Swan’s Way: an intimite insight into the Mitford family at the inn in the Cotswold
London Evening Standard, 2nd November 2012
As soon as I woke up and registered the exotic noise of sheep bleating, I dashed across my chic-rustique hotel bedroom and leaned out of my window to wave at the countryside. Hello, glorious Cotswolds!
The sheep looked back at me with a seen-it-all expression as if to say: “Hello, Londoner.”
The Swan Inn at Swinbrook is a pub and boutique hotel beside the Windrush river. It’s the epitome of the Cotswolds, with everything just so: honeyed stone, exposed beams, hearty fires and worn flagstones. The pub sign looks like something out of Downton Abbey, which it is: a scene was filmed here (remember Lady Sybil and the chauffeur’s premature elopement? Which was foiled by Lady Mary? Of course you do). It’s cute and unpretentious, but underneath it all, achingly prestigious: there’s a biannual RiverDay fête, opened by local MP David Cameron; in the garden there are rare-breed chickens (Lavender Pekins) scratching about, wearing tufty pantaloons — and living in a mini gypsy caravan. Of course.
The chickens belong to committed fowl fancier the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. ‘Debo’, the youngest of the Mitford sisters, is the owner of The Swan, and at 92 gamely oversees operations with regular phone calls. It was here in Swinbrook that she grew up, the baby of the family. Most of her sisters called it ‘Swinebrook’ and couldn’t wait to get away, but Debo loved the place, and Pamela (she of the relatively quiet life and predictably baffling family nickname ‘Woman’) lived nearby in a cottage that is to be incorporated into the hotel next year. The pub is steeped in Mitfordiana: Debo has invested it with a brilliant stock of family photographs, displayed in large reproductions. Captioned by Debo, the photos glow with sepia-toned eccentricity: fancy-dress parties (the grubby tramp is Nancy); bathing with their Churchill cousins; Debo on her first pony, in 1929. The loos, too, are stacked with Mitford prose.
The suite to stay in is ‘Debo’s Room’ (if you can resist ‘Piggery End’), which has a bed with a view, a high, barn-like ceiling, and a freestanding bath, plus a separate room for beloved Nanny or beastly Governess. The look is chintzy-charm, and everything feels bright and new, yet comfortable, which is a coup for Nicola Orr-Ewing, the interior decorator and in situ landlady who runs The Swan with her husband, former army commander Archie. Their love of chickens got them the job, though Debo might also have been impressed by the fact that they already ran a thriving pub hotel, The King’s Head Inn, in nearby Bledington. When my husband and I went there for dinner, contented punters were eating amazing Scottish Wagyu burgers and jugged hare. A Jack Wills of public school teens, if I may propose a new collective noun, was in the bar. I overheard one girl confiding to a friend: ‘He is just so handsome. You’ve got to see him. I mean, he is one seriously good-looking… horse.’
Dinner at The Swan feels more treat-like. It’s informal, but takes pub food to another level, all truffle mayo, and beef from Archie’s uncle’s herd. Candles glimmer while the Mitford sisters eye you from their portraits, all of them looking directly at the artist except for Unity, whose mind seems to be elsewhere. At the local post office she used to give the postmistress a Nazi salute, while Jessica, furious, raised a Communist fist… You can still visit St Mary’s church, where their only brother Tom, who was killed in the war, is commemorated, and where the girls would sign the visitors’ book ‘Greta Garbo’ and ‘Maurice Chevalier’, and Diana once played ‘Tea for Two’, very slowly, as an organ voluntary. The ornate tombs of the Fettiplace gentlemen, gallant in ruffs and doublets are irresistible, while Nancy’s grave is adorned with one final quiddity: a carving of a mole, her favourite animal. Long may the mole thrive in Swinbrook, and The Swan also. ES