the restaurant’s menu (and, of course, some appropriate wines), you can also choose from the sort of upmarket gastropub dishes Londoners might not expect to find in the sticks: braised cheek and crispy belly of Greenfield Farm pork with sautéed pak choi, celeriac, clam chowder and crispy squid (£18.50) for example. Go for a full day’s fishing and pick up one of chef’s picnic luncheon hampers to sustain you while you wait for a big one to bite, or stay on for the night in one of its bright, cheerful rooms (from £70). Fine malts and Cognac nightcaps await in the rustic nouveau bar, as you regale residents with your tale of the one that got away.
Brighton’s saucy mix of Kiss Me Quick hats, candy floss and fairground frolics has a certain end-of-the-pier charm, and vintagebrighton.com is the go-to portal for fans looking for a nostalgic seaside weekend. Visit the town’s legendary Lanes and root through its great second-hand shops, then show off your new retro finery at The Mesmerist – Brighton’s ‘absinthe-inspired, 21st-century gin palace’, where you can bop to ragtime, kool-kat jive, swing and ‘mod’ classics (fortunately, no Quadrophenia-style dust-ups with rival ‘rockers’ to report). The venue also regularly hosts burlesque, conjurers, circus freaks and similarly outré artistes. To drink, there are old-school quaffs including sidecar, white lady and black Russian (from just £5); to eat, select from a soul food-inspired menu. If you don’t fancy the last train home, check into one of the town’s vintage hotels: glam it up in Hotel Pelirocco’s ‘pin-up parlour’ and always-interesting residents’ bar.
Whether your weakness is for Gucci, Burberry or Dior, Diesel, Jack Wills or Juicy Couture, there’s always a bargain to be bagged at Bicester shopping village, off the M40 and less than an hour’s train ride from Marylebone. Celebrate your sale buys with a kir royale (£8.50), a bellini or a Champagne high tea (£22) at Villandry Grand Café, open from 9am for breakfast and inexpensive prix-fixe lunches. Work up an appetite by strolling the grounds at nearby Blenheim Palace – Churchill’s birthplace and seat of the Duke of Marlborough – before visiting The Feathers (pictured, left) in Woodstock, a chic country hotel whose bar boasts a new claim to fame. In June 2012, it set a Guinness World Record for its prodigious range of gins – 162 to be precise. Rarities include vintage bottles from Seagers, Curtis, Suntory, Vlahov, Vincenzi and Booth’s – its 1960s-distilled White Satin is available at £19.50 per measure. Using Gordon’s and Lillet Blanc, the bar’s ‘shaken not stirred’ James Bond martini is lethal. Fortunately for drivers, rooms for two (dinner, breakfast and palace tickets included) are available in the summer months for £125 per person. With all the dosh you saved at Bicester Village, you can afford to treat yourself.
Most people hit Hastings for its pebble beach, fishermen’s huts, ‘twittens’ (alleyways) and higgledy-piggledy olde-worlde cottages. But it pays dividends if you’re on a cultural trip, too: discover the new Jerwood Gallery, with its fine collection of contemporary art, and contemplate the conceptual installations at neighbouring Bexhill’s stunning art deco De La Warr Pavilion. On the same strip of coastline, you’ll also find bric-a-brac and artisan shops run by raffish eccentrics in funky St Leonards. Check out local estate agents’ windows: you get a lot of bang for your buck hereabouts. Victorian architect Decimus Burton’s neoclassical villas and pleasure gardens in the town reflect his legacy at Regent’s Park, and values are tipped to soar. Enjoy cocktails alfresco and dine at Pier Nine at the Zanzibar hotel (pictured, right), or order seafood fresh from the Hastings boats with a chilled rosé at the hip Dragon Bar, 71 George Street (an offshoot of the equally hip Dragon in E1). Judging by its cool DFLs (‘down from London’ customers), Hastings is the new Shoreditch-on-Sea. If you can’t bear to drag yourself away, hole up at the town’s new design-mag hot ticket, the Old Rectory.
Kew Gardens in full bloom is an uplifting prospect. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an oasis of calm – although not in the first week of July this year, when a series of concerts will feature James Morrison, Will Young, Status Quo and others. A most agreeable conclusion to a flora fancier’s summer stroll is afternoon tea at The Original Maids of Honour. Dating to the early 1800s, the business occupies a picture-postcard Victorian cottage comprising a bakery, shop and chintzy salon seemingly unchanged since Miss Marple was a girl. Teatime treats – served on silver stands by bustling, efficient matrons – include baked savouries (try the daddy of all sausage rolls), dainty crust-free sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and a host of pastries including the signature Maids of Honour (a type of curd cheese tart that found favour with Henry VIII). At this eccentric Home Counties time warp, strain your ears and you might just hear a certain Mr Cholmondley-Warner’s plummy tones announcing the results of the tug-of-war final at the London Olympics... 1948.
Cosy country inns and a spot of ‘it’s all about me’ down time? What’s not to love? You can combine both at Barnsley, near Cirencester, with one of their all-inclusive ‘pub and pamper’ breaks (available until 19 December). The self-titled Village Pub is a witty postmodern take on a traditional Cotswolds tavern, offering luxurious accommodation and a cosmopolitan menu that might include dishes such as baked cod with herb crust, spinach, bacon and mussel salad (£15), beef and ale pie, wild-mushroom tagliatelle, and puds such as baked goats’ cheesecake with blackcurrant ice cream (£6). To drink, order cask ales from Hook Norton and Butcombe breweries. Pampering comes courtesy of complimentary treatments at the gorgeous garden spa in the owners’ highly acclaimed Barnsley House hotel – reportedly a favourite with a certain A-list actress when she needs to escape the city’s Hurley-burly. And if you really can’t do without the Olympics, you can always catch up with the action in their bespoke Pullman cinema.
Pop a cork and raise a glass to English sparkling wine. With sales booming across the South East, British bubbles are increasingly being seen as serious rivals to French fizz. Decide for yourself when you visit the country’s largest vineyards at Tenterden in Kent, home of Chapel Down. Every day throughout the summer months (and at weekends at other times), visitors can take an informative 75-minute guided tour of the whole set-up and learn about the history of English wine, growing methods, grape varieties and more. Alternatively, wine lovers might fancy gift experiences and bespoke packages from £50. These typically include food and wine-matching tutorials, tank tastings, sabre-wielding ‘sabrage’ demonstrations and even a hot-air balloon ride high above the vines. Also check out The Swan, Chapel Down’s new fine-dining restaurant and slick bar. Opened in May 2012, it serves light lunches, afternoon tea and tapas-sized plates throughout the day, plus modern Brit dinners of Romney Marsh lamb, rib of beef and dishes prepped with herbs from the garden – all perfectly suited to wines from the nearby vineyard. You can also try the winemakers’ own-brew craft beers in the standalone bar.
Contrary to a certain TV show’s portrayal, Essex isn’t exclusively populated by the preening classes and its landscape isn’t completely overrun with hair salons and tacky nightclubs. It also boasts vast expanses of fine countryside and some terrific village boozers: if you fancy meeting a different class of Essex girl (and boy), head to the award-winning Axe and Compasses at Aythorpe Roding near Chelmsford. If a Hollywood director needed a traditional English country pub as a location, this gorgeous Grade II-listed, 17th-century inn would certainly get the job with its thatched roof, weatherboard cladding, pretty garden and open views across farmland. Go for its unpretentious ambience, friendly staff, locally brewed seasonal ales and craft beers, scrumpy, wines (from £12.50) and comfort food based on ingredients from Essex producers. Two-course deals for under a tenner and Sunday roasts with all the trimmings (£10.95) are understandably popular at this fine family-friendly inn.
This feature was published in the summer 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.