I can get quite emotional about (and inside) pubs. A visit to The Crown Inn in Church Enstone recently had me trying to figure out why. I loved it there. It felt like an antidote; a remedial step away from the disappointments of reality, towards a simpler, more congenial way. Was it perfect? Well no, but to ask that is to entirely miss the point.
There are undefinable, intangible qualities to the best pubs that leave me blindly scrabbling to describe what makes them special. There’s just an incommunicable, aching feeling about them. It’s equally hard to get at exactly what makes a pub shit. You can add up the bad bits but the feeling is greater than the sum of its parts. That extra disaffection is in the offense caused to the venerable institution, the sullying of a beautiful, life-affirming thing. Samuel Pepys called the pub the ‘heart of England’, and I think he was part of the way there. Pubs are the heart, but they’re also the brain, the stomach and the bones. They reflect those that inhabit them, and grow as those within them evolve. They record our triumphs and nurture our defeats and they give us something to share.
I told you. Forgive the outburst, it’s only that I care, and, being someone who must occasionally convert thoughts into words, it’s often impossible to relay quite why one of the gazillion pubs in Oxfordshire is or is not worth your time. On this occasion, I’m sure the Crown is, and I think I know why.
You walk in and feel the pub greet you. There isn’t a scheme to the bar area per se, only the choice of materials: flagstone, oak, brass. Some ‘pubs’ feel like they were designed by an overpaid committee and a Pinterest account. There’s a ubiquitous mock-pubbiness in chains, manifest in those signs saying things like, ‘Alcohol is not the answer. Alcohol is the question, yes is the answer!’ put up to dilute the screens and fruit machines with the imitation of character. The more pretentious version involves the Waitrose colour palette, fish and chips for £25 and a set of copy-and-paste French metro posters put in to distract from how cack the coffee is. True pubs are incongruous and homely. Each little thing on the wall should tell part of a story, and that story should be hotly disputed by six or seven people who have no knowledge of the facts. Pubs shouldn’t feel decorated; they should feel lived in – filled with the incremental minutiae of people and place.
The restauranty bit is separate and has had more overarching attention. It’s fresh and airy, with a glass-panelled conservatory that opens out onto a little garden (soon to be expanded I hear). That one of its owners, George, is a fine artist gives the Crown a refined edge while making it all the more personal – his mark is quite literally on the walls. The rooms aren’t cheap, nor should they be. Ours, the Great Tew Room, comes staffed with a dozen luxuries that add to an absorbingly indulgent experience. A bed the size of an airport faces a free-standing bath the size of a runway. It’s decadent without feeling overwrought and tasteful to a tee (though the magazine selection could do with one or two additions...).
Dinner was smashing – grand but deft plates of food cooked without pretence. We have scallops with cauliflower and pancetta opposite trout with beetroot and potato; plates that succeed on their own terms and hold up their protagonists righteously. The duck comes with an entourage of rich, satiating accomplices – serviceable dauphinoise and a deep luxuriant cherryish jus. Fish and chips don’t disappoint – battered in local ale and resplendent with a squeeze of lemon and a dollop of tartare. It can sometimes feel like a cop out to order fish and chips when there’s obvious competence behind the swing doors, but it’s a hard thing to get quite so right. I absolutely did not need dessert, but mindful of my obligation to you, dear reader, I suffered through a chocolate and amaretto mousse. It was tough, but I made it.
These are all the reasons to go the Crown. You will be fed and watered with aplomb and you’ll sleep so well you’ll wonder if it’s safe to drive the next morning. But this isn’t why I loved it. It was that extra bit of pubbiness, the elusive aching feeling. It was the old chap imploring the young girl behind the bar to go to India instead of China, before his wife told him to be quiet and drink his wine – “You go where you want darling, take no notice. He hasn’t been to either.” It was the steady stream of blokes arriving to take up their spot. It was our superlative waiters, Aga and Louis, who couldn’t have been much older than 17 but went about their shifts like seasoned veterans. It was co-owner George pointing out his herb garden before shuffling off to greet his patrons in that most endearingly scruffy, well-spoken English way.
I left feeling enamoured (can you tell?) and buoyed by the knowledge that huge conglomerates haven’t yet sucked the life out the pub. If the sticky surfaces, wall-to-wall screens and 65-page menus are getting you down, take a trip up to Church Enstone. Take a paper, take a dog and remind yourself what a pub should be.