On 4th April, an article caught my eye entitled ‘Posh County pubs “aren’t catering for walkers in muddy boots‘. The article was by Sam Marsden, published in The Telegraph, and was based on the viewpoint of Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society, Henley-on-Thames. In the piece, Ms. Ashbrook laments the evolution of many country hostelries into gastro-pubs, whose extensive, pricey menus and carpeted floors are off-putting to the casual walker in search of a hearty lunch. Her comments are made based principally on the Chiltern pubs near her home – my neck of the woods.
As a keen walker myself and never one to pass up the opportunity for a good lunch stop en-route, I can sympathise with Ms. Ashbrook’s viewpoint. Whilst realising that there perhaps are underlying reasons for the evolution of many pubs from the casual, boot-friendly establishments of the past, I was still surprised at the vitriol of some anti-walker commenters at the bottom of the article who wrote off all ramblers as either ‘townies’ or far left-wing radicals with no concern for true country matters. Being neither I found myself compelled to explore the issue further.
Having grown up in the rural West Country, muddy family walks with the dog were a regular part of my childhood and teen years. Other than family holidays, we seldom travelled further than the next village or two for weekend wanders and often started and finished at our own front door. Including a pub meal as part of these outings was not uncommon and most of the local pubs had big gardens to sit out in during the summer or a bar area with flagstone floors where walking boots were welcome in the winter months. Country walks with friends or family have remained a part of my life into adulthood and one of the bonuses of where we live now in rural Oxfordshire was the myriad of public footpaths right on the doorstop of our house.
I, like Kate Ashbrook, have also noticed a change in the pubs over the years. There are now a lot more fancy pubs with lovely decor and extensive menus than before and I would agree that the days are gone when you could just turn up at a new pub, walking boots on, and be guaranteed a walker-friendly environment in which to enjoy your steak-and-ale pie with chips. This is not just a problem in Oxfordshire – the pubs in the West Country where I grew up have also shown a similar change although not perhaps quite as marked and I know from family that a similar effect is taking place in the Cotswolds.
The evolution of the gastro-pub in this patch of Oxfordshire is hardly surprising though. The villages around Henley-on-Thames are affluent and it is hard to find a four bedroomed family home for under £600,000. With this kind of wealth in the region, it must be a no-brainer to publicans to capitalise on high-end fare. Sadly however only a few of the so-called gastro-pub live up to their title and even those often offer a £10 set lunch menu during weekdays – presumably because they cannot get by comfortably on sophisticated evening and weekend diners alone. Of course, space is always a premium in any business but it’s hard not to think that some of these pubs are losing a trick by not having a small section of their premises suitable for those sporting a waterproof jacket rather than their best coat. I know personally that I’d be sneaking in a midday lunch fairly frequently if our local village gastro-pub (conveniently situated half way round one my favourite walks from the house) had a non-carpeted area in which to experience the delights of their mid-week set menu. I know they aren’t fully booked every day as when I have been in (without boots) on a weekday lunchtime, we were the only diners.
Of course there is also another side to this story. Even the gastropubs often still have large gardens where surely anyone is welcome to perch their walking trouser clad behinds during the warmer months and who’s to say that publicans would mind walkers sitting inside even if they have gone to the effort of sprucing things up for those customers who expect their surroundings to reflect the price and type of dining experience they are having? I have never been turned away from a pub when walking but I have chosen not to eat inside because I was afraid of what people would think of me, tramping in with my hastily wiped boots and casual clothes. Perhaps a lot of it is actually walkers’ perceptions rather than the real state of affairs? Perhaps the publicans are not the problem?
Perception works in many ways though. From the comments on the original newspaper article it is clear that walkers do not have a good name amongst …well, I’m not quite sure who…but perhaps those who from their comments deem themselves to be true ‘locals’. This age-old country habit of close-community and readiness to define ‘the other’ is well documented, with a good example shown as far back as Hardy’s rural novel ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’. It would also appear it is a trait in no danger of dying out any-time soon. It reminds me of a time when my teenage boyfriend visited our local village pub with a Scandanavian relative and they were grilled by the regulars at the bar as to where they were from. Some interest was shown in the Scandanavian relative before they turned to my boyfriend and asked him the same question. On admitting he grew up and lived in a village 20 minutes drive away they retorted – ‘oh, so you’re not local either’. It still makes me smile to this day.
The common issue seems to be that walkers are either perceived as ‘townies’ or the most dreaded ‘ramblers’. It would appear that villagers who just enjoy a Sunday morning stroll which finishes with a roast dinner at their local pub are not given any consideration and yet it is these groups of people that I would suggest the article most states the case for. These are repeat, local customers (surely of value to our often struggling pubs) in search of a comfortable place to refresh themselves whilst ironically, enjoying and participating in a country lifestyle that upholds rural values.
For those who may not have grown up in the country but are willing to immerse themselves in countryside activities and be an active part of the local community – why should they not be encouraged to do so? To scorn, segregate or discourage such participation is surely a one-way road to achieving the doom of ‘real’ rural England that the ‘locals’ are so afraid of? Surely every effort should be made to welcome newcomers, involve them in the old traditions and pass on the knowledge of our countryside to future generations so that new life and responsibility can be breathed into our declining rural communities? Without the family walk, how will our children know to recognise a primrose from a cowslip, to tell which crop is growing in the fields or to be able to identify Oxfordshire’s famous Red Kite? Without a family and walker friendly pub, we are also in danger of losing future generations who will carry a love of combining rural pursuit with a pub lunch into their adulthood – not something pubs would want to see disappear surely?
I can understand concern about large groups of ‘ramblers’ – where ramblers refers to walking groups rather than smaller family or friend units. The complaint is that such groups can descend on small pubs and often only spend a small amount per head, taking up valuable table spaces at peak times. With any such large group it is always hard to guarantee that everyone will want more than a drink and a pack of crisps and I can understand the frustrations of publicans with limited space and a hoard of walkers eating their own sandwiches under the table whilst sipping slowly at their lime cordial. Again though – there are plenty of pubs with large gardens that are suitable for big groups with low budgets. Perhaps also if ramblers are not to gain a bad name, group leaders should plan appropriate stops for their walkers at larger pubs or by pre-arrangement with the establishments in question -surely this must already be done by the more responsible group leaders? After all – every other element of the walk is pre-planned. Here also, as one commenter points out, is a good opportunity for enterprising village shops with a space for a bench or two outside and room for a hot drinks machine or kettle inside!
Let’s not forget too that there are still quite a few pubs who are well-kitted out for walkers, horse-riders, dogs and all others enjoying a country pursuit and a pint. It just happens that the most charming and scenic pubs are going to provide the biggest draw for both those with the biggest budgets and walkers enjoying the prettiest routes. In such a scenario, simple economics determines that it is going to be the fine-diners who win every time and unless such pubs have unlimited space, there is not much that can be done about that.
What would undoubtedly help though in all cases is for pubs to have a clearer policy on walkers on their websites or even on the blackboard outside. It is common for pubs to advertise if they are family friendly so why not also indicate if they are happy to have hiking boots or dogs in areas of their pub or garden. Such a policy would also make it much easier for responsible walking group leaders to make informed decisions about which pubs may be most suitable for their outings also and that way, everyone would be happier.
In the meantime, I plan to continue my rural rambles and pub lunches and hope my daughter grows up to enjoy them too. I walked several miles, finishing with a pub-lunch the week before she was born and have since enjoyed many pub walking outings with her including on Mother’s Day and with a large group of friends and family to celebrate her first birthday – so it is possible, just perhaps with a little more planning!
At Baby Routes, I am always on the lookout for family friendly country pubs (particularly in Oxfordshire) who are happy to accommodate the hungry hiker. If you are a pub with some good walks nearby and would like to be featured on the website, do get in touch and I’d be very happy to provide a review of the pub and a write up of a nearby walk.