Rambling the Pubs of Britain
You may find quicker ways to sample the delightful beers of Britain’s regional breweries than to head to their brewery-run pubs in the English countryside, but none better. You may find easier ways to visit these pubs than by exploring an entire county or two on foot, but none as satisfying.
In 1994, we took a train from London to Sherborne and spent five days working our way to Lyme Regis on England’s south coast before returning to London. You could do the same in Yorkshire, the Cotswolds or any of dozens of other regions.
It’s affordable: staying in pubs is much cheaper than staying in hotels, on foot you aren’t spending money for car rentals or gas, and none of the sheep you happen across sell souvenirs. Most of England is a walker’s paradise. Pubs and towns are seldom far apart, the locals are welcoming … and the beer is pretty darn good.
“Rambling” is the second-most popular hobby in the country, after gardening. England and Wales have more than 100,000 miles of footpaths⎯public right-of-ways that allow ramblers to traverse farms, golf courses and forests. Since walking is so popular, detailed maps and guidebooks are plentiful.
Rambling is a British institution. One story had it that a homeowner once built a house on a trail established hundreds of years before. The court ruled that ramblers could walk directly through the house if they wanted to.
Far from the crowd
We chose Dorset County because writer Thomas Hardy had immortalized its scenery in novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd. Journeying in Dorset is a form of time travel, with sights ranging from Iron Age forts to Roman amphitheaters to Victorian seaside pavilions.
Even though we had studied our detailed walking maps for months in advance, it was still a bit scary the first morning for the three of us (Stan’s then-16-year-old son also made the trip) to be dropped off in the middle of a foreign land. Fortunately, we had bought a book called Dorset Walks in Sherborne, and it included our first destination. The directions made it easy for us:
“Go through a waymarked metal gate a few yards in front and head straight across a large sloping field (no path), keeping roughly parallel to and about 100 yards above a fence to the right. Go through the next metal gate and keep in the same direction across the next field, parallel to a wire fence on the right, along a narrow but discernible path that bears slightly left to pass through another metal gate.”
And so forth, taking us safely across meadows, under trees and through gates to the Cerne Giant. The giant, a 180-foot-tall, well-endowed man cut into the side of a chalk hill, is believed to be a prehistoric fertility symbol. He overlooks Cerne Abbas, an ancient town built around an abbey, and a former brewing center.
The Red Lion
The fireplace in the Red Lion, one of the town’s 13 original pubs, dates back to the 14th century. We chatted with the publican about skittles leagues and history over half-pints before heading on to Godmanstone and the Smiths Arms, known as England’s smallest pub.
We were no longer on the path in the Dorset Walks book but relying on an Ordnance Survey map. Walking right-of-ways are marked by red dots on the map, but there were no red dots on the ground ahead of us. Sometimes the path looked like a trail, and other times it was little more than beaten-down grass. An occasional sign, such as a yellow or blue symbol posted on a fencepost, horse droppings (walking and bridle paths often co-exist), or a stile⎯a way through (turnstile) or over a fence⎯indicated that we were on the right track. We found six tables inside the thatched-roof Smiths Arms, with more outside by the River Cerne. The Ringwood Best Bitter was dispensed by gravity from casks turned on their sides.
We talked with Britons on holiday over excellent food, and they offered suggestions of what to look for in the coming days. We’d had quite a morning.
Views from a fairy tale
Setting out on foot certainly changes the pace of your travels. When you look on the map at a spot 12 miles down the road you think in terms of hours, not minutes. That shouldn’t keep you from packing plenty into each day.
In Dorchester, we spent the morning touring the Eldridge Pope brewery (now the Thomas Hardy brewery), then visited the Old Ship for lunch, Royal Oak and Thomas Hardy Country Bitter. That afternoon, we walked out to Hardy’s cottage in Higher Bockhampton and stopped at Stinsford Church, where his heart is buried. (The rest of him went to Westminster Abbey.) In the evening, we did more walking in the countryside and had dinner with a new acquaintance.
We began the next day with a trip to Dorchester’s weekly market, where the bargains include vegetables, white socks and antiques. Next stop was Maumbury Rings, a Roman amphitheater where gladiators battled, then on to Maiden Castle. No stone turrets here, for this is an Iron Age fort, enclosing an area of 47 acres with triple ramparts more than 60 feet high. Roman invaders drove the Durotriges tribe from the fort in 69 A.D. Today, the castle is left to those who make the steep climb to the top and the sheep who tend the grass.
The Hardy Monument was our guidepost for the rest of the morning. It honors Admiral Thomas Hardy, Lord Nelson’s right-hand man at the Battle of Trafalgar, and not the author. The towering obelisk, perched on a hill that makes it seem even taller, would fall from view as we dipped into valleys to walk beside cows and sheep and reappear as we mounted hilltops. Passing through a wheat field, Daria sent a startled pheasant flapping up as loudly as a helicopter, and a huge hare sprang out in front of us.
We marched beyond Hog Hill, across Ashton Farm and past Four Barrow Hill, bound for the Dorset Coast Path, where we were surprised by the cool bite of the breeze on our faces. Suddenly, the English coast rested at our feet. Or so it seemed from the crest on which we stood, gaping.
Straight ahead was Weymouth, the Isle of Portland and the English Channel. To the right, the coastline disappeared into the horizon. To the left, the same, and we could distinguish the shape of the land as it appears on maps. We were 160 meters above sea level but it seemed like the top of the world, as if we could see all the way from Dover to Penzance.
We had come expecting stunning views but weren’t prepared for this. It was dazzling. And the fact that the three of us had hiked here and were sharing the scene with only a few sheep made it all the more extraordinary.
We crossed pine woods and pastures and saw a sign that read “Hell Stone Only” on the way back to high ground. From afar, our destination of Abbotsbury resembled a village from a fairy tale, with its shimmering swannery and ancient St. Catharine’s Chapel perched regally on a hilltop.
A fitting pub for the final night
The next two days along the coast were equally spectacular. June is a fine time to travel on the Dorset Coast Path, because wildflowers decorate the countryside: bellflowers, dandelions, poppies, Queen Anne’s lace and more, running the spectrum from vivid red to delicate lavender to deep violet.
Along the way we discovered Palmer’s Centenary 200, a wonderful strong ale specially brewed by the Bridport brewery to celebrate its 200th anniversary. We had it first at the Three Horseshoes in Burton Bradock, where nostalgic World War II veterans wearing their old uniform shirts reminisced at the bar.
We could have used another pint the next day by the time we reached Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast. Although 626 feet above sea level sounds modest, the climb was so steep that even the sheep stood at a slant. Golden Cap offered 360 degrees of the scenes we had savored throughout the walk, from seacoast to chalk cliffs and rolling farmland.
We spent that night in Lyme Regis, which was the setting for John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman and the film of the same name. We scaled steep, twisted, narrow streets, walked along the beachfront promenade past a Victorian pavilion and strolled on the Cobb⎯the stone barricade that Meryl Streep trod in the movie. We even heard Lyme Regis’s traditional town crier proclaiming the day’s news.
The Draught Bass we had on cask at the Volunteer was as good a pint as we had in London or the country. However, it was the Angel, where we were the first American tourists to sign the guest book in a year, that we’ll remember the best. First, publican Ed Bignal still took time to point out the sights, such as the Leper’s Well a block away. Lepers once lived along the Angel’s street, Mill Green, a narrow alley on which monks had led horse drawn carts centuries ago.
Early in the evening we saw Bignal step from behind the bar and go outside to check a tire because one of his female customers was worried that it was going flat. When we returned to the pub after dinner, it was bustling. Patrons constantly paraded between the skittles alley out back and the back door to the pub, where they refilled their pints. When the skittles shut down, the singing began.
It sounded like something out of a bawdy English musical, with the leader singing the verses and the rest of the crowd joining in the choruses. The two house dogs barely stirred, and while most patrons participated in the singing, one couple sat at a table and played cribbage.
There should be such a scene at the end of every stroll in the country.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of The Beer Lover’s Guide to the USA (St. Martin’s Griffin).