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Isolated ancient inns and sleepy waterside hostelries abound, but pubs and bars in the Thames Valley aren’t all the stuff of low-beamed nostalgia and real ale. UK tech-hub, Reading, has a lively cocktail scene typified by mixology as serious as any in the capital, and many grand country houses hereabouts have similar boozy aspirations. Factor in views of the river and the rolling green Chilterns, plus a terrific assortment of independent breweries young and old, and the region’s allure is guaranteed.
Forget the annual Regatta-time scrum, the quintessential riverside town of Henley is one of Thames Valley’s most popular destinations all year round. The Angel is its only pub with a full river frontage, so take advantage of the outdoor decking while quaffing pints of locally brewed Brakspear ale or sipping a well-mixed Pimm’s.
A museum piece in picturesque Aldworth village, The Bell’s warren-like, panelled passageways and glass serving hatch are pure history, and the place has no truck with mobile phones, credit cards, games machines or piped music. Similarly, lager is eschewed in favour of foaming pints of regionally brewed real ale.
Owned by the burghers of Waltham St Lawrence and operated as a charity, The Bell (pictured, left) is an ancient 14th-century inn at the heart of village life. Friendly locals, inventive country cooking and a sought-after, field-sized garden are all charming enough, but the Bell’s biggest pull is its unrivalled selection of real ale and cider.
Drinks at Boulters’ upper-level Terrace Bar may be a touch predictable, but with views over the lock and down to Maidenhead Bridge, there are few better places to enjoy a Pinot and a pint along the Thames. Live sport, music, pub quizzes, simple food and a 5pm happy hour are a hook for the locals.
Surrounded by Sonning’s weather-beaten cottages and winding waterways, the timber-framed Bull Inn has become a busy village focus for locals and visitors alike. Fuller’s ales, rickety low ceilings, whitewash and beams festooned with flowering creepers set the tone, but there’s good cooking and a choice of en suite rooms too.
Beneath the seriously swanky Forbury Hotel, this cocktail emporium (pictured, right) is far and away the smartest drinking venue in Reading. An imposing pewter bar, puffy sofas, a hidden garden room and a secluded entrance add a touch of exclusivity that’s less evident in the kindly pricing applied to some 12 pages of creative cocktail picks.
Images of the Thames Valley as a hi-tech hub are shattered by the sheer remoteness of this quaint, hilltop pub on the outskirts of Henley. Beamed ceilings, bare brick, wrought iron and local ales are all par of the course, but its main attraction is a truly breathtaking, uninterrupted panorama across the Chilterns and beyond.
Cocktails and country houses don’t always get along, but the Garden Bar’s mixology is serious enough to match Stoke Place’s grand sense of Englishness. Looking out over an expanse of manicured lawns and a lake, the bar’s butterfly collections, yellow lampshades and bouncy sofas strip out any sense of stuffiness.
A shining light among Reading’s chain-heavy nightlife, the Sahara Bar is a Thames Valley go-to for drinkers craving a party atmosphere with added class. Spread over two dimly floors, it offers a creative list of 70 house cocktails ably supported by an eclectic selection of wine and beer.
This industrially styled microbrewery may be part of a mini-chain, but it’s still one of the best places to drink craft beer in the region. From black lager to pale ale and pilsner, the six-strong selection is amid an award-winning backdrop of custom-built pipes and boilers. Sample the results with top-drawer moules-frites.