Pubs, Cheltenham races
PUBLISHED: 10:53 16 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013
As the racing season properly gets underway, Martin Riley seeks out four Cotswold pubs where mysterious men speak of spavins and surcingles ...
The thunder of hooves, the roar of the crowd and the tidal wave of words of wisdom from the garrulous tap room tipsters - racing pubs have an atmosphere all of their own. Not for the faint-hearted is the wall to wall, floor to ceiling, dawn to dusk involvement in the racing game. There is a surreal, parallel universe in the world of racing and a language all its own - spavins, surcingles, martingales and irons. .
Cheltenham itself is home to seats of learning, cultural enterprise, festivals of music, literature and science and the highlight of the steeplechasing racing calendar, the National Hunt Festival in March every year. At this time every hotel, public house, wine bar and speak-easy will hum with the oft ill-informed out-pourings of the occasional punter and any publican with a bottle-opener, a corkscrew and a till can line his pockets courtesy of this incoming tide of racegoers and hangers-on.
However, away from the festival there is a core of Cotswold public houses where devotees of the racing game will lean on the bar, scan the racing pages for runners and riders and chew the fat over a pint of beer and a plate of bangers and mash. Pubs where horny-handed stable lads rub shoulders with be-suited owners, where trainers explain the reasons why, where tips are traded, where bets are made and dreams are sometimes realised.
To the east of the road from Burford to Stow-on-the-Wold lies the village of Nether Wescote and almost 30 years ago The Westcote Inn was a hostelry where my simple request for 'a pie and a pint and a few kind words' resulted in the prompt, cheerful delivery of a pie and a pint. And the few kind words ? 'Don't eat the pie'.
Times have changed. Two or three years ago the 300-year-old building was stripped to its bare bones, restored and enlarged and now offers a restaurant, bars, a private dining room, four letting rooms, a sunny terrace overlooking the breath-taking Evenlode Vale, and an opportunity to join the Westcote Racing Syndicate run by Tom Gittins in conjunction with Charlie Longsdon, one of the rising stars of training based at Sezincote.
Pies and pints are still available, but are now served without the barmaid's caution. There is a fine restaurant and lunches and suppers are available in the bar. There is an edge of glamour at The Westcote Inn, reflected in the proud statement that the lamb is supplied by ex-Blur guitarist Alex James; the occasional entertainment includes recitals by string quartets; sculptors and painters artists display their work, and the provision of a Champagne Bar, where celebrations or commiserations can start and finish. Duke's Corner is a shrine to the late David Nicholson and Dinah Nicholson, his widow, writes a regular column in the Inn's website. The Westcote Inn maintains its link with sporting tradition and hosts a meet of the Heythrop foxhounds every year.
Roll back down the hill to Burford, paddle up the River Windrush and you will be greeted by Paul Porter, landlord of The Fox Inn at Barrington. No champagne bar here but you will find a dart board, a warm welcome and a hearty menu. Paul is the longest serving Donnington Brewery tenant and his years of experience behind the bar guarantee fine ale and the length of time served in the grandstand and parade ring guarantee his well-informed assessment of yesterday's, today's and tomorrow's racing. 'Obviously the Festival creates a five-day party with world experts offering their advice and encouragement but we have a core of racing regulars here so there is always some gossip to share,' said Paul.
There are four letting rooms and residents may cast a fly for the wild brown trout of the Windrush, there is a free Folk Festival on August Bank Holiday and Fox Inn regulars often take to the minibus and trundle off for A Day at the Races, sometimes to follow their own Barrington Fox syndicate racehorse.
Visitors to The Hollow Bottom at Guiting Power are greeted by a pair of racing boots as worn by local hero Richard Dunwoody as he rode local equine hero Charter Party to victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1988, owned by local racing devotee, the late Jenny Mould and trained by the late David 'Duke' Nicholson - for those of us who were there, it was some night and for those of us who survived it was the same again the following day.
Once owned by trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and jockey Peter Scudamore, the Hollow Bottom was guaranteed racing super-star status. Now owned and managed by Hugh Kelly and chef Charlie Pettigrew it is one of the great hubs of racing news. A characterful clutter of inter-connecting rooms each festooned with racing memorabilia, an inspirational menu from Charlie who was once Young Scottish Chef of the Year and learned his art at Claridges, Gleneagles and the Savoy. Great draught beer at one end of the scale and Krug champagne at the other.
Within sight of the gallops at Jonjo O'Neill's spectacular yard at Jackdaw's Castle sits The Plough at Ford, another Donnington pub and another central pillar of the Cotswold Hall of Fame.
'Jockeys, owners and lads from far and wide pour in here throughout the year,' said landlord Craig Brown. 'and obviously eyes and ears are kept open in the hope of an overheard tip.'
Craig takes his racing seriously with a horse in training with Martin Keighley - Badly Bruised managed a seventh at a bumper in Cheltenham last season.
The Plough has that burnished charm of worn flagstones, open fires and nicotine-stained ceilings under which generations of smokers have puffed contentedly at their clay pipes and rolled their own gaspers. Since the tax-paying smoker has been relegated by the government to the caste of untouchable, many pubs have made their own arrangements and The Plough has built a most sophisticated gazebo where the socio-politically marginalised can puff, cough and splutter at will. The Plough is also noted for its asparagus menu which is offered from April to June and there is a wide variety of bar meals and a friendly, relaxed restaurant.
As in all sports, there is a fraternity which embraces the visiting participant, but racing pubs do not cater solely for the racegoer. Just as an isolated soccer fan at Kingsholm will feel as uncomfortable as a pork butcher at a bar mitzvah, the racing publican needs to recognise the non-racegoer as he enters his licensed shrine to the Sport of Kings.
If you are one of the many people out there who does not understand the confusing world of hurdling, steeple-chasing or the flat, who couldn't tell a forelock from a fetlock but who will be the first to chip in to the office Grand National sweepstake, call in at one of these racing pubs. You will be sure of a warm welcome and a top tip - straight from the horse's mouth.