Roger Bray gets away for a short staycation.
It was a September short break that seemed fated not to happen. We had planned to stay at a hotel in Herefordshire, but the owner’s wife called to say her husband, the chef, needed an operation and they had no option but to close temporarily. So we booked a few days in Somerset instead but a family funeral forced us to postpone yet again. It was early October when we finally set off for the West Country.
The Red Lion in Babcary, not far from Glastonbury, turned out to be a delight.
A lovely old pub with flagstone floors and timber beams, it has been extended to embrace a former farm with the addition of lovely modern rooms, a few yards away in a converted barn.
Before dinner we stroll to the village Church of the Holy Cross. There is something to catch the eye in almost every English church and here, apart from its 14th century font, we are taken with a stained glass window that has a pre-Raphaelite look – though we find nothing to explain it.
Dinner is a treat. My citrus cured salmon with brown crab meat, fennel salad, apple gel, pickled grapes and fennel seed crackers is at the opposite end of the scale that sees some pubs produce starters so filling you have little room left for much else.
This proves good sense, as it leaves my appetite sharp enough to fully enjoy a main of perfect pan roasted cod fillet, perched on a mix of bacon, petits pois, baby gem and sauteed girolles with delicious cubes of crispy polenta.
My wife, similarly enthusiastic, loves beetroot, so starts with it smoked, with mascarpone, walnuts, tarragon and orange salad and chilli honey. She follows that with partridge, one leg roasted, the other crispy, with a red wine reduction, risotto of barley and root vegetables, and curly kale. We share a dessert of raspberry and rose flavoured buttermilk panna cotta with lychee granita and raspberry Sorbet. Thence to the bar and conversation with fellow guests and locals.
Bedrooms are in a private and separate converted barn, a a few steps from the pub. One ground floor room has facilities for the partially disabled with wheelchair access.
After an excellent breakfast, cooked by Charlie Garrard who owns the pub with his wife, we head for the Somerset Levels, an area that has long intrigued me. We park in Langport, a small town that became an important financial centre following the creation of Stuckey’s Bank. The bank acquired a number of others across the West Country in the 19th century. Its tender was second only to that of the Bank of England, at which locals would turn up their noses, demanding: “Gie I a Stuckey”. Eventually it was absorbed by what is now NatWest. For a time its secretary was Walter Bagehot, the great economist and writer who was born and died in Langport and whose great admirer, US President Woodrow Wilson, made a pilgrimage to his grave in the parish churchyard there.
On a morning of racing clouds we grab what prove to be superb quiches from the Little Bakery and set out across the Levels, along the River Parrett trail. In this flat landscape, only a few metres above sea level and subject to occasional severe flooding, there is little to mitigate the scouring force of the wind. Cattle and sheep graze the rich wetland. This is a place of monasteries and battles, where the imagination wanders, conjuring images of prehistoric people laying pollarded willow “withies” to form tracks across marshy ground and of monks labouring on early drainage and feeding off elvers. Later, the teazel harvest was used to create a perfect billiard table cloth nap.
We head for Muchelney, between the converging Parrett and the Yeo. It’s 12th century abbey ruins are shut that day and the exquisite, thatched Priest’s House, built in 1308 for the incumbent at St Peter and St Paul’s across the road and run by the National Trust, is closed until next year – but the church itself is open, enabling us to take in its extraordinary 17th century ceiling panels painted with angels, some – apparently symbolic of purity – with breasts bared. Purity, you might wonder, as interpreted by the Puritans?
And so it is back along the river bank and on to Exmoor for the second part of this brief but much needed “staycation”. I have booked only one night at the Red Lion. Two or three would have been better but I had seen a handful of off-putting reviews online. I should know better by now. Besides, the pub gets a positive review as a main entry in the Good Hotel Guide. Better to risk mild disappointment than pay heed to the responses of customers who may have failed to allow for the problems such establishments have faced during the pandemic – not least the difficulty of finding staff. I promised myself I wouldn’t make that mistake again. Next time it will be more than one night and more than one dinner. For sure.
The Red Lion
Tel: 01458 223230