Christopher Gray on David Cameron's pub lunch with French President Francois Hollande

What a bright idea it was of David Cameron’s to entertain the French President Francois Hollande to lunch at a pub, a unique British institution with no close parallel in his own country. This was a move as canny in its way as his great predecessor Winston Churchill’s decision to route his funeral train from Waterloo — an unlikely starting point for Bladon — once he knew that General de Gaulle would be attending. (Apocryphal? Perhaps. But an amusing story nonetheless.) Mr Cameron chose the Swan Inn at Swinbrook, a 500-year-old Cotswold stone hostelry (prop. the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, no less) in an incomparably lovely setting beside the River Windrush.

But he could as easily have picked any of perhaps a dozen other foodie pubs on his ‘patch’, for Witney is a constituency packed with such.

He might, for a start, have considered the King’s Head at Bledington, which shares its licensees with the Swan, in the shape of Archie and Nicola Orr-Ewing. Other contenders include the Fleece, the Hollybush and the Three Horseshoes in Witney itself; the Trout at Tadpole Bridge; the Kingham Plough and nearby Wild Rabbit; the Chequers at Churchill; the Tite Inn in the Camerons’ home village of Chadlington; the Bull in Burford; the Five Alls at Filkins. The list goes on . . .

One would like to think that our pub-loving PM hit on the Swan because of its connection with the famous Mitford sisters, of whom the Dowager Duchess, ‘Debo’, is the last survivor. They spent their earliest years in nearby Asthall Manor (of which more presently) until their markedly eccentric father, Lord Redesdale, ‘Farve’, built them all a new house in Swinbrook — a property which one of them said looked like a cross between a barracks, a girls’ school and a Victorian lunatic asylum.

The family can boast a notable francophile in the writer Nancy Mitford, who is buried beside other of her sisters at Swinbrook Church. She lived for many years in Paris, in order to be close to her long-time lover, Gaston Palewski whom she met during his wartime service in the Free French Forces under the aforementioned General de Gaulle. Her many books include a widely admired biography of Louis XIV, The Sun King.

Her youngest sister Deborah has proved a prolific author too, focusing in her writing primarily on her many years as chatelaine of Chatsworth, the Devonshires’ vast ducal pile in Derbyshire.

In her memoirs Wait for Me! (2010) she wrote entertainingly of her early memories of the Swan.

“The formidable Mrs Bunce was in charge . . . and kept strict order; anyone out of step had to beware of the consequences and we never heard of any late-night fracas, even on a Saturday. She wore a black dress fastened at the neck with a cameo brooch and a sacking apron over her substantial front to keep off the meal that she mixed and fed to her turkey poults. The turkeys lived in a paddock opposite the pub and Mrs Bunce’s stately figure could be seen slowly crossing the road — a car was a rare sight in those days and there was no need to hurry. There was sawdust on the stone floor of the pub and a charming curved settle in the parlour. The box tree that grows by the door had already reached its full height and I would love to know when it and the ancient wisteria next to it were planted.”

There was still plenty of antique charm (sawdust apart) when I first encountered the pub 40 years ago. Surprising as it will seem to those who know me, this was as a cricket player performing (very badly I am sure) on the adjacent pitch. Thereafter, I drank at the Swan often, particularly in the 1990s when we used to accompany our dog Holly on the riverside walk from Asthall. On one jaunt she disgraced herself by grabbing an ornamental duck from the cottage opposite the pub. Never expecting to succeed in such an enterprise, she was deeply embarrassed by her mouthful. The duck played dead, then made good its escape.

We taught Holly to swim during picnics close to Asthall bridge, admiring as we did so the gracious lines of the former Mitford home. Later we were able to admire it from much closer to hand as the home of our friend Rosie Pearson. Every other year since 2002, Rosie has thrown open her lovely gardens (designed by Isabel and Julian Bannerman, known for their work at Highgrove House) for an exhibition of outdoor sculpture. She has just sent me a release with information about this year’s on form, from June 8 to July 6. I quote: “on form encourages visitors to open all their senses, with a ‘please do touch’ policy. Strengthening this theme, several sculptures will explore the musical sounds of stone this year, and there will be blindfold tours of parts of the exhibition in order to intensify the sense of touch.

“Other innovations will include site-specific work, a performance of the art of stone balancing by Adrian Gray, and work by an exciting and diverse range of talent including Jude Tucker, the first woman to carve grotesques for St George’s Chapel in Windsor and Spanish sculptor, Jordi Raga-Frances, well known for his work at the Acropolis and at Gloucester and Canterbury cathedrals.

People’s Choice Award winner at the 2012 Open Exhibition at Edinburgh’s Royal Scottish Academy, Alasdair Thomson will be exhibiting for the first time, as will Johannes von Stumm, who was the President of the Royal British Society of Sculptors from 2009 to 2012.”

See you there . . .