This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
‘‘And after April, when May follows / And the whitethroat builds and all the swallows”. I’m certainly not going to be in England now that April’s here, if the scenes at Venice airport on Easter Sunday are anything to go by. It takes a lot of bureaucracy to make an Italian man weep, but the complexities of the UK Passenger Locator Form had them sobbing on their suitcases.
Rules make contrarians of us all; while everyone in Britain is obsessing over their two weeks in Taormina or Tuscany, I’m stuck with a beaker of the warm south and longing for a gin and tonic in a proper pub garden.
The food however, is infinitely nicer than anything eaten in the novel
“England” has always been as much an imaginary as a geographical location, and it’s slightly alarming how quickly longing dresses up in cliché. John Major may have come a cropper with his ill-fated Orwellian allusion to old maids cycling home full of warmbeer, but the fantasy of Deep England still exerts its fatuous tug. As a trope, “Englishness” has a tremendous history, but the critic Krishan Kumar argues that it reached its apogee in late-Victorian Britain and its novel cult of childhood — that is, just as the railway and, even more radically, the car, were encroaching on the sunlit peace of the countryside.
Not that anyone nowadays goes in for Arcadian fantasies of England onto which they can project their own anxieties, but the persistent bestseller status of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie suggests that many of us still yearn for the bucolic reassurance of a pre-connected world, where “quiet incest still flourished where the roads were bad”.
The Edwardians idealised slowness because their world was speeding up; increased mobility brought about radical changes in perception and presaged the fashionable disease of neurasthenia, the nervous angst associated with the frenetic pace of contemporary life. Doctors warned against the dangers of overloading the brain with too many fleeting impressions, connecting the motor with madness à la Mr Toad. Writing of his first car trip in 1919, Sir Gilbert Parker recalled that his “mind was bemused”. Since everyone is supposed to be anxious about imminent social and sensory overload post-lockdown, a trip to a country pub might feel just right.
The Woolpack in Slad was Lee’s favourite pub and his legacy is plentifully, though discreetly in evidence. When I visited last year, I thought it was about the most perfect pub I had ever been to. Restored and run by Daniel Chadwick for the last twenty years, it sits on a ridge with a view of the Gloucestershire hills more or less unchanged since the writer took his first bite at the apple.
The food however, is infinitely nicer than anything eaten in the novel, and this being modern England includes traditional ingredients such as burrata, friggitelli peppers and borlotti beans. Chef Adam Glover has a brilliant eye for heritage combinations like mutton with carrot and prunes or a Cotswold take on moules marinières with cider (naturally), leeks and parsley, and his short-ish, beautifully calibrated menus feel sophisticated and comfortably old fashioned.
I was introduced to the Woolpack by Matthew Fort, one of the hosts of the television show “The Great British Menu”, who lives nearby, and he insisted I try a suitably Edwardian choice — devilled kidneys on toast, luscious with butter and warming cayenne, with two vast doorsteps of squodgy white sourdough to slurp up the juices. The kidneys were perhaps not meant as a starter, at least the waiter looked a bit startled when I ordered a steak to follow, but I don’t go to the pub that often.
Matthew was more restrained with a half-pint of prawns and mustardy, home-made mayonnaise, but he joined me in the steak, an indecent amount of fries and some cavolo nero for health.
What the Woolpack achieves is looking and feeling like everyone’s idea of a classic English pub, whilst tasting thoroughly contemporary
If I was driving out to the Woolpack on a spring evening this year, I’d very much fancy the pigeon terrine with pistachios and fig jam and the roast partridge with celeriac and crab apple. It’s not on at the moment, but I seem to remember cherry pie for pudding, with fruit as deeply flushed as Rosie’s burning cheeks and buttercup clotted cream. Not to share.
The wine list is brief and sensible, with nothing over fifty pounds, the house is Spanish and there was an interesting Romanian Pinot Noir, though Matthew will persist in being an Italophile so we had to drink Brunello.
What the Woolpack achieves is looking and feeling like everyone’s idea of a classic English pub, whilst tasting thoroughly contemporary. The flavours are complex but clean, ingredients sometimes (undeservedly) unusual but never pretentious. I wish the Venetians could get it as right as Mr Glover. “Oh to be in England…” is one of Browning’s more nauseating productions, but as someone who is presently stuck with the gaudy melon flower I do wish I could get back to the Woolpack for a taste of their honeydew sorbet.
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