Stockbridge is the sort of town you should ride into on horseback. Much of the journey there, on the A30, dips and rises through miles of undulating countryside before one slows on the approach and it’s like entering a frontier town in the Midwest. It is, essentially, a single high street, seemingly little changed in a century or more; there’s a pub – nay, saloon? – or two, a hotel, a bank, a country outfitters and some boutique businesses, and it’s passed through in minutes before you’re back out and on the road. But, if you choose to stop, and you should, you should refresh your horses at The Greyhound.
Michelin’s ‘Pub of the Year’ in 2014 – an accolade that is no mean feat, given fierce competition – there’s nothing immediately evident to see how it scooped this coveted prize. But that is precisely its secret. For everything one enjoys about The Greyhound is so wonderfully, delightfully understated. It’s unassuming and unobjectionable. In short, it’s all so wonderfully, delightfully English.
A mere ten rooms set the scene in a refreshing country cottage style; ours, triple aspect, is generously proportioned, unadorned by anything other than functional shabby chic furniture and decorated in fresh pastels with suitably Hockneyesque floral scenes on the walls. To say it’s cosy is an understatement; low ceilings, exposed brickwork and uneven floors and timbers. It’s English in its detail, too. There are daffodils in the window boxes. And Twix chocolates on the tea tray. There’s an honesty bar, mounted on the wall on the landing. And wellingtons lined up in the hall. It’s so English I wanted to renounce the 1/4 of me that’s anything but and cry God for Harry out the window. But we settled for a cup of tea and shared a Twix instead. How proper.
Outside, an inviting slate-tiled terrace is prepared with heaters and blankets for the time of year, but they are unnecessary today. It’s a beautiful, bright, breezy spring evening and we venture out immediately. The town can be covered in twenty minutes but what makes Stockbridge, and The Greyhound, is the Test. It runs through the town; its tributaries flow under the road, past houses, at the bottom of gardens including, it should be said, the pub’s, where summer lunches are, undoubtedly, most sought after by the riverbank.
For those not in the know, the Test is known throughout the world for its fly fishing, and Stockbridge is its Mecca. The Greyhound, too, has right-of-way over much of its banks, running some 70 beats along the river and its surrounds, and their rooms are fully booked months in advance between May to September as a result. A visit here without casting a fly is like Christmas without turkey and we are, sadly, out of season but, nevertheless, a good riverside walk along its babbling glass-clear waters and out into the commons behind the town is just as evocative, and earns us an evening in the bar.
A frothy pint of the Greyhound’s ale may not seem the ideal aperitif but, in the cosy interior of the pub, particularly after a jaunt in the heart of the Hampshire countryside, it’s form. Perhaps the only thing lacking in the traditional country pub offering here is the menu; you won’t find stale fish and chips, over-cooked roasts and glutenous pies at The Greyhound. Rather, there are some adventurous and appetite-whetting turns on the menu, such as our starter of jasmine-smoked chicken with delicate wasabi mousse, or chargrilled squid with curried chickpea and chorizo. A chef showing his repertoire, certainly, but it would be remiss if there wasn’t hearty country fare to be had in a hearty country pub and we weren’t disappointed. I went safe, and rural. A glutton for the immersive experience, I practically hummed Beethoven’s 6th as I dined, a sensory symphony reminding me of everything I love about the rolling hills and trickling streams around us. Thus it was guinea fowl in pancetta – less gamey than its game cousins and a rare treat on a menu – with apricot stuffing on a bed of puy lentils. Here was seasonal fodder, given thought.
Menus are meant to be asked about, chefs create for us to question, to interact and, with this in mind, I spotted a baked ‘Isle of Wight’ among the desserts. ‘As in Alaska,’ I asked? ‘No, as in cheese,’ came the reply, ‘like a camembert.’ For pudding? There are twists in traditional grub, clearly. Such as the warm rice pudding topped with apple sorbet which we opted for – and I’m taking that idea home with me, too.
As if to honour this weekend in glorious pastoral finery, and a hark to everything our stay reminded me of what I love about escaping London, on the way back to our room I passed a window seat and a small selection of books on offer. Instinctively, I picked up a copy of AJP Taylor’s ‘English History’, poured a hearty dram of scotch from the honesty bar, popped a hearty chunk of change in the box and prepared to settle in. The pages seemed to compliment my stay, time almost went backwards, and I squeezed lasting enjoyment out of 24 hours here with a luxuriating lie-in and a hearty breakfast the next morning with – what else? – a ‘full English’.
As we saddled up, I reflected on Stockbridge as the sort of place most people might drive through, slowing down to admire its historical, picturesque setting – possibly stopping for lunch or tea – and leave with murmurings of ‘we should really stay overnight one day’. And stay one should. You’d be missing out on one of life’s, and England’s, little pleasures.
The Greyhound on the Test. 31 High Street, Stockbridge, Hampshire SO20 6EY. 01264 810833. For more information, including details of WILDS, their bespoke catering service, visit www.thegreyhoundonthetest.co.uk.