Last Saturday I walked from Cheltenham to Broadway with a couple of old friends, stopping at a few contrasting pubs on the way.
This trip, planned months ago, happened to be just what I needed after my wobble the other week.
Traveling from Bristol, Stockport and London respectively, we met at the Sandford Park Ale House in Cheltenham on Friday night.
We compared walking boots, rucksacks and water bottles of varying degrees of fanciness.
They, both being dads, swapped advice on the management of children.
And we asked all the obvious, important questions.
“Have you heard from…?”
“Did you hear about…?”
“How’s your mum?”
It’s a good pub, the Ale House. Remarkably so. Smart without being snooty, busy but bearable.
The beer is good, too. There are lots, and well chosen, covering all the bases. But once I’d spotted Oakham Citra, fresh as spring water, I didn’t want to drink anything else.
On the way back to the hotel, we were tempted to have one more and chose a pub purely because it was advertising Butcombe, of which one of my companions is a particular fan.
A DJ was blasting out what sounded like The Best Ragga Album in the World… Ever while a single manic dancer threw himself around in the empty centre of the pub, enveloped in the stink of weed.
We should have turned round and walked out but the pub was almost empty and we dithered until we felt committed.
We sipped our flat, gravy-like bitter, groaning occasionally.
“Shall we ditch it?”
We ditched it.
The next morning I was, somehow, hungover. Not badly – just slight seasickness. It seemed unfair on three and a half pints of standard strength cask ale.
“Ugh,” said one of my pals, grappling with a slice of Premier Inn bacon. “I blame that dodgy Butcombe.”
By 9am we were on the way out of town and towards Cleeve Hill.
“Looming over Cheltenham like Mount Fuji,” someone observed.
As we schlepped, the conversation got sillier and more relaxed – not quite like when we were 21 but at least more interesting than house prices and kitchen fittings.
Several hours later, as we trudged in the midday sun along a dusty path, a bike pulled alongside.
“Where you walking to, lads?”
“Do you want to know a nice pub to stop at for lunch?”
Following the stranger’s advice, we later calculated, had added about three miles to a walk that was already, perhaps, a bit too ambitious.
The Craven Arms is a country pub in Brockhampton, one of those perfectly composed Cotswold villages where nobody actually seems to live.
“This is the kind of place Mike Oldfield has a mansion.”
“Or Mike Batt.”
The Craven Arms had better Butcombe along with North Cotswold Brewery Jumping Jack, a 3.9% summer ale.
Is it possible to give objective tasting notes after a walk?
I was hot and thirsty.
Jumping Jack was cool and wet.
I enjoyed it, insofar as I had a chance to notice it in the moment between picking up a full glass and putting down an empty one.
The beer garden was tidy and full of dogs barking at each other. Waitresses rushed around carrying food balanced on boards and slates. About half the drinkers, in designer wellies, were drinking wine.
“Shall we get going?”
We got going.
Broadway seemed to be getting further away and our conversation dwindled.
“My boots are definitely beginning to rub.”
“Which route gets us there quickest?”
“Shall we stop for another pint on the way into town?”
Snowshill had a pub, our map told us, and it would only be another hour’s walk from there, all downhill.
So we took another detour and descended through a valley full of wild garlic flowers into an even more idyllic village: red phone box, tiny church, neatly barbered village green and, yes, a lovely looking pub.
“What time is it?”
“It doesn’t open until six.”
We peered through the window.
“It looks so nice.”
Then we sat on the grass and looked at the pub for a few minutes. Perhaps if we looked sad and tired enough, the publican would take pity and open early.
“If we don’t move soon, I don’t think I’ll be able to move at all.”
Hobbling into Broadway, tired but triumphant, we scoped out the pubs on the way. Most looked more like restaurants but The Crown & Trumpet caught our eye.
“Lots of normal people drinking there.”
An hour later, now seriously seizing up and with tender feet, we shuffled back to it like three elderly men. The five-minute walk took more like fifteen.
It was worth it, though.
The 1980s idea of the Victorian pub is a happy place for me.
It had red carpets, dark wood, brewery memorabilia all over the walls and, of course, horse brasses.
At the bar, instead of the dour indifference we’d received at The Craven Arms, we were immediately engaged in a conversation about beer.
“The North Cotswold is our bestseller at the moment. Cheltenham Gold’s off at the moment but that’ll be back on in a bit.”
While my mates ate their prawn cocktails I drank the best pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord I’d had in years.
Wait – was this the walk talking? No, I don’t think so. It was bitter, flowery, clean and clear. Blossom and fresh bread.
As night came on, our conversation became less coherent and less animated until we were all but drowsing into our pints.
“One more pint? Or a glass of whisky?”
We couldn’t. We didn’t.
The next morning, barely able to move, we gathered around the breakfast table.
“That Cheltenham Gold was so good,” said one of my pals, “that I was thinking about going back for opening time to get one more in before we leave.”
But there was no time. We had a steam train to catch.