…called so, of course, to differentiate this post from my not-so-favorable review of our very own “Red Lion Pub” right here in Houston. No, no. The Red Lion Pub in Holmes Chapel may as well exist on an entirely different planet from its cousin in Texas.
On our first full day in England, we set about on a drive down the narrow, winding roads past hand-laid stone walls and brilliantly green fields full of fat sheep. Richard drove me through the posh streets of Prestbury, alongside the immense, 21st-century monolith that is Jodrell Bank, underneath viaducts and train tracks until we reached his second hometown in Holmes Chapel.
I say second hometown, since his childhood was — as so many of ours were — divided between places. He spent his youth in Bollington, a mill town up the road, and his adolescence in Holmes Chapel. The village is older even than Alderley Edge, having been recorded in 1086 in the famous Domesday Book as “Chapel Hulme.” Coming of age in Holmes Chapel leant him a keen familiarity with the three local pubs: The Red Lion, The George and Dragon and The Swan.
The Red Lion was his pub of choice, located only a short walk past the church and grocers from his house. In his youth, he spent many a lunch there with his schoolmates and many a long, cold night surrounded by friends. Richard recalls that it was the epitome of a tatty, well-loved old pub: worn and slightly-sticky carpets, very basic bar and low, sloping ceilings. When we first approached the place on foot that day, Richard presciently remarked, “Looks a bit spiffed up.”
Entering The Red Lion was like walking into an expertly decorated hotel lobby, perhaps an Aspen boutique hotel, with trendy fabrics and cushy armchairs all perfectly akimbo. Richard stopped, mouth open, marvelling at what was clearly a different Red Lion than the one he left behind over six years ago. While I admired the upmarket window treatments and flower arrangements, my poor husband stared blankly at what I imagine was his utterly destroyed adolescence.
The Red Lion is one of many pubs that’s been bought out by the large chain Ember Inns, which is itself under the umbrella of its enormous parent company, Mitchells and Butlers. Ember Inns operates over 2,000 pubs throughout the UK. This may seem like a large number, but keep in mind that even the tiniest of villages — like Holmes Chapel, for example, with a population of only 5,600 people — has at least three pubs. Not having any frame of reference within which to judge, I can’t say whether or not this is a good thing. I enjoyed the non-pubby atmosphere of the place more than I expected to, given my innate hatred of chains. That hatred was mollified by the fact that the building itself doesn’t seem to have changed any (according to Richard) except for the new decor and presence of a higher-end restaurant inside. Richard, to this day, remains mostly ambivalent towards the changes.
The food itself was wonderful and very inventive. Take, for example, my meal: a wild mushroom risotto inside puff pastry. A bit on the starchy side, yes, but — delicious! Oh, so delicious. Who would have ever thought to put risotto inside of puff pastry? Ember Inns, I suppose. The main dish — containing five different types of wild mushrooms – was served with a side of roasted sweet potatoes and butternut squash (the English seem to love their roasted root vegetables, which I wholeheartedly support), some roasted potatoes and a side of mashed potatoes with gravy. Okay, so the side selection needed a bit less…starchiness, I agree, but you couldn’t argue with that main dish.
Richard ordered scampi (which he, once again, ate before I could get a picture) which is strikingly different from our own “scampi” over here: it’s battered and fried shrimp (a.k.a “prawns”) served with chips and peas. When I mentioned to him that our version of “scampi” meant that the shrimp was sauteed in white wine and garlic butter, he just peered at me as if I were out of my mind.
We needed a long walk after eating so many potato-based items, and headed out from The Red Lion satiated, ready to attack the rest of the day with very little need for any other food, save a very light dinner that night. English cuisine is wonderful in the sense that it fuels you to face all the walking that one needs to do on a daily basis, and seems to protect you from the cold from the inside out. As we left The Red Lion, Richard seemed slightly sad. I asked him what he thought of the new-and-improved pub of his youth. He thought for a while before diplomatically stating, “Well…the food was great.”