Three walks, three pubs and one neurotic cockerpoo... what could go wrong? Tom Lack drags his family around three of Bristol's finest country walks - via the pub.
Bristol is spoilt for choice when it comes to parks and green spaces, and throughout lockdown, we’ve all been encouraged to get out and explore them more. Scientifically proven to reduce blood pressure and have a positive impact on our wellbeing, popping to the park for some fresh air has become a regular fixture in many a family routine. However, as any parent will testify, there is a limit to how many times you can carry your screaming child home from the park, along with the rejected scooter, unicorn helmet and sparkly backpack, all after just thirty seconds on the swings.
The most obvious solution given our proximity to green space is a wholesome jaunt in the countryside, but family walks have only ever proven to increase my blood pressure, let alone gain any sense of wellbeing or food for the soul en route.
Frankly, the prospect fills me with total dread. Great British weather, a neurotic cockapoo, tiresome children and a wife
with considerably less fat reserves than me, have generated somewhat of an anxiety block. So to circumnavigate this woefully first-world problem, my wife and I decided to carrot-and-stick three family walks, with three of South Bristol’s very best country pubs.
A genius idea on three counts; firstly, a guaranteed post-walk pint can divert many a pre-walk problem. Secondly; it is a fact that toddlers will walk an additional 1 mile per promised scoop of ice cream with their pub lunch. And thirdly; we get to pretend this is totally common practice among our peers when we eventually log into the pub’s wifi to upload the latest adventure
It’s a Saturday morning and whatever Channel 5 was spewing at them wasn’t working. Noa (4) was dressed up in her rainbow tutu and pink crocs singing another rendition of Moana. Ottilie (8 months), is clearly highly entertained and re-enacts the moment Moana the Hawaiian princess strangles a bird? Needless to say, anything, even a walk, would be better than this.
Thirty minutes later, Noa, Otti, Oxo and the wife are all in exactly the same place, while I am sat in the car piled high with anxiety and snacks, ready to drive fifteen minutes down the road to our destination in Pensford, a picture-postcard village south of Bristol. Famous for its whopping great big viaduct, not for its parking. We discover all of the wonderful alleyways, one-way streets and private parking bays before starting our walk to the right of the Rising Sun Pub at Mills Corner Garage.
A small road leads us up the hill toward the viaduct which imposes itself above the considerable houses below. Noa is suitably convinced by my echoing ogre impressions, setting both her and the dog off in a blind panic before arriving at Culvery Wood, 100 metres down the track.
Through the gate and to the right there are some steps leading up into the woodland section of the walk. Following the path for five minutes, we head back down the hill via some embarrassingly familiar steps, and back again on ourselves toward the entrance of a cow filled field.
My wife Sarah is brilliant at a number of things, but hiding her mistrust in my navigational skills is not one of them. Within a metre of entering the cow field, we discover just how appropriate Noa’s choice of perforated pink crocs is amongst
a minefield of excrement.
Through two further fields with the gently meandering River Chew on our left, we end up at our appointed snack location. Bye Mills Farm is exactly halfway, and after heading down through a lovely cluster of houses and over a stone bridge, we pause to chomp down on some well-earned chocolate buttons. Delighted with the uncharacteristically calm nature of our dog while passing a garden full of chickens, we march back due East towards the viaduct. Through a gate at the end of a Cotswold stone wall and into a small field, now on the other side of the river, Oxo decides to chase a younger dog for five minutes, stopping briefly to remind me that I had forgotten the poo bags.
Onwards to the kissing gate, which offers up the final field that curves up and over a ridge to the best vista of the viaduct. Underneath we watch three girls not much older than Noa, riding horses over some makeshift jumps. We all take a moment to soak in a pretty magical scene.
Just after this field and at the back of the pub are a stone bridge and weir, presumably a great little swimming spot were it not for the heavy rain and wafts of roast coming from the pub kitchen just 10 metres away.
Now as far as pubs go, The Rising Sun is a beauty. Nestled among the gently trickling bend of the River Chew, it boasts one of the best pub gardens around. We sat inside.
The food was spot on, if not teetering on restaurant fare. The adults gratefully dived into starters; a smooth, rich chicken liver parfait with an incredible onion jam (£8). Then a fresh, bright bowl of seared scallops, fermented lettuce and peas served in an elderflower sauce (£10). The star of the show was the Sandridge farm chop, black pudding and green apple purée (£17).
Rich, earthy and substantial, it was perfect for a post-ramble scoff. Frampton Cotterell Lamb rump and minty Anna potato (£19) came a very close second. All in all, it was a locally sourced, brilliantly cooked, and cheerfully served meal in pretty special surroundings.
Noa had the usual kids food but spent most of her meal ogling over the young lad sat on the table opposite, masterfully working his way through a huge bowl of Cornish mussels followed by a hefty burger. Well done young man.
The pub is well worth the 45 minute walk, and anyone who serves Tribute on tap is alright in my book.
CHEW MAGNA & LAKE
It’s another Saturday and the irony is palpable. ‘Go and write about spending time with the family outdoors’ they said, and here I am, sat with my best friend Alex and the dog, feasting on post-walk grub, while the oldest daughter has kept the rest of the family at home having been in close proximity to her nursery teacher who tested positive. Knocking back a second swig of the aptly named ‘Independence’ we mutter to ourselves, “the show must go on!”.
We’re in the back garden of The Queens in Chew Magna. Recently and perfectly brought back to life by Chew locals, and Bristol foodies, Josh Eggleton and sister Holly, who to Chew, are what Rick Stein is to Padstow. There is a smug look on both our faces, Alex who made the move from London to Frome six years ago tries to recall the last time he had been able to enjoy a pint without children, while I skip through the photos of rolling hills and lakeside views of the walk we’ve just survived.
It is sunny.
Alex is that bloke who gets away with turning up 45 minutes late for a walk by proclaiming he had misplaced his mother-in-law. Never on time, but always worth the wait. We amble up the high street to find an inconspicuous gap in the row of houses at number 26, drop down a steep pathway to the river and Crickback bridge. Heading diagonally across the field, we dive into a stunning little dell. Imagining Kevin Costner dangling down from above us to nab our wallets, we reach a fence that opens out onto an arable farm. A bird of prey circles above us, salivating with ill intent at the matted ball of cockapoo ahead of me, now on his lead as we pass through some cow fields.
Through a couple more small fields, over a bridging gap in the river and onwards to the waterworks, we reach Chew Lake. Salt & Malt (another Eggleton haunt) signposts our skirting of the north edge of the lake for a pleasant five minutes or so. We stop to admire the dedication of the anglers, now silhouetted by the midday sun gleaming off the lake. I mark the halfway point with a tale of fishing for whole days at a time off of my late father’s jetty, only breaking to poo in the neighbour’s garden to avoid going home. We begin the return leg to Chew by passing the public loos in the picnic area.
Across the road, up through a footpath due North, we cross a small collection of houses then out onto the west rise of Knowle Hill. Stunning views back across towards the lake are cut short as we take the more direct track down towards a small farm, leading us all the way through to Denny Lane. Popping out across the road and up the other side, the Church spire in Chew peeps out across the rolling cornfields and we hear the yearning of cows heading in for lunch.
By the time we reach Tunbridge Road, leading up into the town, Oxo is completely dehydrated and pretty limp after refusing to sip from our bottles along the way. He’s a fussy git at the best of times, but when we take our seat at the pub and he refuses the dog water, I think something could be wrong. In a bit of a panic, I empty out the dog water, replacing it with the rest of our Evian. He gulps it down with vigour. “You can take the dog out of Southville...” We decide that we’ve earnt some pre-starter nibbles and chow down on succulent Somerset saucisson (£4).
The pub garden is stunning, earning some effortless backdrop points from Chew’s Church spire. We order Story Farm lamb kofta with pickled chilli, and Chew Valley smoked salmon with dill egg mayo (both £7). Each dish washed down with a perfect pint of Bristol Beer Factory’s Independence. Swiftly followed by The Queen’s burger, slaw and fries (£16) and the classic Ploughman’s with Westcombe Cheddar (£15). I can’t imagine the medieval farmers toiling the fields of Chew would have approved either the price tag or the gastropub ambience of The Queens, but this ex-Londoner and cockapoo-wielding duo spent little time thinking of anything other than the present.
It really is a brilliant pub, made ever more agreeable no doubt, by the distinct lack of our respective offspring.
As we veer off the A38 towards Rowberrow, there is a dark, heavy cloud looming on the horizon. A small country lane ushers us up past unnerving scenes from Hot Fuzz; All Saints Church; the Manor House; the Rectory; each playing their role in a suspense-fuelled plot with our final scene, the Swan Inn, revealing itself at the top of the hill. As we park up, a groundsman mutters an incomprehensible greeting as he wheels a squeaky barrow past our car. We shudder as we read the sign in the car park ‘local parking, for locals only’ or words to that effect, instructing drivers to register their vehicles in the pub. The gloom temporarily lifts when I set eyes on the duck egg panelling of the lounge bar and the smiley twenty-somethings in Butcombe uniform (skinny jeans and sports-fit polos). I make note of mentioning to them later that Farrow & Ball’s Swan White may have been a more appropriate choice. We are assured that the car is fine where it is, and we make our way past the pub to School Lane to start our walk.
Down past the old schoolhouse cloaked in burnt red Virginia creepers, we follow the road to meet a stream trickling across the lowest point of the valley. We spot signs across the way, ‘Private estate of Rowberrow, enter at own risk’ or words to that effect. I have Oxo, my wife has Ottilie in the carrier. As we start to climb the gentle slope of rocks and rubble, a group of mountain bikers come steaming down the track past us. We delight in our decision to keep the dog on the lead following earlier signs announcing the start of the hunting season. While he has too often been mistaken for an item of soft furnishing, we weren’t quite ready for him to make the full transition just yet. We get to the top ridge to find a verdant, tree-wrapped path that runs parallel to open fields on our right.
In the distance, the calming sound of gunfire and beating of the bracken warns us back down a track towards the stream, followed closely by more mountain bikers who, to their credit, stopped and walked past us on a very tight path. One nearly lost all his dignity to the now more vigorously flowing stream, as he ogled at Ottilie in the sling.
There has never been a more aptly named set of woodlands; at every twist and turn we lose ourselves and our bearings. My wife and I have a habit of under preparing for adventures and when our phone batteries die, our lack of knowledge of the Warren and its maze-like grip on us was laid bare. For an hour or so we wandered hopelessly through woodland, bracken and rocky pathways.
The only other lifeforms seemed preoccupied with either evading or shooting one another so we made a decision to stick to one route and hope for the best. A risky, but mutual decision nonetheless. A whole minute later we were at the entrance to Dolebury Warren and a kissing gate leading to an Iron Age Hill Fort. We rejected its alluring 400 step path uphill in favour of the A38. Sacrificing stunning views out across the Mendips for a more exhilarating 30-centimetre wide pavement and 40 mile an hour traffic. Oxo’s stubbornness to only walk to my right brought his transition to pouffe or cushion cover closer with every passing articulated lorry. We run the last few 100 metres to take the turning off the main road, toward the comfort of narrow country lanes.
Birds fly jauntily between our legs and into the opposite bushes. The sun bursts through the remaining clouds as the steeple of the Church is gloriously bathed in autumnal hues. We feel blessed to be together, walking, alive.
The pub is heaving with fellow victors of the Warren. A secret nod passes affirmingly among us like the well-earned Swan Sausage Rolls – don’t tell the Queen (£6.50). The pub now feels far less ‘local’ and much more ‘secret’. As we tuck into starters of Ham Hock terrine (£8.25) and Celeriac soup (£6.50) we question what it was that made us feel so uneasy about the place to start with. Mains arrive, Bavette steak and chips (£17.95) and Swan Pie of the day (£14.50) both looking perfectly edible. I greedily order a side of onion rings (£3.95), devouring them to leave little room for mains.
After knocking back a brilliantly cold pint of Butcombe Stateside IPA (£5) I conclude that adventure does not run through my veins as effortlessly as ale. But with every leafy turn, each muddy track, each near-death experience with the dog, I have become more aware, and infinitely more grateful, for my family’s proximity to these glorious green spaces. The pubs are indeed a joyous reward, but it’s on the journeys taken to sip on the amber nectar that we have truly found our gold.Download