Fancy lunch in the Cotswolds?
Well, if you insist! Muddy heads to Burford to chow down three courses in a bucolic, brilliantly-priced, dog-friendly inn. Definitely one to add to your list.
Asthall is the village that time forgot. Easily reachable for London weekenders but with an off-the-beaten-track feel, it supplies instant bucolic bliss as soon as you skirt down from the Burford high road. The approach is charming, with the road narrowing to a single lane and stone walls, the meandering Windrush River, and the only sign of life the occasional walker and a few sheep. The Maytime Inn hides its light under a bushel: it has no brown sign pointing you in its direction, it doesn’t get the word of mouth locally and is easily missed, especially at night. Perhaps with its name ringing in my ears, I almost expected some Morris dancers to leap out of the hedgerow to herald my arrival.
It was originally called the Three Horse Shoes and part of the building was the blacksmith’s shop. Back in 1926 the landlord was George (Darkie) Arnold, father of the actor Bob Arnold, of The Archers fame. It was later bought by May and Tim Morgan (hence the name – an elision of May and Tim) and then the present owners, Ken and Dominic Wood, took it over and refurbished it in 2012.
Unapologetically unpretentious. Unlike many of the pubs in the Cotswolds, where you might as well be in London, The Maytime feels more real. Dog walkers pop in for a pint – it’s very canine-friendly with pets fed before humans and dog treats at the bar.
The building looks cottagey from the outside but, inside, its lofty ceiling with broad beams lends an almost ecclesiastical feel. It’s straightforwardly decorated with cream walls and grey flagstones. Watercolours decorate the walls and good old-fashioned games such as Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit are lying around. There is a snug sofa area for reading the papers and no one is on their phone or iPad.
The pub is fairly open plan with contrasting sections, including the airy garden room, the bar with its brass gong and framed awards, and a raised balustraded area with room for a big party on a long table. There was a mix of customers, from family groups (children are very welcome) to couples to small groups of friends, all well looked after by the warm, attentive, informal staff. Basically, almost anyone would feel comfortable here – except perhaps the Soho Farmhouse crowd who might just balk at the Chris de Burgh soundtrack and find the whole place not quite edgy enough for their taste. As for me, my only criticism is that the acoustics are a bit rattly.
Although I visited in February, this is a place that would really come into its own in the summer, with the doors at the back opening out onto a glorious patio and garden, bordered by unbridled lavender and cat mint with rose beds and the river just beyond. There is a petanque pitch with an oversized umpire chair which children love climbing on, and an outdoor bar. All good fun. They serve up to 120 people lunch on a Sunday in the summer.
There are six rooms, the largest of which (although none is very large) being Tte Hunting Room, where the stag motif is in evidence. There is the Tack room, the Boot Room, you get the idea…and they are sparklingly clean with gleaming bathrooms. I didn’t stay here but thought they looked cosy and a good place to tuck up after hitting the gin menu. Not much room to roll out a yoga mat but I get the feeling that is not what most of the guests here would be wanting to do.
SCOFF & QUAFF
The menu is inventive and playful. I started with moules, a generous portion heaped on the plate with a compellingly creamy sauce. Here they make boring dishes interesting: the corn on the cob below, for example, is charred, the curly kale is fried, and the chunky chips taste of truffle and parmesan.
The presentation of my partridge dish was impressive, all laid out on a wooden board – a work of art, check it out…
And my pudding was like a chocolate-encrusted whoopee cushion with glorious goo oozing out. It was too large to finish and made me glad I hadn’t gone for the baked Camembert as a starter.
There was only one veggie main but it was intriguing – a potato and walnut strudel, poached pear, seasonal veg and stilton sauce.
And now to the quaff, which is a big deal here. They are big on local producers and this extends to the drinks menu with its asterixed local makers, groves, brewers and distillers. The gin menu has been turned into a book featuring 120 varieties, each paired with a particular tonic and garnish. Owner Andy particularly recommends the Cotswold Distillery gin, which is big in New York now, apparently. Beyond gin, the cocktails looked fantastic – make mine a Rhubarb Crumble please (rhubarb vodka, cinnamon powder and a glug of cloudy apple juice).
There’s also a Wine Club with a tasting menu pairing wines with each course and “Fizz Thursday”, which involves half price champagne between 6pm and 8pm.
OUT & ABOUT
In Asthall itself you will be making your own fun, the beautiful 12th century church is worth a meander, but if you crave the shops you’re 10 minutes from Burford which is ideal browsing territory, and there is always the chichi Burford Garden Company, where you could lose yourself for a good afternoon. There are great walks on your doorstep and the pub will give you a map of a five-mile circuit which takes you through neighbouring Swinbrook and Widford. It would also be a great place to go after visiting the biannual On Form exhibition at Asthall Manor, just up the hill (although that’s not back until next summer).
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Couples looking for an escape weekend in an idyllic area, Sunday lunchers, dog walkers, local drop-inners, gin lovers, families (especially in the summer when kiddies can run around outside).
Not for: Über trendies. And probably not top of my list for a glam night out with friends.
The damage: Very reasonable by Cotswolds standards. At lunchtime there’s soup for £3 and sandwiches for £7. A straightforward pie of the day with mash, veg and gravy is £16 whilst a more elaborate dish such as fresh pan-fried scallops, black pudding, ‘Njuda, tempura cauliflower and cauliflower puree costs £10.50 as a starter or £19 as a main.
The Maytime Inn, Asthall, Burford, Oxfordshire, OX18 4HW. Tel: 01993 822 068
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Words: Claire Garner