Out of town

THE GREAT SAMUEL Johnson (1709-1784) is supposed to have said to James Boswell on the 20th of September 1777:

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Now, 245 years later in 2022, I largely agree with Dr Johnson, but not completely. Every now and then, it is wonderful to leave London in search of the open countryside, fresh air, wide expanses of sky, and a different way of life. Equally, it is satisfying to return to the city feeling refreshed and, sometimes, having been away from it, seeing familiar things in a new light. Our excursions from London have ranged from several months to several hours. The latter, shorter outings, have been invaluable during the recent period when because of covid19 travelling abroad has been difficult, to say the least.

One of our current favourite destinations for brief outings is the tiny village of Abingdon Piggots in southern Cambridgeshire. Although it is only about 90 minutes’ drive from central London, it feels as if it is almost in a different world from the metropolis. Despite being close to Baldock and Royston, the village seems as if it is in the deepest countryside. It has not more than 60 well spread-out houses, a church, and a hostelry called the Pig and Abbott.

The Pig and Abbott is run by Pat and Mick. It is a traditional country inn where one can enjoy a drink as well as eating superbly cooked, tasty food. We have visited the pub at least six times since we first discovered it in July 2020. Each time we go there, we are welcomed like old friends. I suppose we have become regarded as ‘regulars’. Mick told me that most of the regulars come from the area around the village. Of the 60 or so households on the village, only about 10 use his pub. I asked him whether we were amongst his furthest customers. He told me that we were, but one of his regulars, who lives in Alaska, always drops in when he visits Cambridge, where he has work colleagues.

After a hearty meal at the Pig and Abbott, we always take a stroll along Church Lane to see the small church in which there are graves of members of the local Piggott family. The lane is flanked by fields in which one can watch sheep and horses grazing. There is hardly any sound to be heard except birdsong.

Pleasant as is this bucolic scene, it would not suit me to live in it for more than a day or two. I am an urban creature at heart and the humdrum of city life suits me well. My childhood was spent amongst gardens and trees in the Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London, yet I never enjoyed the place as much as central London, which I began visiting with my parents at a young age. I guess that although I enjoy my occasional forays outside London, I cannot disagree with what Johnson said to Boswell all those years ago.

A perfect pub

IT MIGHT BE OBVIOUS to many that the village pub is, along with the local parish church, often the social hub of small settlements all over England. Since the outbreak of the covid19 pandemic, we have not made our usual annual long trip to India. Instead, when public health regulations have permitted, we have been taking the opportunity better our knowledge of the country where we live, England, by making frequent trips to different parts of the land. On all these excursions, we have stopped for food and drink at pubs in many small places. Some of these pubs have become more like restaurants than traditional village social centres, but many still act as communal living rooms where local people gather to drink and chat together.

Inside the Pig and Abbot

In Cavendish, a small village in Suffolk, there are two pubs. One is more of a restaurant than a traditional pub. By the way, it serves very excellent food. The other pub serves no food except packets of potato crisps. When we visited it, we were told that it only offers drinks. This pub was full of locals talking to each other quite animatedly. One, whom we overheard, claimed to be having a fantastic sexual relationship with a French lesbian, in whose house he had done some plumbing work.

One pub, which we have visited more than half a dozen times since early 2020, is in south Cambridgeshire. The Pig and Abbot at Abingdon Piggots, a village with about 60 households not far from Royston, successfully combines being a meeting place for locals with being a place where very well prepared, tasty food may be enjoyed, either in a small restaurant area or at tables near the centrally located bar.

The current owners, Mick and Pat, have owned the pub for almost 20 years. Pat is a superb cook and warm hostess, and Mick is a knowledgeable and charming host. He told us that the early 18th century building in which his pub is located used to be the local dower house, in which the wife of the lord of the manor lived after she was widowed. Back in those days, women usually outlived their husbands. The dower house was far from being a peaceful retirement home for widows of lords of the manor. It was a hive of activity. It was in the dower house at Abingdon Piggots that bread was baked, and other food prepared, not only for the manor house, but also for all the local families that worked for the lord of the manor. The manor, which had been in the Piggott family, many of whom have memorials in the local church, ended up in the hands of the De Courcy-Ireland family. In the early 20th century, a descendant of the Piggott family, who had inherited the manor married the Reverend Magens De Courcy-Ireland (died 1955). Mick told us that the dower house became a pub during the second half of the 19th century.

While we were enjoying a superb lunch during a recent visit to the Pig and Abbot, we asked Nick how many of the local villagers used the pub regularly. He told us that of the 60 households, 10 were regulars. We wondered whether we were amongst his customers who lived furthest away from the village. He said that we are, but his furthest customer, a former resident in the village, a biologist, now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. However, whenever he is in England, he makes a point of visiting the Pig and Abbot. Despite this outlier and us, most of the regulars do not come from afar, and I noticed that Nick seems to know most of his customers by their first names.

Of the many pubs that we have visited during our extensive roaming around the English countryside, the Pig and Abbot has become our favourite. From its warm welcoming staff, to its great food and drink, to its range of well-chosen decorations, and to its lovely wood burning fireplaces, it ticks all the boxes, making it a perfect pub. Visiting the Pig and Abbot gives one a wonderful idea of what has made the English country pub such a successful institution over many centuries.