Last weekend, we stumbled upon The Red Lion overlooking the Dart Estuary in High Dittisham, Devon, which is not only a true inn, offering both booze and accommodation, but also the village shop and Post Office.
Approaching from the road, our first impression was of rustic dishevelment: the sign has faded in sun and rain, the whitewash and weatherboarding have streaks of rust, and a bench outside is fashioned from upturned milk crates and a warped plank.
Did it look much different in 1944 when the estuary below teemed with landing craft preparing for D-Day? Probably not.
Inside, the trappings of its multiple functions, and preparations for the upcoming holiday season, gave a somewhat chaotic feel. There was a pile of parasols here, racks of children’s toys there, cakes and pastries balanced on the end of the bar, while furniture in the process of being moved from one place to another made the back room feel like a house clearance auction. But it functioned perfectly well, and the clutter was at least authentic — far preferable to a job lot of horse brasses, ‘vintage’ nautical or agricultural tat, and old Reader’s Digest abridged novels being arranged about the place.
Though there were hand-pumps on the bar, pints of Palmer’s Copper Ale (Dorset, 3.7%) were fetched from the cellar. They were perhaps too cool for some people’s tastes, but not ours, and were otherwise in perfect condition. An amber-brown, vaguely toffeeish beer with the accent on bitterness rather than aroma, it was hardly exciting, but fit the mood admirably.
We drank on a deck at the rear of the building which provided a Cinemascope view of the busy river buzzing with tourist boats and yachts, and of the lush green, intermittently wooded hills on the opposite bank. (Greenway, once the country home of crime writer Agatha Christie, is a minute’s ride away across the water.)
Though it was in need of a tidy and a lick of paint, this back yard came closer to the feel of a Bavarian beer garden than anywhere else we’ve been in Britain and yet, at the same time, could not be anywhere but in England: above the purple-grey slate rubble tower of St George’s church to our left fluttered the red cross of the national flag, while downhill was the high thatched roof of a cottage around which newly-arrived swallows were swooping.
We’d hesitate to call the Red Lion something special — it is too hard at work serving the community to pretty itself up — but it is somehow perfect in its imperfection, and refreshingly honest.