WWe are practically exploding with enthusiasm at the thought of going to a pub while we arrive at the Cow, although our anticipation has been slightly attenuated by the images of the careless crowds of the city center on the first night of reopening. Inside this renovated Derbyshire Dales inn, however, everything is calm. My husband and I spray hand sanitizer from a dispenser inside the door, but on top of that it feels like a normal Sunday.
In the late afternoon there is a soft hum of voices as people linger over roast dinners. A bartender smiles from behind the beer pumps and a waitress is distributing dishes of molasses tart. But the signs that this is actually a “new normal” are there when you look closely. Tables are widely spaced and there is no local knot supporting the bar – even the bar stools have been removed. (The drinks ordered at the bar are served at your table; anyone who really wants to drink standing does it outside.)
The biggest change, however, is in the test-and-trace: customers must register – with the help of a QR code – on a website that will provide details to the national health service if guests subsequently report the infection from Covid-19 (promises to clear data after 21 days).
None of this dampens our joy: not only are we in a pub, but we’ll have someone else cook at our table is we stay the night. After three months of our too familiar home, now quite consumed, with every meal prepared in our kitchen, we feel happy. Security measures – like a one-way path around the pub and a one-in-one-out system for the restrooms – are more reassuring than annoying.
The 200-year-old Black Cow was taken over in mid-2017 by the local Berkeley Inns chain, which transformed the Cow into a renamed “boutique inn” by adding a 12-bedroom rear extension. The rooms are accessible in what the bartender ironically calls the “cow corridor”. This passage, and all the bedrooms, are freely hung with, well, portraits of cows: face-up paintings of various breeds. They are all individual and very expressive, but it’s a bit of a bovine overload.
The ruminants apart from the rooms are solid and relaxing: spacious bathroom, excellent wifi (convenient as there is no telephone signal), coffee machine, fresh milk in the refrigerator. The ground floor rooms have pretty terraces with vintage-style metal furniture: ours overlooks a vegetable garden and a farmland. It would be a nice place for an in-room meal – on offer after the block.
We opt to eat in the pub, where the hygiene measures are discreet (the cards on each table say it has been disinfected), inevitable (disposable menus and wine lists) or a positive improvement, such as guests pouring their own wine. We settle down, excited to examine a real menu (not takeaway). List a reduced offer of roasts, catch of the day and vegetarian chili, which is fine: I’m not sure our block brains could have faced too many choices. Cutlery and napkins are piled on a plate from which you help yourself, and the dishes are passed rather than placed in front of us, but none of this takes away the joy of dining out.
Her husband’s leek and potato soup is a symphony of carefully layered rather than creamy flavors. My pork roast comes with a generous plate of good rattle and excellent vegetables, including charred carrots and a punchy cauliflower cheese that makes me ashamed of the version I served the family too many evenings this spring. We end the party with local cheeses for him (thanks, the cows) and the molasses cake for me, so we happily caress our bellies at the thought of not having to clean the kitchen or stack the dishwasher.
There isn’t much to see in Dalbury Lees – small church, shaking the barley fields – but the next day we are planning a yomp in enchanting Dovedale, half an hour away, so let’s get some good breakfasts. My Florentine eggs and his smoked haddock are selected by ticking the boxes on another disposable menu and I also request a fruit plate. Will we ever ask for the breakfast buffet?
We observe a staff member who cleans the table top and the backs of the chairs after a party has left and we note that the new regime sees that they have to do much more for fewer customers. I just hope they are happy to return to work because we are definitely happy to be their guests.
• Accommodation was provided by Sawdays. Doubles from £ 130 B