Ed Note: Four Americans are walking, kayaking and canoeing the Thames across England, from source to sea. The two men are octogenarians and the two women are in the their late fifties. This is Katie McKy’s fourth dispatch from the river. Read her first, second and third posts here.
For us, paddling the Thames was also pubbing the Thames. Riverside pubs abound, but not in the way Subways and McDonald’s litter highway exits in the United States, for many of the Thames pubs predate the births of Ray Kroc’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great… grandfathers. However, these pubs aren’t historic because they’re simply old. Literary history and England’s history happened at many of them, so pubbing the Thames means you can quaff your ale and savor your bangers and mash where Charles Dickens, Isaac Walton, and England’s admirals, engineers, and highwaymen also quaffed and savored. Here are some of the pubbiest.
The Swan at Streatly: The perfect place to gaze away
Located at an especially kinetic part of the river–where a wide weir roars and colorful narrow boats line up to “lock through–the Swan at Streatly is nestled between an arching bridge and a park. The inside seating is nearly as airy as the outside; the food is as fine as the view.
Compleat Angler: Fancy and fishing
This was Izaac Walton’s beloved pub. Don’t know old Izaac? He wrote The Compleat Angler way back in 1653, the book that eventually fueled a craze for fly fishing and bass boats. The book’s namesake pub, Compleat Angler, is as fancy as a bass boat too, tricked out with candy flake paint and every electronic doohickey. It looks like a wedding is about to take place, with every petal and parasol in place. Sit riverside and live the good, good life.
The Tunnel House Inn: Historic, homey, and yummy
Named after the two-mile long Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames and Severson Canal, The Tunnel House Inn was built in the 1780s to provide lodging for the “navvies” or navigational engineers who dug the tunnel and also served as a makeshift mortuary for the many who died in the digging. The inn lies a stone’s throw from the southern entrance of the tunnel, which is still lovely after nearly 250 years. It’s also close to the source of the Thames, on gravely Tarlton Road in Coates, Cirencester. Colorful signage points the way to its crackling fireplace, flickering candles, and dark beams. It’s got great grub, provided in part by its flock of chickens, herb garden, and apple trees. Its Pie Night is a prime time to visit. Try the Cotswold Venison pie. They marinate the venison in cider for two days and then simmer it for hours with Italian mushrooms, pearl onions, a handful of herbs, and recurrent jelly. It comes with garden peas and fat chips or mash.
White Hart Inn: Friendly, solid, and comfy
At the White Hart Inn, black and white photos of cheery (and beery) patrons hang on the walls. Forget television’s Cheers: this is the pub where everyone will soon know your name. You’re likely remember the names of their beer and ale. The White Hart Bitter won the Silver at SIBA National Beer Competition and if you want gold, there’s their Ramsbury Gold, which blends pale ale malt, crystal malt and a small amount of torrified wheat. Their food is equally hearty: jackets (baked potatoes stuffed with sausage and beans and other goodies), homemade cottage pie (a meat pie with a golden crust of mashed potatoes), and a burger that tastes like fine steak. At this point, the Thames is fledgling, not yet ready to float a boat, but the White Hart Inn will keep you afloat.
The Kingfisher: A pub that isn’t
Since pub is short for Public House, the Kingfisher isn’t a pub, as it’s a private place, open only to residents of its inn. It’s worth a stay given the quality of its chow. The Kingfisher is just up an alley from the Thames River in Shillingford, Oxfordshire, where the Thames is now plenty deep enough to float your canoe or kayak. The innkeepers are Alexis and Mayumi, a dynamic duo. Mayumi commands the kitchen and Alexis tends to the unpub’s patrons. The food and ales are top notch and the alleyway that leads to the inn is a gauntlet of wisteria.
The Bull Inn: A thoroughly witchproofed pub, frequented by highwayman Dick Turpin and Hollywoodman George Clooney
Dick Turpin is England’s Billy the Kid, a romanticized killer and highwayman. Enter The Bull Inn and just past the woven basket of fresh fruits and veggies and the stack of wool blankets (in case you get chilled while drinking at their outside tables), you’ll find Turpin’s handgun, for Turpin fancied The Bull Inn. Push farther into this twisty pub, past the gleaming tap handles, and you’ll find a fireplace mantel with various marks, blackened over centuries. They aren’t vandals’ marks, but rather the handiwork of clever, long-gone patrons who knew that such particular scratchings prevented witches from coming down the chimney. Good thinking, eh? Push into the pub’s past and you’ll find skeletons in its closet, literal skeletons, some of which have been dated to the Medieval Period, which were discovered in various remodelings. Its heaps of history are perhaps why George Clooney favors this pub (his digs are just up the river). Their menu shifts with the seasons because they’re cooking whatever’s freshest.
The Trafalgar Tavern: Dickens, Thackeray, and other Saints and Sinners
Compared to many Thames pubs, The Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich is nearly brand spanking new, having opened in only 1837. However, it’s been there long enough to feed William Thackeray and Charles Dickens. The latter used the pub as the site of the wedding breakfast scene in “Our Mutual Friend.” The Trafalgar Tavern has its own cuttingly cool site being cozied up to the Cutty Sark, the fleetest of the clipper ships. The Royal Navy Academy is another handsome neighbor, and the Greenwich Observatory is just up the hill. The food is fine, fine, fine. I ordered tomato soup with a tang that sang on my tongue, and we watched the setting sun turn branches into golden filaments. Upstairs, there’s a club called Saints and Sinners. Having paddled and pubbed our way down the Thames, I think we qualify for membership in at least one way.
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