I am going to go out on a limb and say that The Ship at Wincle is my favourite pub in the world. Not just because the name sounds like it has emerged blinking from a Beatrix Potter story, either, though, of course, that doesn't hurt. No, it is more than that. The Ship is the very model of a good country pub.
Let me explain. Last weekend, I was visiting my parents in Staffordshire and we had booked into a restaurant in a town not too far away called Macclesfield. The drive should have taken 40 minutes. And it would have done, too, if our tyre hadn't attracted the unwanted attention of a 3in nail. Bang went the dinner plans.
The thing is, dining options are limited when you live on the edge of the Peak National Park. LA it ain't. There is miles and miles of nothingness, punctuated by the odd village, one of which, Cheshire's Wincle, we happened to be passing. So, hungry and grumpy, we headed for the pub, which my iPhone said was just round the bend.
If you are ever in that part of the world at night, you will find it pitch-black – not one street lamp lights the road. The effect is to make The Ship, resplendent in pink sandstone, look like the Promised Land. The lamp over its door shines as bright as a Hatton Garden ring shop – it screams "cosy".
Of course, the outside of a pub is important, but it is inside where the real action takes place. Stepping inside felt like walking into an episode of Heartbeat. The old sheepdog by the open wood fire, the bare stone walls and the little pictures of the pub a century go – together they give a sense of permanence, a solidity that you don't get in come-day-go-day restaurants.
The bar staff, too, with a change of costume, could have come direct from The Canterbury Tales. Polite, as well: "Of course, sir, we can definitely find you a table, if you'll just wait in the bar." And this at 8pm on a Saturday, when in most city pubs such a question would be met with at best a giggle and more likely a curled lip.
Some old harrumphers would doubtlessly say that food has no business being in a good pub. It is these people who are killing boozers. Because they obviously don't drink enough, for if they did, they'd know the necessity of a mid-session plate of food. It is quite often that or the bar room floor.
Anyway, the grub they serve here, on a weekly changing menu, is everything you'd want on a cold February night: beef pie with golden crust and loads of chips; great slabs of well-hung steak and sauce on the side; prawn cocktail like your Aunt Joan used to make. Everything is cooked well, and with a minimum of farting about. And the place also has the distinction of being the only pub I have ever been in the past 10 years where the landlord has opened a bottle of wine, put the cork on the table and said: "I'll just leave this here in case you don't finish it and want to take it home". It was a sweet thing to say, though unnecessary, as we managed to see the bottle away, along with some locally-brewed beer, too.
Walking out of the door, warm, full and mildly pissed, I couldn't have been more pleased our car had its encounter with that little nail. With The Ship, I am smitten.
This week, I've been eating ...
Treacle soda bread from The Terrace on London's Holland Street (theterraceonhollandstreet.co.uk). So popular did it prove in the restaurant, it's being sold for take-out. Meanwhile, I've been drinking Belvedere vodka, sponsor of the Brit Awards, and the only spirit I know that has a light built in to its bottle.