Ah, the country pub: something revered and idealised by the British – a term alone that can make a stiff upper lip tremble with emotion. Like buttered crumpets, Pooh-sticks or Hunter wellies, the very idea fills us with happy nostalgia.
And so it is that Mr Smith and I find ourselves driving down Wiltshire lanes, weekend bag on the back seat, Hunters in the boot, impatient for the Muddy Duck to loom out of the inky darkness. It does. The swinging sign is of the modern type, all muted Farrow & Ball tones and modish font. The pub is built of those solid chunks of honey-toned stone, like giant slabs of Cotswold fudge. There are ancient vines twisted around the heavy oak front door, which pushes open to reveal a thick velvet curtain shielding the pub inside from the draughts. So far, so idyllic.
I know what you’re thinking. This is where it all goes wrong. This is when the boutique-hotel aficionados get left waiting awkwardly with their bags for 10 minutes while the bored teenage barmaid pointedly ignores them. Then the shown to a room with thin curtains and no water pressure. Or handed one of those alarmingly extensive laminated menus that suggest the existence of a freezer out back stocked with everything from Peking duck to shepherd’s pie. Because the thing about the country pub is, the good ones are out there, but you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find them.
Thankfully, the reality is as follows. Vince, the proprietor, is at the bar. I have just enough time to take in scrubbed wooden tables laid for dinner, exposed brick walls, church candles, herringbone-parquet floor, and then we are led upstairs, along a guest corridor stocked with Scrabble, packs of cards, a pile of DVDs, and into room 3. Room 3 is enormous. Vast. Massive. In London, this kind of floor space would be converted into a decent-size one-bedroom apartment before you can say ‘property-developer’.
The super-king-size bed looks positively cute in it. Under a window at one end are two armchairs beside a coffee table, with a chess set. At the foot of the bed is a large sofa, facing an open log fire. At the other end is a freestanding claw-footed bath. The fire, thick shutters and curtains and soft velvet sofa make it cosy despite the size. The decor is well-executed chic rather than directional design flair, but it works. The bathroom (toiletries: Ren) is in the signature New York-hotel style (black rubber floor, metro tiles, oversized showerhead) but four times the size of a New York hotel bathroom.
We order G&Ts, which are brought swiftly, strong and ice-cold, with a dish of salted almonds that is all the more welcome for being unrequested. We pop the iPod in the docking station and take our positions for half an hour of pre-dinner newspaper reading: me in the bath, Mr Smith on the sofa in front of the fire. We declare ourselves happy.
The dining room is full when we go downstairs: there are only three rooms in this boutique inn, but locals and weekenders come for the food. (A party from the Bath Rugby Club had their New Year’s Eve dinner here. Very polite and well-behaved they were too, according to the sweetly chatty Muddy Duck staff.) Our table is in the inglenook fireplace – the largest inglenook in the county, it easily houses two tables-for-four.
The food is best summed up as 'latest-edition gastropub classics'. We have crackling with apple sauce, devilled whitebait and crab linguine to start; then rare T-bone steaks with great chips and rocket salad followed by sticky toffee pudding. It is all delicious, as is the French red, and by the time we finish dinner we are so jolly that we select The Hangover from the DVD pile and giggle through the whole thing on our velvet sofa.
Now, as is oft the rumour with these old inns, apparently the pub is haunted. And the phantom? A monk who plays practical jokes on guests and staff – there was a priory in Monkton Farleigh in the 11th century. But no ghouls or living souls disturb us and we are woken in time for breakfast by the sound of horses (real ones, not ghostly) clip-clopping along the road outside. One thing I’d have loved? Paraphernalia in the room for an early cuppa – I appreciate those tea trays look a bit, you know, bed-and-breakfasty, which is why smart establishments eschew them, but I’d always kill for a kettle hidden away in the cupboard. Still, awaiting downstaires are delicious scrambled eggs and bacon for Mr Smith; boiled eggs and Marmite soldiers for me; excellent coffee for both – all served at a big, comfy table with all the weekend papers.
Monkton Farleigh feels like deepest countryside yet it is only five miles from Bath. Bradford-on-Avon is just as close too, a very picturesque Avon Valley town with winding streets, historic buildings and a lovely stone bridge. And yes, as is the Cotswolds way, a surfeit of shops selling heart-shaped knick-nacks. (And I say this as someone who is always partial to a cutesy geegaw.)
Bath, much bigger, has pretty streets, endless restaurants, a cinema where we catch a matinee, and some great shops. We pop here for sushi to offset the pubby indulgences; there is culture too, apparently. This takes us almost through to supper time, so it is back to our lovely room, and then to ‘our’ table, where we have another first-class supper: duck liver pâté, Caesar salad; roast chicken with frîtes, venison with celeriac; and – the standout – a delicious English cheeseboard.
Top-notch food is only part of what makes a great dinner. Service makes all the difference, and the Muddy Duck totally gets this. Bad service turns us into curmudgeons and naggers: nobody wants to be that person in the corner irritably barking ‘excuse me’ at the waiter repeatedly. When service is seamless, you feel taken care of and you get to be gracious and smile and say thank you all the time, which makes you feel your best about a place and also about yourself – and your weekend away. Everyone’s a winner.
Sunday morning, we head out for a post-breakfast (excellent Full English; underwhelming Eggs Benedict) walk. After all – can’t go home without getting those Hunters muddy. The immediate countryside isn’t staggeringly beautiful, at least not on an overcast, blowy winter morning, but there are stiles and footpaths and some soul-uplifting rural views within reach.
Then it’s time to check out – although it feels much too soon. Mr Smith starts talking about buying a stuffed pike, like the one on the wall above ‘our’ breakfast table at the Muddy Duck, partly as a reminder of a really decent weekend. Which it was. What you get at this gastropub with gusto are all the country-pub clichés (open fire, the clubbable atmosphere, the opportunity to get a bit tipsy and then sleep it off in peace), without the bad clichés (the surly teenage staff, the bad music, the scratchy bedlinen). As Bath’s most famous writer, Jane Austen, might have put it: Reader, we loved it.