I suppose you can just about describe Shilton as a village. It feels like a place teetering on the brink though. Approaching through the rumbling traffic skirting Coventry’s apocalyptic back end, we pass vast grey warehouses and roundabouts big enough to evolve whole new carbon-monoxide-tolerant ecosystems. When life as we know it has gasped itself extinct, the grungy denizens of places like these will rise up and dominate the earth. Cables divide the sky. The air is metallic. I feel like a drone.
Squeezing between the motorway and the A46, we break for open country – but all we find is Ansty, once a pleasant village, currently in the twilight zone of planning blight. Already in the shadow of the M69, it’s now trembling beneath a tsunami of development – at least two thousand new homes – that’s poised to engulf it in the next few years.
Dumb inevitability hangs heavy here. One or two households have stuck defiant ‘Save Ansty Greenbelt’ placards in the front gardens, but they’re easily outnumbered by ‘For Sale’ signs. Most people, it seems, have simply given up.
Shilton, a short drive down the road, tries harder to cling to its village-y self-sufficiency. Agricultural buildings still front the main street, and a vaguely art-deco garage recalls a time when motoring was an altogether more optimistic endeavour. The pub, though, is in its own special time-warp.
The interior is pure chicken-in-the-basket-seventies: faux beams, faux brickwork, dark wood-veneer tables, wheelback chairs, blinded windows overlooking the dusty street. The decade that came next is randomly homage-ed by adorning photographs of eighties pop stars; a giant portrait of Freddie Mercury in his pomp presides over our corner. And then it all stops. No trends worth celebrating, it appears, have happened since.
We’ve chosen to come here because together with its sister hostelry the Rose and Castle at Ansty, it has an unusually (and commendably) large and deferential vegetarian menu – one that goes to great lengths to clarify which dishes are vegan, which are not vegan but can be fine-tuned to vegan, and whether the various choices on offer contain dairy, gluten or eggs. With such good intentions, it’s a pity that the food doesn’t really do them justice.
I go for the mixed bean chilli. I’m not going to say I didn’t like it; if I didn’t like ‘butter beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, borlotti beans, diced onion, fresh garlic, tomatoes and diced pepper’, I wouldn’t have ordered a dish in which they’re the headline ingredients. It contained all of them, exactly as advertised, and bonus soya beans to boot. It was good hearty fare which unlike my last foray into restaurant dining, certainly didn’t leave me feeling peckish a mere three hours later.
So what’s my complaint? It was boring, that’s what. I go out to meet the world – but I could have produced this in my kitchen at home. Even worse, I could have produced it thirty-plus years ago in the kitchen of my mid-eighties student house-share.
It really was that unsophisticated. A mound of chilli surrounded by a ring of dazzling white rice; a too-thin sauce made from tinned tomatoes; added depth provided by a simple hit of paprika – not unpleasant, but making me wonder how this dish differed from a hypothetical mixed-bean goulash. The answer may have lain in the trio of tortilla-chip antlers sticking out at a hundred and eighty degrees. They looked (and tasted) as stale as the decor.
So it was a dull old afternoon in the Shilton Arms. Our few fellow-diners were mostly middle-aged. The odd local shuffled in for a pint and shuffled out again. The young bar staff were under-employed to the point of fidgetiness. A coming influx of people demanding something more than 1981 revisited makes me wonder how long it will survive. Should we mourn it, when it’s gone?
To answer that, I’ll return to my whinge about not going out to have what I can have at home. I should perhaps have added that if I had had it at home, it would have cost me less than a quarter of what I paid here. Was the atmosphere and ‘overall dining experience’ worth the rest? No it wasn’t.
The Shilton Arms, Church Road, Shilton, CV7 9X. Mixed bean chilli £10.95