Monday, 25 June 2012

The Chequers: Back to the past

A beautiful village pub. Perfect for a night's stay.

Do you remember the days when pubs were called "inns" and you could leave your horse in the stables? Do you remember how every "inn" used to have a spitting can at the bar and a drunk local with his head in a trough? Of course you don't, that's mix Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future III.

And even though that sounds like heaven, there aren't many cliched inns in this world any more. In fact, until two weeks ago I wasn't even sure there were any. Then, I tried to cycle to Brighton.

We left it a bit late. In fact, by 3.30pm we were still within the M25, stood at an ESSO garage eating flapjacks and nursing cramp. But we couldn't turn back. Not before we'd left the city we started in. So we saddled up and rode off into the already slightly setting sun. By 7.30pm the cramp was almost unbearable. We were still 17 miles from Brighton, the temperature had dropped and the rain had begun to fall.

Then, out of the gloom appeared this warm orange glow. Rising like Hotel California out of the Surrey countryside came the Chequers. From the open door poured gentle acoustic jazz and the sound of warm, friendly folk chatting, and the clink jugs on worn wooden tables. You could practically see the stable, hear the horses' hooves and the drunk man gurgling from the trough.

From the moment we stepped into the Chequers the cold, rain and tiredness seem to drip of us. There was a warm fire, a grand piano, sofas and books and old clocks. There were locals and couples, parties and quiet drinks. I walked up to the bar and uttered a line I had always wanted to say:

"Good evening barkeep, I was wondering whether you had a room spare for the night? It's awful cold outside and the horses need feeding"

Or rather:

"Alright mate, have you got any rooms spare. Also, where can we lock our bikes?"

His reply was affirmative, although the sheen was slightly tarnished by the fact that my housemate and I would have to share a double bed. Suddenly it all got a bit more Brokeback Mountain than Back the to Future but given how stiff I was (leave it) we had little choice.
After a quick shower we headed back downstairs and chose a table by the fire. Our matronly waitress brought us a hearty ale each, disappointingly in standard pint glasses. But that was where the disappointments ended. The Chequers, by all accounts, is a brilliant place and a beacon of hope for foodies. The starters were nothing to write home about - a decent Stilton and broccoli soup and scallops, but my friend had an excellent rib-eye steak with hand-cut (by which they mean knife-cut, unless Bruce Lee faked his death and now works in a Surrey pub) chips. But it was my main, billed as "posh ham and eggs" that was truly amazing. Expecting some nice cured ham in a honey and mustard glaze, what I actually got was a glorious, enormous slow-roasted leg of pork with a perfectly sweet sauce and a poached egg on the side. I would have the preferred the yolk more runny, but I was so engrossed by prodding the pork and watching the moist meat almost drip off the bone, that I hardly gave it a second's thought.

I was truly, utterly and brilliantly stuffed and, after the exertions of the day, very drunk on the rioja we'd bought. But, just as I was considering bed, I spotted the homemade sticky toffee pudding. Now, I have a real hate of anything claiming to be homemade. For a start, it's rarely homemade. It's made in the restaurant isn't it? Sure, it;s shorthand for "not pre-packaged", but often it says something about a restaurant that it has to make that distinction clear. But I am never a man to turn down a sticky toffee pudding in a pub. And I was right to risk a stomach rupture. It did all the things a good sticky toffee pudding should - burn your mouth, stick to your teeth and touch your soul. And with that I headed upstairs.

Sated I fell into bed with Alien playing on our room's flatscreen TV. Strange dreams plagued me that night: of legs of pork bursting out of my stomach while John Hurt cycled round and round drinking rioja from a jug. I have lost count of the number of times that I have googled "country pub London". They never come close to my idyll. The Spaniard's Inn comes close, so does the White Horse. But they are nothing to the Chequers, to the real thing, which joyfully hit every cliche at each time of asking (except the horses). This pub is worth the quick train, especially on the way to Brighton. 

Middle England was fun. I hope to join it one day.

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