Keith Allan: Gastro can save traditional pubs

The Old Swan and Minster Mill in the Cotswolds has reinvented itself.
The Old Swan and Minster Mill in the Cotswolds has reinvented itself.

The news in this paper that the Black Bull at Lowick might soon, quite literally, bite the dust after 300 years of trading prompts me to wonder how many more traditional pubs in Northumberland could be facing the same end. I know many are struggling.

In the Black Bull’s case the owners claim it is “commercially unviable”, mainly because it is on the periphery of the tourist area and therefore it would be better to knock it down for new housing. But the tenant says his business is doing well.

If I were ten years younger I wouldn’t mind having a go with a traditional country pub. The time is right to take one by the scruff of the neck, using a dozen or so models doing very nicely in the Cotswolds. Now I know Northumberland is a far cry from the chocolate box, wealthy environs of the heart of old England.

The thing is many of their ancient pubs were going through similar problems and thanks to some innovative and out-of -the-box thinking by new owners and talented chefs they are laughing all the way to their banks. In short they have turned them into chic and serious places to stay and eat. Old beams and flagged floors have been brought back to life and pukka open kitchens create a special ambience which diners seem to have taken to their hearts.

Young, pleasant and smartly dressed waiters bring good and uncomplicated food straight from the stove. Before your very eyes chefs cook meals with seasonal, and wherever they can, local ingredients. Old English pies and plenty of game is on the menu, along with battered fish and steaks from a charcoal oven. Prices are reasonable too, especially for the Cotswolds.

The Wild Rabbit at Kingham is a good example. After months of renovation, costing a cool £1.5 million, it opened last September to great acclaim.

The new owner is Carole Bamford, wife of the JCB magnate Anthony Bamford, and owner of the mind-blowing Daylesford Organic deli and spa just a few miles away. It has twelve rooms (doubles from £105 b&b) some with four posters. Our room, quite small but cosy and named after native animals, was called Fox and it had a pair of baby Belfast sinks in the bathroom instead of washbasins, a dry stone wall acting as a panel for the bath and carved hazel hooks to hang your coats on.

With a touch of magic everything clicked into place and kept bringing a smile to our face. There’s an attractive bar area, which you expect, but what about a dining room, where the open kitchen resides, along with a bread oven, glass fireplace and a feeling that you’ve just walked into a giant farmhouse kitchen?

Head chef and Gavroche trained Adam Caisely steers an organic menu offering such delights as potted rabbit (£7.50) and main courses such as roast partridge (£21), all nicely presented and delicious.

The Old Swan and Minster Mill in Minster Lovell is in the same vein. And once again it has fallen into the hands of a highly talented woman, this time in the form of Lana de Savary, wife of entrepreneur Peter who has a long history in hotels of various kinds, including Skibo Castle in Scotland.

It prettily sits in 65 acres of beautiful Cotswold countryside with the River Windrush running through it. Grab a fly rod from the lobby and you can have a fat brown trout on the bank or take a stroll in the wild flower meadows to sharpen your appetite before indulging in a beautifully laid out breakfast.

A small decanter of sloe gin in our room was a real treat. A four poster bed with a hot water bottle had been squeezed in too and there was room for a sofa and an armchair. All very pleasant and quaint as we gingerly made our way down the back stairs, which curved steeply and creaked towards an oak plank door. Click the latch and a world of ancient beams, stone floors and the smell of wood crackling in a fire lies before you.

A small table by a neat pile of logs was our chosen spot for dinner. Christmas turkey with the usual trimmings (no sausages, though) came piled high on a plate. How refreshing to see a plate of food served with no frills. Paté and roasted butternut squash risotto with sage for my wife was spot on (starters from £6.95, main courses from £16).

There are at least a dozen more of these innovative, gastro pubs lurking in the Cotswolds and in many ways it feels like a competition to see which one can be the best.

The fact is they all seem to be doing well. New takes on these once down at heel, old fashioned English pubs have brought them back to life. They are lively, bright and unstuffy and offer remarkable value for money and it’s high time we unleashed one up here!

○Keith and Lynne Allan run the Restoration Coffee Shop and Parlour Kitchen with an AGA cooker, as part of their country concept store at the Old Dairy in Ford (opposite Ford Castle). They specialise in artisan roast coffee and freshly baked scones and cakes and they make a range of Lady Waterford’s jams and marmalades. Open Wednesday – Sunday, 11am – 5pm. Tel: 01890 820325/01289 302658.