It’s 7pm on a Friday at The Lamb Inn in Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire, and the pub is alive with the sound of laughter. Drinkers are sitting at the bar or around barrels laden with pints and plates of padrón peppers; diners settle down at candle-strewn tables, under which border terriers and beagles loll, eyes out for leftovers. Crowds hover in the last remnants of standing space in hope of a table. Servers in striped aprons manoeuvre through the space. Wine corks pop. Glasses clink. Cutlery clatters. The buzz bounces off the ceiling beams.

The dining room of Oxfordshire pub The Lamb Inn
The dining room of Oxfordshire pub The Lamb Inn © Jake Eastham
A former coaching inn, The Lamb dates back to the 16th century
A former coaching inn, The Lamb dates back to the 16th century © Jake Eastham

“Over there we’ve got the local real-estate owner, the mechanic, the gamekeeper, the guy who has a second home here from London,” explains Peter Creed, The Lamb’s co-owner, as he slides a glass of a fruity 14.5 per cent Carignan onto my table. I’m nestled in the corner on an antique bench, from which the entire room is surveyable, and I feel smug that I’ve bagged the best pitch in the house for people-watching. “All of our regular Friday-night crowd is here. The pub is the heart of the community.”

I, however, am not part of the village stronghold. I’m just one of a number of out-of-towners searching for a spirit of togetherness by staying in a pub with bedrooms. The Lamb has a cosy 10, replete with freestanding baths, chic antiques and Egyptian cotton sheets, that opened last year. If self-catered apartments have become code for isolation, hotels feel vast and bed-and-breakfasts skew too formulaic, then the quintessentially British inn is the antithesis: a heavily pedestrianised place where pups and people loiter in a melting pot of social spontaneity.

The Bradley Hare in Wiltshire, which reopened last year after an extensive refit
The Bradley Hare in Wiltshire, which reopened last year after an extensive refit © Martin Morrell

“Whenever I stay in a hotel, I always look for a pub to hang out in,” says Creed, who reopened the 16th-century coaching inn with his business partner Tom Noest in June last year. Having honed their hospitality skills at St John, the duo took over this once-failing venture in February 2021 with the aim of breathing new life into its old stone walls. The Lamb’s mood today is more eclectic, an easy mix of old and new. The ancient wood panelling is now a fetching shade of forest green; walls are affixed with contemporary artworks; Noest, the chef, serves up fried frogs’ legs and bone-marrow flatbreads alongside classic fare. The pair have taken the trappings of the trad experience and funnelled it through their modern lens.

The Lamb is one of a wave of new pubs bringing a considered, stylish edge to the conventional with-rooms experience. Last June, The Bradley Hare in Maiden Bradley, Wiltshire, reopened after an extensive refit. Andrew Kelly and James Thurstan Waterworth (the former European design director at Soho House) turned the Victorian pub’s old coaching stables into five new bedrooms, with warm-hued walls, sisal carpets and vintage rugs, bringing a gentle tactility. Thurstan Waterworth describes them as “airy yet unpretentious”. The site also has an allotment garden, the fruits (and veg) of which are plated up in the kitchen.

The 250-year-old Alice Hawthorn in North Yorkshire
The 250-year-old Alice Hawthorn in North Yorkshire © Jim Poyner

In Yorkshire, the charm-filled Alice Hawthorn mixes cosy country with contemporary Scandinavian minimalism: its 12 new super-king-size beds and rainfall showers will prove a natural sanctuary from the bustle of the bar below. And Simon Rayner-Langmead and Andrew Black, a former publicist and publisher of Wallpaper respectively, recently reopened the atmospheric Hare and Hounds Inn, located in a small hamlet among the hills of the Lake District.

Other establishments, such as The Bonnie Badger (East Lothian), The Felin Fach Griffin (Brecon Beacons), The Stump (the Cotswolds) and the Drunken Duck Inn (Cumbria), have elevated the inn in recent years. But these new openings are united in their down-to-earth approach – none serve up lofty plates. “Our food is not foam,” says Creed. The aim is to retain favour with locals; Michelin stars alienate the village crowd. 

The Drunken Duck Inn in Ambleside, Cumbria
The Drunken Duck Inn in Ambleside, Cumbria

During the pandemic, pubs – particularly those reliant on tourists – were left vulnerable to closure: an estimated 2,500 shut for good in 2020, when watering holes in Britain were closed for the best part of a year. They had already weathered a decade of difficulties, battling chains and their cut-price pints; the UK lost 23 per cent of its pubs in the 10 years to 2018. Today, landlords know they can no longer rely on one income stream.

“A split of 30-30-30 between bedrooms, wet sales and food is our target,” says Kelly. “I wouldn’t touch a pub if it didn’t have rooms,” agrees Creed. And bedrooms make a pub better, according to Black. “It gives the pub another dimension,” he says. “It’s like an open house where everyone is welcome. You become part of the furniture.” 

This mood is striking a chord with travellers keen to seek a truer experience of place. A pub automatically ingratiates a guest into the local dynamic. That the commute to bed after a boozy dinner is virtually non-existent appeals, too. “There’s something really magical about a pub,” says Black, who is American. “You should be able to replicate the formula anywhere in the world, but you can’t.” So fundamental to the British way of life is the public house that it’s illegal under planning laws to remove the last pub in any village. 

The Hare and Hounds attracts a clientele from all walks of life
The Hare and Hounds attracts a clientele from all walks of life © Steven Barber

The pub has been a source of folkloric refuge for millennia. It’s “where hospitality as an industry began”, says Creed. The Old Ferry Boat in St Ives, said to be the oldest boozer in England, is cited in the Domesday Book and has been serving since 560AD. Originally, coaching inns were built off highways and offered the road-weary shelter and food overnight. Each is “steeped in its own history”, says Claire Topham, co-owner of the 250-year-old Alice Hawthorn, which was named after a prizewinning race horse; its name became a symbol of success and prosperity.

They also make good geographic sense. “You’re sufficiently far from inner-city civilisation to relax a bit more, but it’s not some wilderness retreat,” says Kelly, whose The Bradley Hare is close to Frome and Bruton – the latter is home to the Hauser & Wirth gallery and Merlin Labron-Johnson’s farm-to-table restaurant Osip. “Coaching inns are little bubbles between points of interest.”

East Lothian’s The Bonnie Badger
East Lothian’s The Bonnie Badger © Marc Millar Photography

At The Hare and Hounds, Rayner-Langmead – perched on a fender seat upholstered in rich aqua that surrounds the 17th-century fire – says he often thinks of “the old-time travellers coming through our doors doing business dealings and telling tales of yonder”. Today, his Cumbrian pub, with all its nooks and crannies and spots to sit in, houses folk from all walks of life. A local farmer recently sold a horse to a tourist after a chance conversation at the bar; others spread the word of their hand-reared bacon that would doubtless fend off the heaviest hangovers (Rayner-Langmead serves it for breakfast). “Digital has eroded so much day-to-day interaction,” he says. “The pub is one of the last places where you’re guaranteed conversation with people you’d never ordinarily meet.”

And that’s proving a real draw right now. “A pub is a guidebook,” adds Rayner-Langmead. “Whether it’s a secret walk or a place to eat, visitors get advice from locals that they wouldn’t get through Google.” This much is true: as I sat on an antique church pew in The Hare and Hounds, savouring a locally farmed steak, a cider farmer told tales of an “otherworldly” fell walk I’d never heard of – hiking over its flat plains and limestone terrain was “like being on the moon”, he said. He made me swear to maintain its secrecy, lest it end up overrun via TripAdvisor.

Sirloin steak at The Lamb. “Our food is not foam,” says co-owner Peter Creed
Sirloin steak at The Lamb. “Our food is not foam,” says co-owner Peter Creed © Jake Eastham

Back at The Lamb, on my third glass of red, I learn of hidden underground passageways frequented by the village’s monks in the 12th century, and am given a running route through the countryside, with keen advice that if I always “bear left”, I’ll wind up back at the pub.

Taking it to task, the following morning I peel myself out from between the crisp white sheets and embark upon a very reluctant amble. After bearing left for 30 minutes, past ponds with weeping willows in bracken-filled forests, I find myself sitting at breakfast. A hearty full English is in front of me. I glance around the room at my dining companions, chat to some and fancy the idea we’re 17th-century travellers, well-rested and about to embark upon our next adventure. It’s unlikely our paths will ever cross again. I smile to myself. Eat. Drink. Stay. Long live the pub. 

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