If ever there was a day to be out in the British countryside, it is this day. Early-August and baking – the hottest day of the year. We soar out of London, heading west, out past Oxford and down the A40 toward the Cotswolds, one long, hot line of tar leading us out into the rolling green hills of Middle-England. The trusty, aged BMW purrs gently and the hot, burning summer sun pounds down. As we pass Woodstock, the roads start getting smaller, the buildings toffee-hued and picturesque and the greenery more abundant. We pass Burford, ‘England’s PrettiestVillage’ and keep driving west, roaring down the country roads, feeling for all the world like Mr Toad!
The Chequers at Churchill offers a rather more gastronomic experience than you might imagine from a small, rural Cotswolds pub. It’s when we walk in and see a pata negra ham sitting atop the bar, that I know we can hope for good things. The Chequers is part of a small independent group that also runs The Wheatsheaf at Northleach, which will function as our resting place tonight.
We take our seats in the heavily-beamed dining room and soak up the surroundings. The Chequers is filled with an interestingly diverse mix of characters, who seem to be, on the whole, settling in for a long Saturday lunch. This is a foodie crowd and they’re engaging with the menu with gusto. I can see all manner of delightful platters coming out of the kitchen and turn my attention to the menu and the pint of Cotswolds Pale Ale that has just arrived.
We can’t help but start with the ham – pata negra is not the sort of thing you can see sitting on a bar and simply ignore. We order a plate to help focus ourselves as we make our proper choices. The ham is as fatty and sensual as hoped; I think this may be cut from the slightly fattier shoulder rather than leg – the ratio between meat and fat is evenly weighted. The menu itself is engaging and offers a broad range of local products that seem to have been treated with care and intelligence. We enjoy deviled kidneys on toast and grilled sardines, two dishes that couldn’t be more different in form; the former hearty, full of fat and unrepentantly bodily, the latter displays all the fresh clarity of the sea. The wine list at The Chequers is highly impressive, with a great sweeping range of wines from accessible regional French reds right through to iconic names in Grand Cru Burgundy. We finish our meal with a hugely enjoyable home made toffee ice cream before stirring ourselves from this joyful interlude and heading out into the sunshine.
Just fifteen minutes of pacy driving in the our trusty machine and we’re approaching the village of Northleach, a microcosm of ancient, honey-hued buildings set on the Oxfordshire/Gloucestershire borders. The road sides are lined with signage offering organic freshly-picked strawberries and eggs from industrious locals – a more bucolic vision you’d struggle to envisage. The Wheatsheaf is situated right in the centre of town, a huge, ivy-clad structure with an enviable history and wonderful reputation. The sturdy sandstone structure was once an important coaching inn and the shape of the building attests to a well-established past. The room we are shown to was clearly once part of the stables, the rough-hewn stone walls speak of a long and illustrious life. Today the rough edges have been softened by carefully conceived finishings – thick Egyptian cotton on the bed, a beautiful free-standing copper bath, Bang & Olufsen television on the stone wall. It’s an extremely comforting and stylish place to lay your head, my guest and I are charmed.
We bathe at leisure, then head out into the soft summer dusk. The rooms of the hotel fan out around a undeniably fine, terraced garden area, some of which is open, with tables and chairs – a beer garden of sorts. Other areas are quieter, hidden away. We find one of these, a couple of deck chairs, and settle in for the duration. The bar serves excellent ales, and burgers are being cooked outside tonight on a barbeque to celebrate the high peak of an unexpectedly hot summer. We loaf in the shade with a beer, burger and book and feel as if all in the world is just about right.
Eventually we make it back into the stable and into a bed which is as warm, lavish and cosseting as a bed could ever be. The morning comes as a shock and hits us hard – this is not a bed one should ever be forced to leave to make breakfast. The Wheatsheaf is a stylish, modern bolthole, with a proper history and is run by a team with a keen eye for the details that make a hotel break a thing to savour. I imagine it’s as thick-sockedly cosy and glowing in winter as it’s deck-chair dozy in summer, a great choice for a languorous weekend.
The Wheatsheaf, West End, Northleach, Gloucestershire GL54 3EZ. Tel: 01451 860244. Website.