A perfect sunny afternoon with a visit to a country pub is the stuff of a tourism marketing executive’s dream.
Thankfully in Northamptonshire we get to do it for real, with dozens of good rural pubs.
Part of the fun of going to a good county pub is knowing that generations have gone there before you. Since the 16th century, the ‘Tolly’ (Tollemache once being the name of the Lords of the local manor) has been there for travellers, heading north to Leicester or south to Northamptonshire towns. In the 1500s, the Tudors were swaggering around their Northants hunting grounds. Althorp and Boughton’s stately homes were hardly under construction, and Cromwell’s New Model Army hadn’t even been conceived.
A family lunch at the 2018 Tolly meant we arrived not on horseback but in a Ford Focus. Mobile phones telling us how to get there were (briefly) put away and the local posh Warner Edwards gin replaced flagons of ale. How far we’ve come.
The pub food is also distinctly 21st century. The menu is long, with hearty stew or steak options jostling alongside pizzas, burgers and vegan salads.
There were five in our party, ushered through to the smaller section of the restaurant near a window. Menus are printed on paper clipped to large boards, and we quickly decided to push the boat out and have starters. A nibble board (£7.50) with an unusual mix of olives, bread and caramelised onions and some deep fried tortilla chip type things with warm cheese. We had to ask for butter, not sure if it wasn’t included or had just been forgotten. There was some envy of the other choices, a very generous salmon and crayfish dish in bloody Mary mayo on sourdough toast (£7) and crispy belly pork bites with apple sauce and mustard (£6.50).
Mains chosen were perhaps, in retrospect, not making the most of the menu. A ‘hero’ burger (£15, changing on a monthly basis and giving a quid of each sold to charity), was in honour of local rugby hero Paul Diggin. This had bacon, mushrooms, cheese and tomato with two home-made burgers, plus onion rings and cheesy chips that came up on the bill as an extra £1.50, disappointing when the burger was already quite pricey. The burger, however, was delicious. A 10oz sirloin steak was £18.50 and again, cheesy chips cost an extra £1.50 (although we think that’s a bit steep for a slosh of cheese sauce). The Red Lion Burger (£15 and another £1.50 for the ‘chavvy cheese’ offered by our waitress, was sadly a little dry and Penda’s friend didn’t finish it. A smaller guest however seemed perfectly happy with a slice of garlic bread and chicken breast dippers and chips and peas (£7.50in all).
As we were determined to make it the special anniversary lunch we’d promised ourselves, we chose desserts of sticky toffee pudding (£6) and a warm cookie and ice cream (£6) while the junior ice cream was another £2.50. Three flat white coffees and the rest of the drinks bill, mostly soft drinks and a couple of beers, brought the bill to a rather unexpected total of just shy of £150. For five.
Yes, the food was mostly good – the individual starters especially, and the toffee pud. But it seemed quite expensive at roughly £30 a head, even with drinks.
We peeked through into the rear part of the restaurant which was bigger and lighter, with lots more tables, and I expect for Sunday lunch it’s packed, and we would return to try out the beef, pork or vegetarian roasts offered (booking is advised).
We left feeling suitably full for a long, large lunch, although still slightly blind-sided by the bill. So much of what the Tolly does is right. Locally sourced produce is front and centre. The pub has a strong link with the delicious Warner Edwards gins made just up the road. There are views across the ancient Northants countryside from a roomy garden and play area at the back and the staff are pleasant and speedy. It’s won awards, it’s pretty, and historic, and although it is a Charles Wells pub, it also has the very good fortune of a link-up with a brilliant gin company, a popular bed and breakfast over the road and an interesting history dating back 500 years.
The Tolly is indeed a county pub that is the tourism marketing executive’s dream come true.