It’s hard to believe, but Britain’s canal network was the HS2 of its day. The ever-expanding network of national waterways was a major engineering project and in those days before mechanical diggers, every yard had to be dug by navigators with a spade, a name which soon entered the language as ‘navvy’.
The Navigation Inn has a large beer garden running down to the Grand Union Canal. Should we get anything like a summer, it will be grand to sit outside and watch the narrow boats and cruisers jostle for the moorings nearest to the pub. When arriving by boat, the pub is easy to find – you simply make your way to bridge 65 over the Grand Union. Following an extensive refurbishment, The Navigation has three main seating areas – the bar, the snug and the restaurant. The bar has a good selection of beers on the hand pull – Guinness (see box), Mad Goose from Purity, Wadworth 6X, Tim Taylor’s, M&B XI and Lapworth Gold.
The bar is comfortable with old flagstones and an inglenook fireplace over which there is an enormous stuffed fish in a glass case.
Before potential canal fishermen get excited, this is a 29lb conger eel caught in Poole Harbour in 1985, not something that might be lurking in the Grand Union.
At The Navigation, under ‘Sharing Boards’ you’ll find rustic bread and olives, flavoured butters and oils, with a price tag of £6.95. Many thick slices from several different loaves are laid out on a board, plus a decent conventional green pesto butter and a red pesto variation. Classy olives and then the clincher – there’s enough bread for four and all the breads are warm from the oven. It’s impossible to be grumpy when faced with hot bread and decent butter. The other sharing boards are baked camembert with white truffle oil, garlic and thyme (£8.95) and the fish platter of smoked mackerel, Cajun cod, sweet chilli prawns, piri piri tuna and black pepper squid (£13.95).
Returning to the starters, there is always a soup of the day (£4.50); smoked haddock and dill fishcakes with a fennel and lime salad (£6.50); and chicken liver parfait with red onion chutney (£6.95), which has a good texture and is well seasoned, served with a leaf salad. There is also a pork and tarragon scotch egg, with pear and kiwi chutney (£5.95). The egg is perfectly cooked with a yolk that spills like lava across the plate. Technically, the kitchen is on the ball and the menu is littered with old favourites that have been finessed.
The main courses are hearty and the presentation is appetising without going over the top. There are 10 main course dishes, two of which are vegetarian – chickpea and sweet potato curry with homemade naan bread (£12.95) and a root vegetable risotto with parmesan cheese (£10.95). If you fancy fish, there is an ale battered fish and chips, pea purée and tartare sauce (£11.95) or prawn tagliatelle with a spiced tomato sauce and parmesan (£12.95). The roundup of favourites includes beef and mustard sausage with mashed potato and onion gravy (£9.95), a homemade 8oz beef burger with smoked Applewood tomato relish and skinny fries (£13.95) and the obligatory steak – pan-fried sirloin steak, stilton sauce, mushrooms, tomatoes, hand cut chips (£20.95). Or how about pan-fried supreme of chicken with wild mushrooms, tarragon and roast
One of the menu stars is the slow-cooked beef cheeks, horseradish mash, confit shallots and wilted spinach (£13.95). A large, plain white bowl – unfussy presentation – a grand lump of meat that has been cooked to collapsing tenderness with stunning dark, sticky gravy and a balancing tweak of flavour from the mash. A very successful dish. Also impressive was the pot roast fillet of pork, champ potatoes, roast carrot and apple (£14.95) – the roast dessert apple and the roast Chantenay carrots set the tone. Intense flavours. The pork is very impressive – pork tenderloin is so lean that it is most difficult to avoid drying it out. For once, ‘well cooked’ is a real compliment. The desserts range from warm chocolate brownie with caramel ice cream (£4.95) to a reworked apple crumble with custard.
Service is bright without being pushy and there is an enlightened wine list with a good choice in a variety of sizes (bottle, 250ml, 175ml, 125ml). This means that there are sound bottles to be had at £15 and the list tops out at £33, if you discount sparklers.
The food at The Navigation is well considered and well cooked – the kitchen has resisted the temptation to follow all the fashionable fads and fancies. Quality ingredients are treated well and the large, plain white plates are particularly welcome. There are 40 seats in the restaurant and probably the same again on the beer garden benches – there’s even an outdoor area that is under cover. Bring on the sun and this place will be very busy indeed.