After agreeing mutually not to ‘do’ gifts this year, conflicting seasonal schedules had meant the brothers and I had, until now, been unable to follow through on our promise instead to buy each other a hangover for Christmas. The Cotswold town of Stow having been nominated as the prospective scene - its proximity to two out of three of us, plus its high concentration of walkable, suitably spaced pubs made it ideal in principle - the day came, over the course of time, to be christened as above, obviously in honour of the quantity of booze we thereon pledged to consume, and the calibre of punter we hoped might be sharing our (read, ‘my’) dancing space come the close of play.
Beginning at the landmark Kings Arms, a default pint of Guinness – this is a Green King tie - was chewed down as we discussed where on earth the £250,000 reported to have been spent on improvements here recently, actually went. The bedrooms must be spectacular.
Making for the much-fancied Talbot, we bagged a booth away from the loud, mutton-as-lamb ladies that were hanging about the bar and intermittently fussing over a local’s shaggy dog. From here we got the best possible aspect on the highly distasteful mustard and turquoise colour-scheme that ran inconsistently through the bar, and which made the part of the pub we were sitting in feel like it had been appointed with a specific view to hosting young families. Colour-blind ones. Sinking another stout and becoming increasingly fixated on the bar maid’s jeans, we thought better of another and pressed on to the Eagle and Child.
Part of the Royalist Hotel, this was perhaps my favourite of the day’s venues. It’s reputed to be (along with numerous others) the oldest Inn in England, parts of the building dating from the 10th century. It also offered up the excellent pint of Goff’s Jouster which lubricated a conversation on the subject of how, after the success of our combined 100th birthday a couple of years back, we should go about commemorating our 111th. There were a couple of negatives about the place – the pretty soulless, uniformly arranged, unpopulated restaurant space and the fact their blackboard menu looked very much like it had been written by a six-year old – but all in all, rather a charming spot, particularly the small, snug bar area.
The Bell, on the road leading out of Stow to the east, was a shocker. Plunged into darkness on one side by a malfunctioning outside light, I came close to measuring my length over a prostrate A board, flattened by someone who had blindly tripped on it or else indifferently and, maybe not unreasonably, just kicked it to shit. The place was utterly deserted save for three intimidating looking fellows watching the game. What I drank was fairly much immaterial and secondary to the spectacle of Benson having objected firmly but so fairly to our server’s choice of music that she was minded to stop herself en route to smoke a barely-earned cigarette, and to go back and skip over Avril Lavigne. Not offensive, The Bell, but superfluous to a town that already seemed beset with uninspiring amenities and, let’s face facts, if you’re not going to take the care outwardly to flag up the fact your premises are open, you might just as well sell up and encourage any buyer that, in lieu of a successful change of use application, they’d be as well to live on them.
The television perched in the corner of its bar will be as obsolete as The Unicorn come the digital switch. We stayed long enough for Benson to fail to find the toilet. The White Hart, in contrast, offered a really lovely, characterful, country environment and a very decent pint of Arkells. (Three from the Wiltshire brewery were available). A trip to the loo here took you past a beautiful, about-half-full dining room. We had a choice encounter here, too, with a very drunk man inexplicably armed with a box of Cadbury’s Roses. We got as much sense out of him as we did personality out of the one of two barman who wasn’t evidently the landlord. To the Queen’s…
The Queen’s Head was, by a mile, the liveliest of the pubs we’d visited so far. It’s a Donnington Brewery site and the beer – enough time has elapsed since we were there that I’m not sure it’s reasonable for you to expect me to remember which one of their portfolio I enjoyed – was in good condition. I think, for the record, that in the scheme of a number of recent outings on which I’ve had poured for me some especially moody, lifeless stuff, that is as comprehensive an appraisal of anyone’s wet output as I need give, and a credible nod to the management here. What wasn’t credible was some of the knitwear on show. It soon became apparent, however, that some sort of weird, ‘ironic jumper’ contest was in session, the winner of which, for my money, was a genuinely awful, embroidered butterfly number. Smashing fit on the wearer though. Really. Like a glove.
And so back to the one place that, believe it not, had felt like it could become a destination a bit later on – The Talbot. Said barmaid from earlier was now in attendance in a social capacity and, the more the black ‘buca flowed, the more distracting she became. This wasn’t going to end well. For one of us – I won’t say which one – it really didn’t.
Like Chipping Camden, Stow really is too charming not to be better served by boozers. Two or three had redeeming features where none were great. There’s money round here, and I just won’t have that those who have it to spend wouldn’t do so fairly liberally with the person/business that was to competently package a product and service offer, and properly harness the potential, in any one of the town’s existing sites. None of which got in the way of a quite extraordinary evening’s entertainment, by the way. Strength and honour, family; I think we all needed that.