The White Horse, Hertingfordbury, Herts
Aquaint village in possession of an ancient church and several fine houses must be in want of a hostelry. But however universally that truth is acknowledged, commercial reality sees many rural communities in Britain languishing publess. That fate befell Hertingfordbury, near Hertford, in 2014 when the Prince of Wales closed, followed in 2016 by the White Horse.
“The village had lost its heart: we no longer saw our neighbours,” one local tells me. “We were so delighted when Alastair took over this place.”
Built in 1557, the White Horse had a proud history as a coaching inn on the Reading to Cambridge route but by the 1970s had become a business hotel, with a charmless 42-bedroom extension. Alastair and Anna Bramley, who also run pubs in nearby Ware and Watton-at-Stone, had the extension demolished and gutted the interior, preserving those original features that had not rotted away. The pints started flowing in August this year, and seven bedrooms opened in November.
The “truth universally acknowledged” adage is fitting for Hertingfordbury, which is said to be the model for Longbourn in Pride and Prejudice. Like the Bennets’ village, it is just a mile from town, in this case Hertford, which experts say could be fictional Meryton, which the sisters walk to regularly. Some residents claim Jane Austen wrote early chapters while staying with friends at Epcombs, an 18th-century red-brick house on the edge of Hertingfordbury.
On a Saturday afternoon we find the pub buzzing. Upstairs, individually designed bedrooms have 16th-century beams but are themed not on period England but southern Africa, where Alastair lived until he was 11. There are masks, animals and other artefacts, plus – the best bit – Cole & Son wallpapers in designs by women from a social enterprise pottery in KwaZuluNatal: ours is Leopard Walk, beasts glowing orange on a taupe background.
The restaurant, in a new extension, keeps the colonial feel: dark wood, emerald upholstery, cane seating and greenery. It’s busy but not loudly so. Alastair tells us he wanted the place to stay grounded as a pub, so there are pies, fish and chips, and sausage and mash on chef John Beardsworth’s menu, alongside vegetarian and vegan dishes. A shared vegetarian plate (£11.95) is tasty, with balsamic onions and freshly roasted pepper, and a kedgeree starter is topped with a perfect runny-yolked egg. A punchy
The best bit – Cole & Son wallpapers in designs by women from a social enterprise in KwaZulu -Natal
vegan main of butter bean stew comes with a delicious crispy dumpling, and a fish pie is elegant, if undersized. Husband’s halibut is a disappointment, though: beautiful looking, with a squid-ink “wafer” but oddly dry and flavourless. Our main quibble is small portions and toppy prices: a tiny side salad is £4. Pudding options are cold mousses and sorbets – no hot stuff with custard, sadly.
There’s no lack of generosity in the bedroom, however. The bed is huge and, snuggled up to our leopards, we sleep well in deep countryside quiet.
The White Horse is open for breakfast from 8.30am and it’s popular with school-run mums. We join in for coffee, smoked haddock, and a brioche bun with great bacon.
A spit from commuterland but among woods, meadows and 1,000acre Panshanger Park, with its lakes, ospreys and great oaks, the White Horse would make a great car-free break for Londoners: train to Hertford, then a walk or cycle along the
Cole Green Way disused railway line. Mr Darcy, of course, would just tell the servants to prepare the barouche.
• Accommodation was provided by the White Horse (doubles from £90 B&B, 01992 586791, whitehorsehertingfordbury.co.uk)