Were at a pub – and staying the night! A post-lockdown break in the Derbyshire dales
We are practically exploding with excitement at the thought of going to a pub as we arrive at the Cow, though our anticipation has been muted slightly by pictures of heedless city-centre crowds on the first night of reopening. Inside this revamped Derbyshire dales inn, though, all is calm. My husband and I squirt on hand-sanitiser from a dispenser inside the door but beyond that it all feels pretty much like a normal Sunday.
In late afternoon there’s a muted hum of voices as people linger over roast dinners. A barman smiles from behind the beer pumps and a waitress is handing out plates of treacle tart. But signs that this is actually “new normal” are there when you look closely. The tables are widely spaced, and there’s no knot of locals propping up the bar – even the bar stools have been removed. (Drinks ordered at the bar are served at your table; anyone who really wants to drink standing up does so outside.)
The biggest change, though, is in test-and-trace: customers have to register – with the help of a QR code – on a website that will supply details to the NHS should any guest later report Covid-19 infection (it promises to delete data after 21 days).
None of this dampens our glee: not only are we at a pub, we’re going to have food cooked by someone else served to us at our table and we’re staying the night. After three months of our too-familiar, now rather well-worn home, of every meal prepared in our own kitchen, it feels joyous. Safety measures – such as a one-way route round the pub and a one-in-one-out system for the toilets – are more reassuring than annoying.
The 200-year-old Black Cow was taken over in mid-2017 by local chain Berkeley Inns, which turned the renamed Cow into a “boutique inn” by adding a 12-bedroom rear extension. The rooms are reached down what the barman wryly calls “cow corridor”. This passage, and all the bedrooms, are liberally hung with, well, cow portraits: full-face paintings of various breeds. They’re all individual, and very expressive, but it’s a bit of a bovine overload.
Ruminants apart the rooms are solid and calming – spacious bathroom, excellent wifi (handy as there’s no phone signal), coffee machine, fresh milk in the fridge. Ground-floor rooms have cute terraces with vintage-style metal furniture – ours overlooks a vegetable garden and rolling farmland. It would be a nice spot for a room-service meal – on offer post-lockdown.
We opt to eat in the pub, where hygiene measures are either unobtrusive (cards on each table saying it has been sanitised), inevitable (single-use menus and wine lists) or a positive improvement, such as guests pouring their own wine. We settle down, thrilled to peruse a real (not takeaway) menu. It lists a reduced offering of roasts, catch of the day and veggie chilli, which is fine: I’m not sure our lockdown brains could have coped with too much choice. Cutlery and napkins come heaped on a plate from which you help yourself, and dishes are passed along rather than placed in front of us, but none of this detracts from the delight of dining out.
Husband’s vivid-green leek and potato soup is a symphony of carefully layered flavours rather than just rich with cream. My roast pork comes with a generous slab of good crackling and great vegetables, including charred carrots and a punchy cauliflower cheese that makes me ashamed of the version I’ve served the family on too many evenings this spring. We round off the treat with local cheeses for him (thanks, cows) and treacle tart for me, then pat our bellies happily at the thought of not having to clear the kitchen or stack the dishwasher.
There’s not much to see in Dalbury Lees – small church, waving barley fields – but next day we’re planning a yomp in lovely Dovedale, half an hour’s drive away, so set ourselves up with good breakfasts. My eggs florentine and his smoked haddock are selected by ticking boxes on another single-use menu, and I also request a fruit platter. Will the breakfast buffet ever return, we wonder?
We watch a staff member spray clean the table top and chair backs after one party depart, and note that the new regime sees them having to do much more for fewer customers. I just hope they’re happy to be back at work – because we’re certainly glad to be their guests.
• Accommodation was provided by Sawdays. Doubles from £130 B