I grew up with a generation that drank beer from dimpled glass mugs. Now a well-documented supping receptacle of the hipster elite, the Great British dimpled beer mug is, for me, a relic of a simpler time. Before pop-up bars and men without enough testosterone tried to grow moustaches, we finished work at Manual Labour Ltd and headed for the local. I suppose it helped that my grandfather came from West Hartlepool, served in three branches of the armed services and did, indeed, drink from a P404. That was the factory name given to the humble mug in 1938 at the Ravenhead Glassworks in St Helens, Lancashire. My grandparents’ family home had pewter pint tankards, Babycham saucers and steins, not to mention some pretty-formidable homebrew bottled in old Grolsch bottles.
My grandmother has never been a drinker though, despite being raised in India to an Irish-Franco family. My grandfather, however, the hardened Geordie, loved an IPA, Sour Mash, Canadian Club, or a Stout. Not to mention his efforts at brewing and making his patented rocket fuel. During my twenties, I never had a taste for the sort of stiff drinks my uncles imbibed, let alone my mother, but that’s a biography for another time. Beer was the weapon of choice for every family celebration or commiseration I can remember. And I’m sad to say, I never really had the taste for it in my twenties.
It actually took a trip to a brewery, with beer literally on tap, to acquire a taste for the tipple my kin held dear.
I arrived at Old Brewery House at the Donnington Brewery after briefly assessing the coordinates of the location somewhat inaccurately. I had missed two entrance roads, made a U-turn and gone past a road-closed sign to find the mythically-placed brewer. It was a mild enough evening in December, believe it or not, and with a family of five in tow, they were as keen as I to open a beer. As I pulled into the courtyard with the XC90 in full lock at a couple of corners, on a decent camber, I was faced with an Alice-in-Wonderland-grade estate. The occasional gate aside and, yes, there are livestock to be kept in check, this was untouched British countryside.
A hearty English home with lengthy tables and shutters to keep the proper tourists out. I rolled the XC90 onto level ground, opened all the doors and released the Dutch contingent to the wind. They were here for a fleeting weekend invasion to celebrate Sinterklass. Plainly put, it’s Dutch Christmas. Same Santa and buying toys for people with kids but with less alcohol and more civility. Also, their monarch doesn’t give a speech which we can all agree is a bad show. On the other hand, I was in a brewery, so if Willem-Alexander sits quietly in the corner and doesn’t bother anyone, he can choose not to address his Dutch subjects.
So, having reeled in the ring leader of the Dutch and their consignment of diabetes-inducing treats from the garden, I set them to finding the keys and front door. I counted about 10 fully-fledged battering-ram-worthy entrances. Arguably, some were to the brewery, but a door’s a door, people. Luckily, there was a shelf filled with nine crates of beer. It made for a strong start.
The house is a pretty blank canvas in terms of styling. Oversized boot room, mammoth kitchen, front room with stove and views of the guard peacocks. Not to mention the TV room to pile in the spawn, four sizeable bedrooms – and a fucking brewery. What more do you honestly need for god’s sake. I spent the weekend organising a culturally-relevant, child-friendly, beautifully-landscaped, piss up. This book writes itself, and it’s titled ‘Build It & They Will Come’.
After a night spent being thanked and appreciated for effectively doing my job and sinking four beers, I retired to a bed that enveloped and coddled me in equal measure. I woke to a view from Jane Austen: ivy and moss liberally covering old Cotswold stone, a waterwheel and stream attached to a boat-worthy lake, and an army of white and black swans – which, I should point out, will follow you around the side of the lake path like you’re a featherless messiah. Seriously. They are in the foreground of every picture I took, through their own personal choice. Free willed swans appreciate a brewery.
Established in 1865, the Donnington Brewery serves some 17 pubs in the Cotswold region. Throw a stone, you’ll hit one. Someone knew this location had potential. It’s effortlessly beautiful, remote, untouched by modernity. Now, you can’t access the chemical element of the brewing process during the weekend at will of course. Other people need to drink that precious beer, and you filling your glass up by hand from a barrel isn’t what our forefathers had in mind. No. You tie your horse up and you order your beer properly, by walking in and picking up a crate.
Or by using the outside fridge. Take the beer, leave the funds, country life is trusting and deserves respect. It has moral fibre, but doesn’t beat its chest. It knows its elite compared to the city. Usually because of the side-by-sides and people riding on horseback.
As homely as we all felt and as committed to emptying a brewery as I was, we did intend to show the Dutch what it means to ‘escape to the country’ in England. Stow on the Wold for a host of traditional fair, not to mention some decent eateries, and ten-minutes’ drive further, you’ll find Daylesford Farm. It’s like John Lewis, Fortnum and Michael Eavis got together and thought ‘how can we make this organic farming profitable in a way that leaves people spell bound?’ Get supplies, get cheese and cram as much from the deli into your family bus as you can. It sells itself.
Next on the list was the Slaughters. Upper or Lower. You’ve got a few options, but whichever you go for, visit the Old Mill gift shop at the end of the village. Anyone stocking furs and leather bags that make me look twice knows what they’re doing. I still have a Martley Gladstone bag on my shopping list. The Riverside tea room is also a welcome escape from the handful of tourists that make it through the village. If you are looking to cater to a larger group, then the Slaughters Manor House is a beautiful 17th century, three AA rosette establishment that has typical English country home charm. Best to call ahead, though, as they are more likely to be hosting a wedding than lunch. I have arrived twice at the property to meet friends for drinks to be told that the manor is booked for a private event. The onus should be on me to call ahead and book, or at least check availability, but I like to be able to arrive anywhere without a reservation and be welcomed with open arms.
If you’ve made it to the Slaughters, follow the river Eye for about one kilometre south and you’ll find yourself at The Coach and Horses, a Donnington Brewery pub. Pop in for a pint of Gold and watch the world go by. Post-pint, I absolutely recommend taking a stroll down to the Model Village, Cotswold Motoring Museum or Model Railway in neighbouring Bourton on the Water. Sadly, having frogmarched the Dutch, including a filthy pubescent teenager, across the fields to the next town, spirits amongst the younger members of the troop were low. As such, it was suggested that having arrived and briefly looked around the Railway Shop on the high street, I return to collect the Volvo to avoid any unnecessary walking. I did not lay eyes on the Motoring Museum or Model Village. I was so close to walking into the model railway area, I had my modest fee in hand before being hastily beckoned outside. The rule is simple: beer is served in England and Wales to those of 18 years or older; do not bring anyone of non-drinking age. Unless you are a family, or grandparent, or have absolutely no choice. I wanted to do everything that a 10-year-old does: models and cars. It isn’t my fault that ten-year-olds aren’t what they were.
Then next destination on my hit list was Broadway Tower, an idyllic Saxon tower built by James Wyatt in 1798, featuring turrets, battlements and gargoyles, not to mention balconies. I remember being dragged by my mother to see it on a few occasions. It transpires that you can no longer park your car in the local, hastily-built small car park and ascend to the tower. Now you must park in the visitors’ centre and pay some £50 as a family to visit. I personally would advise climbing over a fence and walking the 100 metres to the tower to see it as I did when I was a child. In a perfect world, you will be met with a local volunteer complete with walky-talky and tabard, who will hastily ask to see your ticket, just so you knock them to the floor with anything heavy you have. Perhaps the beer was starting to take effect.
One location that typifies what a traditional Cotswold market town looks like is Broadway. And as we couldn’t see a thing at the tower, we decided it was time for tea and cake. Broadway is beautiful, and there is no better place for a winter or summer stroll. The art gallery is of such repute it boasts a security guard out front to keep the tourists away.
After a busy day sightseeing, all you really yearn for is an open fire and a pint. Every evening, we would return to base to cook a family meal and talk about the day’s adventures. The pace of life slows dramatically when surrounded by nature. Plus the fun we had dodging the guard peacocks and trying to spot fish in the stream or seeing exactly how friendly the swans were. Donnington Brewery is a true escape; one of the last bastions of rural escape. Even if it hadn’t had gallons of beer, black swans, or a low flying chinook at breakfast, it would still be a magnificent property and estate.