Of all the things many of us have missed in the past year, the pub ranks high, and on 12 April, with pub gardens opening up again in England, the opportunity for a decent walk followed by a pint and a bite to eat returns. The sector was already ailing when coronavirus came along, but things have become far worse since.
According to the British Beer and Pub Association, more than 2 billion pints have gone undrunk in the past year and an estimated 2,000 pubs have closed permanently. So this is the perfect time to go and support the pub, particularly if you can combine it with a decent walk. There are hundreds, of course, but here are a few good ones to whet your appetite. Booking is going to be essential.
The mid-April date has posed a tricky question for some pubs: what about the weather? April can still see heavy snow and hard frosts in some areas, including Hudswell near Richmond. The George & Dragon in the village, however, will definitely open at weekends, which is a bonus for anyone who can get there. If conditions are good, weekday opening is also planned. The community-owned venture was Camra’s British pub of the year in 2016, and has won regional pub of the year awards every year since.
Pressure? “Not really,” says manager Stu Miller, “as long as we keep winning!”
A good pre-pint walk is along the River Swale to Richmond and back (there is a book of walks available in the pub). A longer alternative goes to Easby Abbey, a favourite monastic ruin for JMW Turner. Hudswell has a strong community spirit and is currently converting its church into a camping and hiking centre (opening 2022). On your return, the George & Dragon has up to eight cask ales available and its own beer too, brewed in the barn next door. The emphasis is on the beer, but pies are also a speciality: the rabbit, leek and mushroom is a favourite. Stu’s brother, Sam, and sister-in-law, Andrea, help out, which is significant as both are chefs, having spent a decade in Copenhagen at Noma, voted the world’s best restaurant four times in the 2010s, and now ranked second. The chips should be good.
Distance Longer 7 miles (Easby Abbey and back), shorter 5 miles (Richmond and back)
Car park In village
OS map Explorer 304
Ram Inn at Firle, East Sussex
Love or loathe them, the Bloomsbury Set did make good gardens, and none better perhaps than Charleston Farm in East Sussex, where artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived from 1916, regularly hosting literary luminaries such as EM Forster and Virginia Woolf. Start the walk in the pretty village of Firle, heading east on the permissive footpath to Charleston after just over a mile. The gardens are open from 2 April.
From here, a shorter route heads directly up to the ridge and then Firle Beacon. For the longer walk, resume walking east on the same old coach road to the village of Berwick, whose church’s interior was colourfully painted by Grant and Bell during the second world war. Then climb south up the steep chalk escarpment to meet the South Downs Way – it’s a decent workout to reach the top. Once up high, turn west to Firle Beacon, with its magnificent views out to sea and across the downs. Soon after the beacon, drop back down to Firle and head for a well-earned lunch at the Ram Inn, which has awnings and umbrellas on outside tables. Pints are provided by Burning Sky brewery, also in the village.
Distance Long (via Berwick) 10 miles, short 4½ miles
Park In Firle
OS map Explorer OL11
Compton Inn, Compton Dando, Somerset
Seven miles from Bristol lies the lovely village of Compton Dando on the River Chew. The Compton Inn is a handsome stone building with tables out front and will be serving food three days a week from 12 April. From the inn, turn left and then left again, heading through the kissing gate beside Compton Cottages and east across the fields to Tuckingmill Farm. A little further on cross a section of the Wansdyke, a mysterious earthworks thought to be a defensive line built soon after the fall of the Roman empire, possibly to repel Anglo-Saxon incursions. Continue via the villages of Burnett and Chewton Keynsham to return to the Compton Inn.
Distance 6 miles
Park In Compton
OS map Explorer 155
The Bothy Bar, Barn at Beal, Northumberland
This little bar may look at first glance like it’s not quite where it ought to be. After all, Holy Island is three miles down the lane and across the sands. Why not just drive over to the island? The answer is equally simple: by starting your walk here, you do not add to the traffic on Holy Island causeway, which detracts from the magic of the place. It also happens to be one of the greatest walks you will ever do.
Start by following the road, which is part of St Cuthbert’s Way, for almost two miles to the coast, then either follow the road causeway across or, much better, the poles in the sand. In either case you must observe tide times, and plan your return with extreme care. The sands route is not difficult in good weather on the right tide, but if you’re unsure, guide Patrick Norris is the man to contact. Once on the island, do a circuit, enjoying the magnificent scenery, ruins and wildlife (there’s also a good cafe – Pilgrims Coffee House) before setting off back. The Barn at Beal has a fine terrace with views and will be serving from 12 April.
Distance 12 miles including a circuit of Holy Island.
Park Barn at Beal
OS map Explorer 340
The site of many a good walking pint-stop, the Three Shires is a particularly fine location for thirsty ramblers, close to where the old counties of Westmorland and Cumberland used to meet Lancashire. The plethora of great walks makes any single choice difficult but landlord James Wilkinson’s personal favourite is the route down to Elterwater.
Head east to Wilson Place Farm then take the path towards Elterwater village, continuing past the lake. At the bridge, take the Langdale fork in the path for a mile until the River Brathay and Colwith Force. Head upriver to the bridge and then back to the pub, which is running a limited menu of classic pub food from 12 April, with meals served until 7.30pm. When it comes to beer, the Three Shires serves pints, appropriately, from three local breweries, each very worthy of sampling. Personally, I love Loweswater Gold from Cumbrian Ales (which owns another excellent walking pub, the Kirkstile Inn at Loweswater).
Distance 5 miles
Park Three Shires Inn
OS map Explorer OL7
Tiger Inn, East Dean, East Sussex
Next to the village green and with its oak beams, open fire and cask ales, the Tiger Inn is the epitome of the English country pub. And, in time-honoured fashion, it has all the smuggling lore one might want.
Start from the pub, then cross the green and join a small road. Turn right to spot the house to which Sherlock Holmes supposedly retired (before TV and film work distracted him, I presume) and eventually reach Friston church where you turn left and head towards the sea. Join the South Downs Way and return to East Dean via Birling Gap. Tiger Inn food is hearty pub fare: fish and chips followed by apple crumble and custard with a pint of something flavoursome from an East Sussex brewery.
Distance 3 miles
Park In East Dean
OS map Explorer OL25
The Bridge Inn at Michaelchurch, Herefordshire
With its fine garden bordering Escley Brook and room in the marquee for 30, The Bridge looks well-prepared for the April reopening. Your walk can start here, leaving the car and heading south-west across the valley towards Little Black Hill. Alternatively save yourself a few miles and drive to the car park that sits immediately north of the same spot.
From here it’s a good climb north up Crib y Garth, also known as the Cat’s Back ridge, to the Black Hill (641m). This area was unforgettably recorded by Bruce Chatwin in his novel, On the Black Hill, a place where people traditionally preferred “the Old Testament to the New, because in the Old Testament there were many more stories about sheep farming”.
The bleakly magnificent ridge, part of the Brecon Beacons, continues, if you’re feeling strong, to Hay Bluff. Return by descending the Olchon valley to the Black Hill car park, or across the fields to the Bridge Inn. (This circuit, anti-clockwise as described, is also excellent the other way around). The inn has a pizza oven in the garden and serves the local cider, Gwatkin – mussels in cider is one lunchtime favourite.
Distance Long 13 miles, shorter 5 miles
Park Bridge Inn or Black Hill car park
OS map Explorer OL13
The Saracen’s has a lovely location by the River Wye and must be the only pub in England where the bar staff both hand-pull pints and the ferry: if you want to cross the river here, you ask them to take you. You could also arrive, as I did, by canoe, but there are plenty of walks available. Best of all is the stiff climb up to Symonds Yat itself for one of the great views of the British countryside. Watch out for peregrines stooping on their prey and also honey buzzards.
From here head south, passing through Mailscot Wood before turning west to join the Offa’s Dyke path at Kymin and then cross the Wye at Monmouth. Return on the Wye Valley walk, a stunningly beautiful section of this 136-mile riverside trail that winds its way upriver to opposite the Saracen’s Head where you wave and shout and pray that the bar person is not too busy.
Distance Long 12 miles, short version (climb up to Symonds Yat Rock) is as little as a mile but it’s steep
Park At the Saracen’s or on the ridge close to Yat Rock
OS map Explorer OL14
The Ship lies between Macclesfield and Leek on the western edge of the Peak District in a great area for walking. From the pub head uphill then take the footpath left for Wincle Grange and Nettlebeds, where you turn south-west to briefly join the Gritstone Trail, a fine 34-mile path that connects Disley and Kidsgrove. Continue down to the River Dane, cross the bridge and follow the Dane Valley Way back towards Wincle and the Ship Inn, where there’s old-fashioned pub food: fish and chips, sausages and mash and so on.
Distance 4 miles
Park Ship Inn
OS map Explorer OL24
In Kent’s High Weald, Matfield, five miles east of Tunbridge Wells, attracts a lot of walkers, something Jay and Gary Trievnor at the Star Inn are keen to encourage as the county emerges from lockdown. The 16th-century pub is a lovely spot for a meal with a patio area, family garden and outside benches.
Start the walk by heading across the village green from the Star, then up Maycotts Lane by the pond and on into Cinderhill Wood, a nature reserve with traditionally coppiced stands of sweet chestnut. From here walk west to cross Tudeley Brook and soon after turn south through orchards, fields and woods to cross the Romford road and head left back to Matfield, where there are fish and chips and a pint of Tonbridge Traditional waiting.
Distance 4 miles
Park In Matfield
OS map Explorer 136