South Derbyshire may not have the Peak District, its literary associations and country houses, but in one area of history it thoroughly beats north Derbyshire – beer.
Think hoppy beers were invented in Hackney in 2008? Think again. In the 1800s, the south Derbyshire and Staffordshire borderlands, and Burton upon Trent in particular, were the global epicentre of beer innovation. Burton’s strong, heavily hopped India pale ales were a sensation, a story you can explore at its National Brewery Centre.
The town is very different today, best known as Molson Coors’s UK HQ and for Marston’s cask ales. But good beer will out and this area still teems with microbreweries such as Boot Beer, which is at the Boot Inn on the way to Derby. Already known for its traditional ales (from £3.40 a pint), it has a new brewer, Jon Archer, who is currently modernising its range. Try his Reboot, a big, citrusy, US-style pale ale, and, in bottle and on keg, beers from cutting-edge craft brewers such as Kernel and Tiny Rebel (note: the Boot also has a Euro-centric wine list with plenty by the glass, from £4.95).
A 17th-century inn, the Boot is a remarkable beer find in such a small, curious village. Dominated by its famous private school, which seems to occupy half the local buildings (come the revolution, it will make a cracking state comprehensive), Repton feels like a sprawling university campus. Architecture geeks will love its ancient streets, hugger-mugger with half-beamed Tudor cottages, Victorian terraces and Georgian townhouses.
One of three local Bespoke Inns, created by Derbyshire native Heidi Hammond, the Boot – the AA’s English pub of the year 2016-17 – has nine roomy bedrooms which offer sound comfort and, in mine (number nine, which boasts gnarled, exposed beams), splashes of historic character. The design is stylishly sober throughout. Split between a busy drinkers’ bar and an informal dining area (staffed by an attentive, well-drilled team), the pub is all grey-painted walls, bare floorboards and mismatched furniture. There is a log-burner primed for winter. It is clubbable. Cosy. The bedrooms are brighter but still restrained. The furnishings mix French-style furniture and neo-Victorian fabrics to good effect. Niggles were minor (a somewhat cramped shower cubicle).
Like the beer choice, the Boot’s food is next-level. This is very much a pub and head chef Rob Taylor is across that. There is a cabinet of beef dry-ageing by the kitchen and, steaks aside, Taylor cooks an on-point burger: topped with marvellously jammy, Chinese-spiced braised ox cheek (starters from £5.95, mains from £11.95). However, 24-year-old Taylor has previously done work experience at some starry restaurants (Sat Bains, Midsummer House), and it shows. Not just in an unexpected amuse bouche – delivered with a pub-friendly lack of pomp – but in the technical rigour of his ambitious, modish cooking.
Occasionally, he over-reaches (a bizarre pre-dessert of blueberries, oddly dry, lumpy rice pudding and tarragon cream was one clanger), and certain dishes need decluttering. But from the house sourdough with whipped butter to a grown-up banana parfait (partnered with extraordinarily intense miso caramel, yuzu cream and bitter chocolate sorbet), there was a lot to like here. Taylor is talented. His pork neck with smoked clams, BBQ leeks, silky celeriac puree and diced apple is outstanding, its layers of profoundly savoury and sweeter flavours smoothly reinforcing one another.
Breakfast does not reach such heights, but my eggs florentine is decent and the options (breakfast is extra, £2.95-£8.95), such as a superfood spirulina shake or avocado, tahini, fennel trimmings, feta and eggs on sourdough, are interesting. Keen to walk breakfast off? Head to Calke Abbey or Foremark reservoir. Alternatively, potter in Repton until midday and then get back on those Boot beers – it is only polite.
• The Boot (doubles, room only, from £75, thebootatrepton.co.uk). Travel between Manchester and Willington (a mile from Repton) was provided by Cross Country, crosscountrytrains.co.uk
Tom Ainsley, co-owner of Suds & Soda beer shop, Derby
Definitely worth a visit is Calke Abbey, a Grade I-listed country house near Repton. While away the hours exploring the scenic grounds or the abbey’s fascinating rooms. In summer, there are outdoor cinema screenings by Derby’s indie cinema Quad. It was a darkly suitable setting for the Wicker Man.
Eat and drink
Derby has a lot of hidden gems. The train paraphernalia-decked Alexandra Hotel (minutes from the railway station) serves some of the county’s best-kept cask beers. To eat, head to Friar Gate, a foodie hub and home to the award-winning Terroir Bistro and authentic tapas at Lorentes.
Suds & Soda is currently running Big Stout December, showcasing full-on, out-there dark beers