Travel: Bucolic politic in a Cotswolds pub

An exterior view of the Swan Inn hotel in Swinbrook, Oxford, England. Picture: Contributed
An exterior view of the Swan Inn hotel in Swinbrook, Oxford, England. Picture: Contributed
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WHEN David Cameron took Francois Hollande to the Swann Inn, interest in the Cotswolds pub soared. And with good reason, says Jonathan Prynn

It’s not every day you see two men with their fingers – metaphorically – on the nuclear trigger sitting around your table tucking into grilled Bibury trout fillets like there’s, er, no tomorrow.

But this is deepest Chipping Norton set country, where the sight of the Prime Minister casually nibbling his pork scratchings barely turns a head these days. It was to the ancient Swan Inn at Swinbrook – just a quick turn off the A40 near Burford – that David Cameron brought his French opposite number François Hollande for a little Cotswolds entente gastronomique in January this year.

You can see why. With its dreamy location next to meadows and the gently babbling Windrush – less benign during last winter’s floods, however – it is about as close to central casting’s idea of an English country inn as you could imagine.

There are 11 rooms – six in the stables of the original building and five across the road in a converted cottage.

Decorated with a kind of restful “rustic minimalism” look, our room included Ian Mankin striped curtains and chair coverings, Cox & Cox bird-painted wall panels and red Anglepoise lamps.

The effect is comfortable and soothing, if falling just a yard short of luxurious. There are signs of little savings everywhere. The coffee in the room comes in the form of sticks of Nescafé instant and UHT milk sachets. The retro-style bedside radio is a John Lewis pastiche rather than the full Roberts, and the flatscreen televisions are on the small side (by the standards that modern teenagers seem to think constitute an infringement of their human rights). It was astutely summed up by Mrs P as “furnished the way Sam Cam dresses: slightly austere”.

The best by far is “Debo’s room” – a suite as long as a cricket wicket that runs the length of the stables. This is where the Swan’s landlady, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, perhaps better known as Deborah, the last of the Mitford sisters, stayed when she was in residence. Debo, who famously had tea with Hitler, with whom her sister Unity was besotted, died in October at the age of 94, marking the end of an era.

The Mitford connection is everywhere and makes the Swan an unmissable stop for anyone with an interest in this most intriguing and eccentric of English clans. The six sisters and their brother grew up in the village they rather unfairly called Swinebrook.

Images of the family and distinguished guests, such as Clementine Churchill, are everywhere.

Next door to the Swan is Mill Cottage, where Hitler-worshipping Unity tried unsuccessfully to kill herself after the Second World War.

Although this is very much a gastropub given over almost entirely to the pleasures of eating, there is a small central bar area where a handful of locals still exercise their ancient God-given right to a simple pint.

It makes for a pleasing blend of old-fashioned country boozer and throbbing restaurant.

The menu is robustly British but with great imaginative twists. An extraordinary salad of new-season purple sprouting broccoli, pork crackling, Oxford blue cheese, walnuts and apple was clearly the work of a brilliantly deranged mind. So many flavours, so many textures.

Apart from the owners, hard-working former army officer Archie Orr-Ewing and his milliner wife Nicola, much of the staff are foreign, mainly from Eastern Europe. Judging by the TripAdvisor comments, this seems to annoy some picky punters – hardened Ukip voters, perhaps, who may think they are entitled to a refund if the hands that serve are not born of English soil.

An excitable and charmingly accident-prone, half Spanish, half Romanian bar manager only added to the cosmopolitan yet still very English buzz. A bottle of vodka somehow slipped out of its optic and fell on his head the night we were there, and a few days previously he had trodden on a plank with rusty nails sticking out.

The Swan was already a popular spot – paid-up members of the Cots-ocracy such as Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp are regulars – but the publicity monster unleashed by the “potted shrimps summit” has sent bookings off the scale.

London-based French professionals, who would previously barely venture beyond SW7 without a nosebleed, have been beating a path down the A40 in huge numbers for the full Hollande experience.

The pub is a warren – the two heads of state and their entourages had the Blue Room if you want to re-enact their historic tête-à-tête. The green oak-beamed modern extension is handsome but lacks the historical charm of the original building.

We were inevitably late surfacing in the morning and all that was left of breakfast was juice, croissants and bread. Time pressures meant the two leaders were not able to chit-chat over early morning coffee. Shame.

As the morning sun shone on the river and the spring breeze ruffled the Union flag fluttering outside the Swan, there weren’t too many world problems I felt I couldn’t put right.

• The Swan Inn, Swinbrook, near Burford, Oxon X18 4DY, has doubles from £120 including B&B, theswanswinbrook.co.uk