Mister Pernickety first came across the Lion in Leintwardine some twenty years ago while looking for the more singular Sun Inn, where, he’d heard, there was no bar and the spritely old woman who ran it served bitter in jugs to punters in the parlour. On that occasion, having settled in for a longish discourse with a cluster of sturdy rustics in the big bar at the Lion, he never did make it to the Sun.
During this session, Mr P encountered a distinctive individual with a Welsh moniker, like most of the locals, who looked somehow different from his fellows. Short and squat, he had a flat face, high cheekbones and dark, narrow eyes which put Mr P in mind of a character called Glubb, who used regularly to appear in the comic strip adventures of Colonel Pewter in the News Chronicle of the early ‘60s. Glubb was a chap from the Neolithic period whom the Colonel had extracted from an iceberg and revived, in an early example of human cryogenic preservation.
Since the Celtic population had arrived in this patch less than four millennia ago – a fleeting moment in mankind’s story – Mr P had heard that there were still discernible traces of pre-Celtic people of a Neolithic type dotted around. And here was one of them, spouting implausible tales of heroic hunting in the ‘tween war years, while quaffing, and spilling quite a lot of his pint.
Since then, Mr P has revisited the Lion from time to time, on one occasion to be told that his Neolithic chum had been barred from the place for ‘excesses‘, and on another to hear that he had gone to that great Long Barrow in the sky. Over these two decades, the Lion’s fortunes visibly slumped, almost incurably so after it was acquired by one of the more vicious PubCos, who despite this pub’s excellent setting, useful size, fine village and handy spot by a river crossing, imposed such impossible conditions on tenants that none could prosper, and it became a neglected, sporadically flooded, down-at-heel hostelry dispensing gloom and bad ale.
Mr P was, therefore, delighted when eventually the place was bought by a local family who run the Radnor Hills Water Company nearby. The new owners have now lavishly ‘restored’ the Lion. The lawns by the river have been re-laid, a wall built to keep out hostile floods, the building reroofed and the walls repainted a slightly puzzling shade of green, while the innards have been restored beyond recognition. Mr P admits to a twinge of disappointment on his first visit to the revived Lion to find that it now has the air of a Surrey gastro-pub. The main bar did not seem conducive to sessions of copious pints with locals, who are now corralled into an isolated, characterless little bar with its own entrance.
However, on his next visit, on a chilly evening, a large stove stuffed with monster logs belted out warmth; there were genuine locals gossiping at the bar, and Ludlow Best Bitter on offer at £2 a pint. This, Mr P thought, is more like it and tucked into a delicious hot sandwich of chicken breast and Wensleydale cheese. He resolved to come and sample a full meal.
Luncheon was arranged for a quieter week day, in the company of a local Distinguished Thespian and Ludlow’s Noble Grocer accompanied by their charming wives. While the sense that they had been whisked two hundred miles away to the Golf-and-Bentley Land of the Home Counties still remained, the party found it agreeable enough to be sitting in the light, high-ceilinged bar with the wood-burner glowing nearby, the air untainted by any unsuitable music.
They chose from the ‘Lounge Bar Menu’ which doesn’t differ much from that of the Restaurant, a more formal space with those upholstered high back chairs one sees everywhere.
The top of the menu offered what were billed as ‘Nibbles’ – a tricky term in Mr P’s view with its connotations of rodent activity – olives, bread and what-not for the unabashed fuller-figured.
The choice of starters and main courses was varied but not suspiciously long. The Distinguished Thesp and his lovely spouse, as ever in concord, chose the same – Potted Crab and Brown Shrimp (£6) in miniature Kilner jars with chervil salad and saffron mayonnaise – which soon had the DT smacking his lips like Marcello Mastroianni in La Grande Bouffe.
Staying with the piscatorial theme, the women and the Noble Grocer opted for South Coast Hake in Wye Valley beer batter (£9.95), which again evoked enthusiastic praise for the tasty freshness of the fish, the lightness of the batter and sharp sweetness of the home-made tartar crème fraiche
Mr P, ploughing his own furrow, started with Gloucester Old Spot pork and apple rillette (£5.75), which was light and flavoursome, well set off by an apple and vanilla purée, while a small pot of cider jelly was a very pleasing first.
After this he ate a Rib-Eye of Rare-Breed Beef (£16.95), always well-hung from Wall’s of Ludlow, supported by a small cluster of roast wild mushrooms and marred only by a serving of over-fat chips, intended, no doubt, to appeal to the local demand for a full plate.
His thespian companion chose Pan Roasted Breast of Chicken and Barbecue Wing with a Sweetcorn Purée (£12.95). The two pieces of chicken gave a contrast of flavours, he said, no doubt reflecting the bird’s happy adolescence, roaming the hills, tugging up early worms.
The puddings which followed were works of visual as well as culinary art. Mr P’s Tatin of Apples & Cinnamon (£5.50) arrived in its own mini frying pan, deliciously set off by rum & raisin ice-cream and toffee crème fraiche. The DT had a pink tump of light pannacotta & raspberries (£5.50) which soon evoked a smile on his famously sardonic features.
Unusually among this gathering, not a great deal was drunk with luncheon. Mr P, still in Lentern abstention, drank only the owners’ Radnor Hills water, which had not far to travel, while two members of the party had a large glass of Pinot Grigio with which they seemed happy. In any event all wines are supplied by the generally reliable John Villar.
By the end of lunch, Mr P judged that the food at the Lion, while not ‘edgy’ or especially experimental was of a high standard and unquestionably enjoyable. For that, he can almost forgive some aspects 0f the over-restoration of the place and hopes that once the management have allowed the locals to bed into the main bar and give the place a bit of patina, and the odour of fresh paint has retreated, it will become mellow enough to accommodate a few long sessions of Ludlow Best and a discourse with the occasional Glubb.