Grab yourself a pint and a seat by the fire, as food (and drink) critic Matthew Fort guides you through our top 10 snuggest UK pubs to visit this winter, as outlined in Lonely Planet Magazine.
No.1: The Harrow Inn, Steep
There was something immensely comforting when the kindly young lady behind the bar taking my order for a beef sandwich with horseradish said: ‘The beef’s rare. I hope you don’t mind.’ Mind? I very nearly did a jig of delight. And so it came, wholemeal bread slathered with fiery sauce, plump with slices of pink beef. I ate the sandwich in front of the fire and washed it down with two pints of Cheriton Pots beer drawn from barrels racked behind the bar, and followed them with an impeccable treacle tart with cream, while marvelling at the pleasure of a pub in which it almost felt that electricity had been installed as an absent minded after thought. A classic in every sense, the Harrow Inn is a special place to visit at any time of year, but in winter, it wraps itself around you like a warm cloak.
No.2: The Tunnel House Inn, Cirencester
The Tunnel House is a large, handsome building of creamy Cotswold stone, tucked away at the end of a dirt track in serious need of attention, beside a disused canal, with the longest canal tunnel in the country. In fact, the pub used to be the haunt of bargees. These days, it’s always full with students from Cirencester Agricultural College round the corner, walkers or folk who just love a really well-run, idiosyncratic pub, with real fires, a sofa either side, a pool table stuck to the ceiling and, of course, very odd bric-a-brac and photos plastered over the walls. There are beers from two of the best brewers in the country, Hook Norton and Uley, on draught, and some serious cider. The food is fine and filling rather than fabulous, and the pub is very child- and dog-friendly – it’s the perfect place to rest your muddied boots after a canal-side or woodland walk.
No.3: The Three Fishes, Mitton
The Three Fishes is worth travelling to for the chips fried in beef dripping alone. And the platter of cured pork meats. And the cheerful warmth of the greeting. And, well, the whole package. More like a British brasserie than a gastropub, it’s large, rambling and wood-floored, while the white walls are decorated with photos of the farmers and other producers whose ingredients are treated with intelligence, sympathy and wit by the kitchen, just as customers are treated by the staff. Altogether, it has that convivial, easygoing feeling that’s right for everyone – solitary, pint-sipping newspaper readers, romantic couples, romping families, too. The beer is beautifully kept and the food comes out to a superbly high standard.
No.4: The Hardwick, Abergavenny
It describes itself as a country pub that leans towards being a restaurant, which I suppose is true, but no more so than a good many pubs these days, adapting to the changing needs and circumstances of country customers. Stephen Terry, star of BBC Two’s Great British Menu and indefatigable champion of local produce is the chef and proprietor. His menu changes seasonally, and in winter you can expect heartening and heartwarming dishes such as roast rib of Herefordshire beef with all the trimmings. Stephen’s principle ingredients are all from round about, but his dishes lean more towards Europe than traditional Wales, with a rollicking approach to flavour and a rare delicacy of touch. Although classically gastropub in appearance (wide open spaces, wooden floors and simple tables), the Hardwick has the feeling of an old-fashioned roadhouse: accessible, democratic and fun.
No.5: The Sportsman, Whitstable
Wrap up well to watch the waves crash on shore, then retreat from the winds to The Sportsman: a handsome 19th-century roadhouse and now smart, light and airy gastropub, tucked behind a dyke to protect it from encroachment of the sea (the Thames Estuary). The chef and proprietor of this immensely civilised place, Stephen Harris, makes his own salt from the seawater just 100 paces from the front door. He also churns his own butter, cures hams and makes his own sausages. It’s amazing Stephen doesn't brew his own beer but, sensibly, he buys that in. The food – fish, of course, and salt marsh lamb – is rooted firmly in the immediate surrounding area, but Mr Harris’s culinary creativity ranges a good deal further afield, and he has a natural warmth that will envelop any winter visitor.
No.6: Kelly's Cellars, Belfast
Kelly’s is a warm-hearted pub whatever the season. Yet, while warm-hearted, it has also rightly earned the label of a lethal pub. You push your way through one door into a barrel-vaulted chamber, get as fine a glass of Guinness as there is to be found (served at Belfast temperature, just a few degrees warmer than south of the border – perfect for a pint in December), shuffle to your right to make room for the masses following you in until you pop out of another door at the far end of the bar and prepare to start the process all over again. In short, it is a drinking pub. It’s also a convivial pub, a talking pub and a music pub, and it does a mean Irish stew. But to be honest, you’re not really there for the food – it’s the drinking and the music that will keep away the chill.
No.7: The Star Inn, Harome
A star in every sense of the word. Since 1996, Jacquie and Andrew Pern have tirelessly turned the quiet and sleepy Harome village into a gastronomic empire. Well, small kingdom, anyway. The Star Inn, a 14th-century thatch and whitewash building, is the warm, beating heart. Inside, it’s wall-to-wall log fires, dark panelling, snug corners and Yorkshire generosity. Andrew’s highly individual and storming Michelin-starred food is based on top drawer local ingredients, with fruit and veg straight from the Star garden. There are rooms, too, and a deli and a butcher’s in Helmsley, and a good deal more besides. Book early and book often.
No.8: Applecross Inn, Wester Ross
Head over the highest pass in Britain and along a picturesque coastline to reach this secluded pub. At the end of the road is a cluster of fishermen’s cottages and Applecross Inn. Applecross is ‘vaut le detour’ as Michelin used to state – what better place to take refuge, as a chill settles over the flinty loch, than this inviting tavern? It’s not exactly unknown as it’s picked up a hat-full of awards for its beer, its seafood, its cheeseboard – everything, in fact, including the cosy bedrooms in which to sleep away the hospitality taken below.
No.9: The Harwood Arms, London
The Harwood Arms’ once ropey reputation has been transformed by Stephen Williams, with the twin-guiding spirits of Mike Robinson of The Pot Kiln in Berkshire and Michelin-starred chef Brett Graham of The Ledbury in London. The beers are kept with respect and the food is about as brilliant as gastropub food can decently be. It goes heavy on foraged material, particularly game during the winter season, but it’s revolutionised by some serious creativity in the kitchen, such as snails with oxtail and duck with beetroot. A witty touch has been added to the puddings, too (mini apple doughnuts), but the real clincher is Scotch eggs, served warm, with liquid yolks. Very popular, and deservedly so. Where better to escape the onslaught of a grey London day than an urban refuge with an emphasis on the rural provenance of its food? You can drink and eat. Or you can just drink. But my advice is to do both.
No. 10: The Griffin Inn, Fletching
A model of its kind, The Griffin Inn is a pretty red-brick building in a small, roses-round-the eaves village. And it just does what it does, brilliantly. Serving great beer (Harveys), it also has an ace wine list and pitch-perfect Euro-Brit food. Real fires, mullioned windows, oak beams, plaster and exposed brickwork and shadowy corners come as standard and all of it thoroughly soaked in history and reeking of atmosphere. Did I mention it’s cosy and comfortable, too? Run with ease and understated professionalism of the old fashioned, mine-host variety, The Griffin is a must. And there are classy bedrooms where you can sleep off any overindulgence.