The other week, I ticked off yet another of their pubs, the Red Lion at Little Compton (pictured), right at the southern extreme of Warwickshire. A nice enough pub, and still retaining a public bar, but not really a write-home classic. This means that I have now visited 12 of their remaining original 15 pubs, a higher proportion than any other brewery in the country. I haven’t visited any of their three more recent acquisitions. Incidentally, the staff at the Red Lion must have misheard my order, and gave me the wrong kind of baguette, although when I eventually got the right one it was pretty good.
However, the reality doesn’t quite live up to the vision. For a start, while they’re almost all lovely buildings in beautiful settings, most of their pubs have been internally knocked around to a greater or lesser extent, and few can be said to have particularly characterful interiors. As I said before, “in the 1960s Mr Claude was bitten by the modernity bug, and many of them had been opened out and furnished in a faux-rustic style with wobbly-edged tables that even in the early 1980s seemed very dated.” The Black Bear in Moreton-in-Marsh, which was a particular offender, has now been further modernised and extended, and its main bar/lounge must be one of the most drab and characterless pub rooms I’ve encountered.
Plus their beers are never going to set the pulses racing. They were never outstanding, but even now BB always seems to have a slight haze on it, and any flavour, especially of hops, is very subdued. The low prices (typically £1 a pint below local competition) are some compensation, but no excuse. Sam Smith’s OBB is cheap, but it sacrifices nothing in terms of quality. Plus they now seem to have replaced SBA – a stronger best bitter version of the “ordinary” BB – with the more fashionable Cotswold Gold. I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds like something of a concession to trendiness. As far as I can see, there’s only one Donnington pub, the Fox at Broadwell, with its beautiful village green setting, in the 2016 Good Beer Guide.
It would be great if Britain had more small, long-established family brewers providing a distinctive product to a tightly-knit tied estate. And it’s also great that Donnington is still there and continues to plough its own furrow. But it has to be recognised that not all will quite reach the standards of Batham’s in terms of either pubs or beer.
Edit: Alan Winfield has now posted a trip round all 15 Donnington pubs in a day on his blog here. The photos show what beautiful buildings they all are, externally at least.