"Luciano Pavarotti slept here," said the owner of the Coventry Forge Inn as we stood in the large, bright room staring at an antique bed large enough for the singer and a good-size chorus.
The bed was tucked under its white coverlet and the only music was the drone of a lazy bee. The inn is on a side road, far from the sound of traffic, and it drowses on the slope of a hill, garlanded with flower beds and guarded by the family cat.
Peace. It is at the heart of any country inn and is what sends people to Coventryville, Pa., to dine in the stone manor built in 1717 and then walk the curving path to the stucco guest house, there to fall asleep in the famous bed, lulled into sensual slumber by food, wine and the scent of a mock orange bush drifting through the window.
Peace and, of course, food. Living in a pastoral poem is all very well, but man does not survive on scenery, soothing as it may be; the peony bushes around the edge of the guest house, while beautiful, are not edible. The trout are, and they swim in an icy trough in the old springhouse across the path. The chef, net in hand, unlocks the door, and in the cool darkness dinner wriggles by.
Such attention to freshness is typical of The Coventry Forge Inn, which gets most of its produce from local sources (including a waiter who gardens), and its game from a nearby game farm. Dinner at the inn (served from 5:30 to 9 p.m. on week nights, 5:30 to 10 p.m. on Saturday and not at all on Sundays) is a four-course prix fixe menu ($23 with a small surcharge on some items) with a short but good wine list and the sort of dishes you would expect from a sophisticated country restaurant--plus a few you would not. Appetizers like truite au bleu or saumon Troigros (salmon pancakes on a bed of sorrel sauce) raise the restaurant far above the ordinary, as does a rough, peasantry poitrine de veau.
In summer, guests can eat on the long, enclosed porch and watch the reflection of candles gradually replace the view as darkness closes in. There are mauve rhododendrons on the table, picked by owner Wallis Callahan minutes before dinner, and, as the entrees are cleared away, the attentive waitress appears with a plate of profiteroles and a large pitcher of chocolate sauce which she pours . . . and pours . . . and pours.
The next morning there is a continental breakfast and an argument about whether to drive to nearby French Creek Park and hike off last night's dinner or take a tour of the countryside and add to it. Fat wins.
Chester County, wherein lies Coventryville and the inn, is lushly rolling countryside with narrow roads and blind corners that have earned at least one bridge the name of Blow Horn bridge. Lying between Philadelphia and the Amish country, it is home of Mister Stewart's Cheshire Foxhounds--one of the oldest hunts in the United States--otherwise known as Cheshire.
From September, when the official cubbing begins (introducing the young hounds to their job of trailing the fox) until March, the side roads and fields of Chester County are flooded with hunters; the fields have been known to include 250 horses heading over the three- and four-rail fences that break up the countryside.
In summer the pace is slower, as befits a county that this year celebrates its 300th birthday. And if a tour of the hunt country produces few hunters, it does offer many a grassy verge for picnicking and the sort of lazy, scenic routes that reduce otherwise intelligent people to pointing and shrieking "Pretty!"
This is the loop we made. The lazy may follow, while we leave the energetic to head in the other direction to French Creek Park.
As you leave the inn, turn left onto Rte. 23 and continue to Rte. 100. Turn right and follow 100 until it joins Rte. 202. Go south on 202 until you come to Rte. 926. Turn right and continue to Rte. 82, turn right again and come to rest in the small, pretty town of Unionville. Because it will be time to eat again.
Sestrich's Market (closed on Sundays) has homemade soup and sandwiches on hand from about 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and you can stop there to buy the makings of a picnic. Then, with food in hand, continue on Rte. 82, past Chesterland Farm (where on Sept. 24, 25 and 26 the Chesterland Three-Day Event and carriage competition will be held) until, about two miles out of Unionville, you come to Newark Road, one of the shorter but prettiest roads in the county and the perfect place to pull over your car and settle down for a picnic.
For those who mutter about bees and ants and how if God had wanted us to sit on the ground why did he invent the chair, there is another possibility. Stay on Newark, shouting your occasional "Pretty!" until you come back to 926. Turn left and follow 926 to Rte. 82. Turn right onto 82, then left onto Rte. 1 and, if you're not falling down dizzy with all this turning, a little over two miles along on the left you will see a restaurant called The Market Place. No liquor, and the service is painfully slow, but the sandwiches are cheap and good and there's an extremely attractive terrace on which to eat. Try the breaded mushrooms. Kennett Square, mushroom capital of the country, is only minutes away, so you know they'll be fresh.
When you leave the Market Place, turn left onto Rte. 1 and in about a quarter of a mile you'll come to Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll the grounds, visit the rose beds and pretend that your own garden is similarly cared for, not overrun with bindweed. About two miles further along Rte. 1 is the Brandywine River Museum, an attractive rustic building, beautifully sited, which houses paintings by members of the Wyeth family.
Onward and upward. A little past the museum, you'll rejoin Rte. 100, which will bring you back to 23 and The Coventry Forge Inn, where trout will be making their way up to the kitchen while the chocolate pitcher is filled anew.