THIS winter I have set out on a quest for the Essex pub. This cross-county pub crawl is driven by a single question. What is left of the Essex pub?

Figures vary, but by some estimates, as many as ten traditional pubs a week are closing across the UK. Certainly the south Essex pub scene has been devastated. Yet some pubs continue to thrive. So what is the true picture?

I began my crawl at a hostelry I have known all my life, the Duke’s Head, on Laindon Common. I drank there as a teenager, when it was still an old country pub, full of shabby wooden benches.

The years moved by, and I took my kids there after it underwent a facelift to become a family pub. My wife and I went dining there after it added a conservatory and opened a restaurant. So it had always managed to move with the times, while still keeping all the best characteristics of a traditional pub.

Several years have passed now since the last visit. How has the Duke’s Head fared since then? A quick glimpse at the website provided the short answer. Good food is now the keynote. The Duke’s Head has become a gastropub.

The menu lists items such as chateaubriand with hand-cut chipped potatoes, a snip at £44. My mates and I used to be content with a stale cheese roll and a pickled onion when we drank at the Duke’s Head.

It has also undergone a physical transformation since my last visit. It now looks as luxurious as any hotel lounge.

As usual, I wanted to eat pub grub. There was no sign of a ploughman’s or sausage and mash on the menu, though there was an upmarket variant of steak pie – “British rib of beef and Rioja pie”.

Eventually, I went for the smarter equivalent of lamb chops and mash, the Lamb rump with asparagus, chorizo, dauphinoise potatoes, baby onions and jus.

Again, this would have been unrecognisable to my 17-year-old pub-crawling self, but it was five-star in every respect. The tender lamb lent a flavour of spring grasslands to early December, and the dauphinoise potatoes had a lightness and subtlety that I would have thought it impossible to achieve with the humble spud.

Does the King’s Head still qualify as a pub, however, rather than a restaurant? Enough of the old features remain to give a positive answer.

The Adnams bitter I drank came straight from the cellar, the open fire is powerful enough to make the entire pub glow, and you can eat informally at the bar if you choose. Even on a Sunday night, it was busy and convivial.

Clearly this is one pub that has found the formula to stay thriving, and the food is probably the key factor. The menu is no longer cheap and cheerful (my lamb cost £16.95), but it does make a visit to this particular pub a real treat. Pub food has changed down the years, but then haven’t we all?