Gosh, it really does seem to be getting colder and darker – in both the literal and the metaphorical sense. At this stage in the proceedings, I feel we all deserve a little weekend break, 48 hours in which to recuperate. And if you are looking for somewhere quintessentially and comfortingly English, a town stuffed to the ceilings of its neo-Tudor tearooms with the constancy we are missing, I have just the place.
The George and Dragon at Westerham, in Kent, is a 16th-century coaching house, which, according to its website, would once have been the last stop before London for people travelling from what my family used to call “England’s bottom”.
Now – after an exhaustive refurbishment and reopening in August – it seemed like it might make an ideal weekend destination for families travelling in the other direction. We pulled off our newish trick of collecting two children from schools on opposite sides of Norwich at the same time, ageing by a decade in the process, but still making it to Westerham in good time for a Friday supper.
A busy, family-friendly local
The George is the newest addition to the Bel & the Dragon brand, whose other country inns, scattered across the south of England, have earned them a reputation – to my mind at least – as the Mr Kipling of the hotel world. They follow a standardised recipe, but one that makes for an exceedingly good weekend break.
At the George, swirly carpets and crazy-paved walls have been ripped out, the ceilings and walls whitewashed, and the bar painted a velvety dark green that seems a hit with the locals. It was absolutely heaving at 6pm. Thankfully, we scored some deep leather armchairs in one of the adjoining lounges (given the same “Hunter welly green” makeover), before moving into the dining room, carved out of an extension to the pub’s back, prettily decorated in a style I am calling “modern diner meets Victorian greenhouse”.
The eight-year-old had a very decent bolognese from the kids’ menu (£7), and I had a hearty roast cod loin (£22). Sure, there was a bit of a wait for both, but if recent events have shown us anything, it is that waiting – with an acute awareness of the passing minutes, but an even more powerful determination not to make a fuss about it – is the quintessential English experience.
Somewhere to lay your head
And so upstairs to bed, where the inn’s 13 rooms are all unique, but follow a familiar formula: a little wood panelling in warm “heritage” shades; an inoffensive neutral carpet; a flash of feature wallpaper or upholstery; Sipsmith gin; Roberts radios… all more comforting than cool. But on a newly colder and darker evening, holing up somewhere you can rely on to be crisply and uncomplicatedly nice is a very English sort of luxury, isn’t it?
The family suite – Zog, named after the dragon in Julia Donaldson’s classic picture book – has a separate cabin room for children, complete with bunkbeds and framed prints of dragons. It has views over the North Downs, a shower room with British-made Bramley toiletries, and a neat little kettle with tea and coffee bags.
The only snag is its positioning – directly over the terrace of the pub and restaurant. Thus we were treated to a brief, muffled lullaby of Come on Eileen by an impromptu but enthusiastic Kent male-voice choir. Which, come to think of it, is another archetypically English rite of passage. Yes, the George and Dragon is a very English hotel, in a very English town.
A very English town
If you are feeling a little adrift, Westerham is a great place to anchor yourself firmly back in English history. Through the centuries, it has been home to figures including Alice Liddell (the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), William Pitt the Younger (Britain’s youngest prime minister) and Winston Churchill. It has not one, not two, but three National Trust sites (the official litmus test of Englishness). The George opens onto the green, where Churchill is immortalised in a statue.
From here, it is a spectacular two-mile stroll over downs and through woods to Chartwell, where Churchill raised his family, and mine spent a happy afternoon rampaging ferally through house and grounds. Might the British bulldog himself have drunk at the George? This can’t be confirmed, at least by anyone I collared on arrival back at the bar from our walk. Still, I think he would have enjoyed it.
A family of four can stay at the George and Dragon from £155 a night, B&B
Market Square, Westerham, Kent TN16 1AW; 01959 928414. georgeanddragonwesterham.co.uk)