The Fleece Inn – Bretforton – Worcestershire
It’s not often that you can sit down for your traditional Sunday roast in a pub which has been licensed to sell alcohol for the last one hundred and sixty nine years. I was visiting The Fleece Inn, a six hundred year old half-timbered medieval building, which for the last forty years has been owned by the National Trust.
When it was originally built sometime around 1425 by a wealthy farmer, it was a one – storey farmhouse, which housed both man and beast. Alterations to the building in the 17th century and the realisation that there was a much better living to be made from selling alcohol rather than farming, led to the farmhouse becoming a pub in 1848. The first publican was Henry Byrd whose ancestors continued to manage the Ark, as locals affectionately called it, until the death of his great grand-daughter Lola Taplin in 1977, who left it in the capable hands of the National Trust.
Lola had lived in the pub for the whole of her seventy years and had been in sole charge of the pub for the last thirty years of her life. As I sat down to enjoy my meal next to a roaring log fire in the snug bar I noticed a photograph of Lola on the far wall, looking down at me. Lola is remembered with some affection within the pub and village with locals believing she still watches over her pub and the people within it, in the shape of an owl that sits on the ridge of the thatched barn in the outside courtyard.
I was told by current landlord, Nigel Smith that The Fleece Inn was the first pub in the country to be owned by the that the National Trust, and I checked later to discover that they now own 36 pubs, but The Fleece Inn will always be their first!
A spark from a chimney almost reduced the pub to cinders in 2004, as historic thatch and mature oak timbers burnt easily causing significant fire damage, threating the pubs continued survival. The village community rushed to rescue priceless items from the building as teams of firefighters fought to extinguish the flames. Fortunately all was not lost and the pub continued to do business for the next fourteen months from the courtyard barn.
As I sat in the pub that Sunday afternoon it was difficult to envisage the massive restoration programme that had taken place to restore the building to its current condition. No major work had taken place since the 17th century but The Fleece Inn was restored without any of its customary features or integrity lost. The overall character and medieval architecture of the building remains.
The Pewter collection that had been on open display for over 300 years was restored and the witch circles repainted, to prevent witches from entering down the chimneys. I was intrigued by this curious local tradition of ‘witch circles’, which I could see clearly marked on the flagstones, around the hearth of the fireplace. I was told there were also “witch marks” on the inside of the front door too, to ensure evil spirits are kept out.
As I made my way around the pub I noticed that many of the furnishings and fittings appeared to be original. They included a great oak dresser holding a set of Stuart pewter, two grandfather clocks, several ancient kitchen chairs, some wonderful curved high-backed settles, a rocking chair and a rack of heavy pointed iron shafts for spit roasting inside one of the huge inglenook fireplaces and two other log fires.
All around me were numerous huge oak beams and exposed timbers, worn and wild flagstones. The large wooden door to the snug room appeared to be hanging from it hinges, but I was reassured that the door was always suspended at that angle.
The Inn was first licensed in 1848. Fully restored to its former glory, with witches circles and precious pewter collection, it has developed a reputation for traditional folk music, Morris dancing and asparagus.
The National Trust
A great oak dresser in appropriately, the Pewter Room now holds the priceless 48-piece set of Stuart pewter. It was believed that Oliver Cromwell’s pewter dinner service was exchanged on the way to the battle of Worcester. Whether or not, the story is true, and it probable isn’t, it is one of the finest examples of 17th century Jacobean English Pewter ware in the country.
After the Great Fire of 2004, there was much celebration when The Fleece Inn officially reopened in June of 2005, a short closure considering the age of the property and tenure of the pub. Now fully restored to its former glory, with witches’ circles and the precious pewter collection back in place, it has continued to thrive and build on its reputation for good beer and food, by hosting traditional folk music, Morris dancing, weddings, birthday parties and a nationally famous asparagus festival in May and June.
I can vouch for the fact that The Fleece Inn serves delicious food and drink, my Sunday roast was terrific, washed down with a superb pint of Wye Valley Bitter. Another beer on tap the day I visited was the award winning Uley Brewery Pigs Ear, which is a deceptively strong Pale Ale. If cider is your choice of refreshment, you can try the pubs very own Ark Cider!
During the winter months traditional English favourites feature largely on the menu such as Sausage and Mash or locally made Faggots. When the summer months roll around the seasonally changed menu features the traditional Ploughman’s lunch and the legendary Fleece Inn burger, I must go back and try that!
Bar food includes asparagus, when in season, a wide range of sandwiches, ham hock terrine, whitebait with tartare dip, nut roast with tomato and rosemary gravy, calves liver on shallot mash with red wine sauce, local faggots with gravy, mustard-baked ham and eggs, poached smoked haddock with leek mornay, pork belly with celeriac purée and port sauce, steaks with a choice of sauce, and puddings such as lemon meringue cheesecake and crumble of the day with custard.
With its roots in rural England The Fleece Inn celebrates English traditions at every opportunity. Thousands of visitors a year travel to the Fleece to sample the local produce, enjoy family entertainment and participate in traditional rural activities. During October the annual Apple and Ale festival takes place with over 40 real ales and ciders to choose from. There is a huge lawn, with apple trees around the beautifully restored thatched and timbered barn. It is a lovely place to sit and enjoy a drink with some food around the picnic tables and there is a genuine stone pump-trough in the front courtyard.
Every Thursday evening there is a Folk night in the Pewter room and in the Medieval Barn you will often hear some of the country’s finest Folk and Acoustic artists, from Breabach to Martin Simpson. There are also three Morris dancing groups based at the pub: Pebworth, Belle d’Vain and Asum Gras. There are also regular `open-mic` folk evenings, theatre concerts and weddings in the medieval barn.
The pub is a very popular pub and many of the tables are quickly reserved, so it may be something to consider if you are planning a visit to eat! I enjoyed a really informative and entertaining chat with landlord Nigel Smith, who quite clearly is very passionate about The Fleece and has an encyclopaedic knowledge about all things related to the pub and village.
Having been trained and previously worked in the brewing industry, Nigel also has a good business head and appears to know what makes a successful pub and profitable business. The Fleece Inn is not just a historical place of interest, but a pub which needs to make a profit.
The building and its interior are almost like a film set, but this pub is the genuine article. When the BBC were looking for somewhere to become ‘The Blue Dragon` in their 1994 television adaptation of Charles Dickens` novel Martin Chuzzlewit, they quickly went knocking on the door of The Fleece Inn. The BBC wanted a building which looked authentic and The Fleece Inn was exactly what they were looking for.
I don’t know of any other pub quite like The Fleece Inn. It is like stepping back in time and I would certainly recommend you visit if you have an interest in social history, love old pubs or simply enjoy good company, excellent beer or wine and food in authentic rural surroundings.
The Fleece Inn is the perfect rural retreat just a stone’s throw from the beautiful Cotswold’s, boasting roaring open fires for the winter months, open garden and apple orchard for the summer sun and a friendly welcome all year round.
With real ales and traditional ciders aplenty this historical pub is a favourite with Real Ale lovers and the welcoming atmosphere and good food attracts visitors from all over the world.
Nigel Smith – Landlord – Good Pub Guide 2018
If you would like to read more about the fascinating Fleece Inn including the temporary theft of the priceless set of pewter which was returned to the pub within three days, the curious case of the dead dog under the bed and the ghostly goings at the pub since the death of Lola, invest in a copy of the ‘A Workingman’s Castle` The Fleece Inn, it is a great read.
Published in 2015 the book is a comprehensive history of The Fleece Inn, written and researched by local journalist and author, Chris Mowbray, with the help and guidance of The Fleece’s landlord, Nigel Smith. The easily read chronicle discloses the full story of The Fleece Inn and tells how a unpretentious temporary peasant farmhouse, eventually became a national treasure attracting visitors from all over the world. The book is available at the pub bar, via the pubs online shop, all good Worcestershire book shops and Tourist Information Centres, plus Amazon.
The Fleece Inn, The Cross, Bretforton, Nr Evesham, Worcestershire WR11 7JT
If you visit The Fleece Inn as a result of reading this review blog, please mention The Travel Locker.