Sunday, 24 August 2014
Which Lewis he meant, whether C. S. or Inspector, I am not sure. Either way, it certainly epitomises the chief attraction of this place. It is famous for being the hangout of The Inklings, who counted C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien amongst their number. It has certainly retained it's character. Being, essentially, a long narrow, dark corridor with the occasional offshoot nook or cranny, you can see it as the kind of place where you might squirrel yourself away in a corner with your mates and laugh uproariously when they tell you they have had another idea for a book about elves.
Access is not easy since the building has retained its olde worlde proportions, down to the appropriately gloomy, almost windowless interior. And, just a heads-up, it really is dark. Enter, as I did, from the full glare of late summer sunshine and you are plunged momentarily into near-impenetrable blackness. Allow a few moments for your eyes to adjust, then grope or stumble your way through, guided by the Christmas lights festooned all over the beams, to where there is a well-lit room at the rear.
This is not a large franchise pub and so the menu is not just variation-on-a-theme-of-grilled. Being a Real Ale establishment the beer is far more important that the food; but that does not mean the quality is compromised. I opted for a fishfinger sandwich meal which was battered cod goujons served on sliced granary bread and accompanied by chips, cooked with the skin on. The fish was fine, the batter pale and gravel-crunchy, the cod flavoursome and not drowned in tartar sauce. The chips were served in a large stoneware bowl, piping hot and golden brown, not too crispy but with a good earthy flavour. A proper pub lunch, basic and filling, something to absorb the beer.
Anyway, while I was there, I had a great idea for a novel. I do not want to say too much but it's just something that takes place in a fantasy world, of trolls and whatnot. Perhaps even through a magical doorway. A wardrobe, or something.*
*Whaddaya mean, it's been done?
Around the Abbey itself is lovely. Manicured gardens, scrubbed black-and-white buildings. The Tea Rooms are in a separate, purpose-built unit, with a decked balcony and community rooms and halls. Its modernity means that access is fine, although it might get a little cramped in the café when it is busy. The place is staffed entirely by volunteers which means there are several conditions regarding its running. In the first instance, it is only open for a limited time - around 10 until 1.45pm and until 4pm on Sundays. And the menu is necessarily restricted to very light lunches such as soups, sandwiches and cakes. On the other hand, it means that absolutely everything is distinctively home made and makes for pleasant revelation that, in this case, home-made does not mean fashioned in an artisan, cottage industry style business, but, really, truly made in someone's own kitchen.
The sib and I shared a platter of salmon sandwiches which were generously served with fresh, cool salmon and crumby white bread. We went for the home-made chocolate fudge cake which was as gloopy and sweet as you would expect. The whole atmosphere is very welcoming, very friendly and the food is great. I mean, if you are on your way to punch some Lancastrian lights out, it's a good place as any to stop off for refreshments.
Tuesday, 29 July 2014
Being at the end of the Pier means that you have magnificent views of -- well, an awful lot of sand and mud most of the time. This is Weston after all. Having said that, it is still easy on the eyes and a balm to the nerves. The décor, though modelled on the Edwardian style and described as such in all the paperwork, is closer to Grandma's front room circa 1950; but it is just as clean and scrubbed with pristine white linen. The menu hints at gentility by hiding the fish and chips amongst a plethora of sandwiches and cream teas - but a whopping £18.95 for the latter is extortionate, even by Cotswold standards.
We only had drinks as we had already partaken of the more traditional seaside fare. The service was good, the Earl Grey was Twinings and there were at least three cups in the pot. But this is Weston after all. Ask for an Americano, be charged £2.25, not including the £1 entrance fee for the Pier itself. And get a small black coffee. Served in a teacup.
*I kid you not. Black pudding flavour, too. This is Weston, remember.
Wednesday, 16 July 2014
Fortunately, this is not the side of wartime Britain on show here. This is very much the pack-up-your-troubles on your way to Tipperary to see your boogie woogie bugle boy from Company B aspect, where you are asked to keep calm and keep Mum. It is all designed to get you in the mood: windows are taped, staff are dressed in uniforms designed by Claire Dempsey, modelled on the headscarf-and-pinny-look familiar from even my own family photos. Tea is served in pale green Beryl Ware utility cups with the banding on the saucer and Deco curlicues on the handles.
And the only thing to do here is to truly accentuate the positive. This is not in the least bit gimmicky, or cheesy and, more importantly, not the least bit tourist-led. There is no sense that local people are sidelined in favour of visitors and the most telling evidence of this is the price of everything. A quick perusal of the menu, which is in the form of a ration book, shows a mere £13 for two rounds of eggs on toast and two pots of tea both of which served a minimum of four cups each*. I went for the Earl Grey. Sourced from the Golden Monkey Tea Company in Warwick, this is Sri Lankan in origin, super fragranced, very orangey aftertaste. The pot of leaf tea comes with a timer to ensure that the leaves are properly steeped to avoid the face-gurning stew so familiar to less sophisticated establishments.
Best poached eggs in town. No fancy schmancy boil-water-in-a-saucepan-and cross-your-fingers-you-don't-end-up-with-egg-soup malarkey. Just good old fashioned use of a poacher to make stunning eggs with the soft centre just perfect, and plump, glossy whites with the right amount of wobble. The scrambled eggs were creamy in texture on hot, buttery toast. Eat outdoors in the tea garden, or by the Anderson shelter, or just stay indoors and hum along to the Andrews Sisters.**
There is really only one way to properly describe this establishment: bei mir bist du schon. It means you're grand.
*You may have noticed, oh faithful bloggee, the lack of lattes these days and the profusion of tea . This is due to a combination of (a) age and (b) side effects of prescription drugs
** although you shouldn't sing along too loudly. They don't like that.
Thursday, 3 July 2014
The menu is supplied by Huffkins bakery from Cheltenham - sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, soups, jacket potatoes. I opted for the egg mayo sandwich and a cup of tea. The sandwich was white bread with a generous slug of free-range egg filling and rocket salad. Which is fine by me. Drew opted for the jacket potato with homemade coleslaw, meaning the filling was shredded with carrots, red cabbage, and onions, accompanied by salad leaves. My tea was the house blend, an aromatic, smooth Assam that tempered the sometimes astringent Darjeeling in the mix. Drew had the filter coffee, a hand roasted Cotswold blend with a slightly woody aftertaste.
As the café is served by spring water rather than mains, there is a limit to the supply and hence the amount of washing up. Everything is therefore served on or in disposable tableware, although, being the National Trust, the eco-credentials are impeccable. Where possible everything is recyclable and there are helpfully labelled bins; although if you are anything like me and have forgotten your glasses this can result in a lot of brow-furrowing and quizzical squinting.
Not a big fan of the Romans and never was; but it is tempting when faced with all the ruins to launch into some theatrics in the manner of I, Claudius, rolling and hooting and declaiming in proper old-school Blessedness.
Wednesday, 2 July 2014
Access is excellent, plenty of room for wheels, parking virtually outside the entrance and moveable tables and chairs for ease of passage. The look is scrubbed pine, blonde wood, creams, biscuit-coloured Cotswold stone, with a pale blue flooring that looks - well, there is only one word for it really. It's lovely.
I opted for the salmon and cream cheese baguette, Drew for the quiche salad. The Earl Grey tea came in a gigantic pot making two cups each. The brand is the Wiltshire Tea Company is known as 'Earl Grey Light', so the result is a super-pungent drink, more aromatic and orangey-tasting. My baguette was warm, lots of salmon and no suspicious-looking brown-grey bits, accompanied by a few salted crisps and some leaves. Drew had the salmon and chive quiche, also served warm, creamy in texture with a crisp but firm base, not too crumby. The potato salad was served with a lemony-mayonnaise. He ate all of his salad.
Monday, 2 June 2014
The Swan Hotel is in just as attractive a building but is still, thankfully, being a Cotswold Inns franchise kitted out for the twentieth-century as far as access goes. Plenty of flat surfaces and space, although if you choose to go to the bar via the main entrance and the reception, there are some tight corners to negotiate. There was, however, no mobile phone signal or wi fi. I gather that is not typical, but just a heads-up. This is the depths of nowhereville. While that means a passable, if somewhat lava-hot latte, there's nothing for it but to watch the swans and cygnets, listen to the babbling of the river, the splash of leaping trout, the haunting cries of birds, the lowing of cattle and the rush of wind in the trees. Just generally contemplate nature. In all its glory. And majesty. And stuff like that. As you do.
Saturday, 31 May 2014
Partly because it is an excellent place to hide, even if just to escape the crowds on Waterside. It is at the bottom of Sheep Street, just up from the chip shop, a small café/gift shop combo. And the recently refurbished outdoor space is the real gem here, with comfortable furniture squeezed into a tiny garden that is absolutely, positively the best place to sit in the sunshine writing in your diary, eating cucumber sandwiches and drinking Earl Grey tea in copious quantities. In fact, having ordered said cucumber sandwiches, it occurred to me that I know no other place in the town that sells them. For £2.50, you get two slices of bread, lightly moistened with margarine or butter and quite a few slices of crunchy-but-soft cucumber with a few leaves of salad and some crisps. The tea is the teapigs brand, popular in some of the more upmarket establishments in the town. Be warned - the combination of the two means that you will find your pinky finger creaks involuntarily outward with every bite and sip.
Following this up with the cream tea is practically compulsory. One of the few places to serve the scones warm and use clotted cream. This all adds up to a delectable melt-in-your-mouth concoction, a heady combination for eschewing your German grammar in favour of starting your revoltingly sentimental three volume novel.
Thursday, 22 May 2014
As this was only a refreshment stop, none of the food was sampled, although it certainly looked like a decent menu of chips, steaks and vegetarian options. I had a latte, decent enough, not too strong, half inch of foam, suitably thirst-quenching.
Access is not bad, considering the age of the building. There are a few too tight corners and small steps to negotiate especially to the garden. Ask the sunburnt local in the wife beater vest to give you a hand.
There is an additional bonus. To get to this place can mean driving through the village of Buckingham. And any Shakespearean worth their salt will not be able to resist the most amazing in-joke. On leaving the village, it is practically compulsory to turn to your companion(s) and say "So much for Buckingham".
If no one laughs, maintain a rigid hauteur for the rest of the journey and refuse to speak.
Wednesday, 7 May 2014
The menu is restricted but what is there is all speciality stuff. 'Lemon' and 'asparagus' were bandied about a lot, as were 'date', 'apple' and 'sultana'. You probably would not be surprised to know that 'lightly drizzled' was in there somewhere, along with 'balsamic'. It is the kind of the menu that stops just short of 'coulis' or 'jus'. I settled for an 'open sandwich' which turned out to be a generous portion of tuna mayo and six slices of cucumber laid on one slice of bloomer bread and loosely overlaid with a second slice of bread, accompanied by three cherry tomatoes, a few shreds of red onion and around five or six salad leaves. You have to start eating it with a knife and fork, such are its gargantuan proportions before you can resort to the traditional grab and gulp method. Tasty, very creamy, an ever-so-slightly sharp aftertaste and, interestingly enough, initially cold on the tongue and teeth. By which I mean, not fresh from the fridge but what a cold sandwich should be - not room temperature.
Drew opted for the gala pie, an oblong crusted portion, pale pink, almost Spam colour with a golden yellow egg all of which certified its fresh-made credentials. I was not allowed to taste it. The accompanying Earl Grey tea was just the way I like it, the scent being strong but the taste subtle.
Always worth having a walk around the gardens after lunch, designed by the reclusive, eccentric Laurence Johnson. Though if I was going to get rich and adopt an eccentricity it wouldn't be gardening. Something more me, perhaps. Like crisps. Or cheese.
Wednesday, 30 April 2014
Still, it gives you a chance to meander around the gardens and peer through the window of the writing hut, musing on the man and reflecting on the works.
And realize that he got it wrong. It is not alcohol that is the anaesthesia by which we endure the operation of life. It's a Cornetto.
Tuesday, 29 April 2014
In the Cotswolds this place would be prettified beyond belief, groaning with ornamental flower borders and home-made lavender scones and chintzed-up countryside living. Birmingham museums tend to face up to the realities of an industrial past, focusing on more material matters - machines, technology; stuff. There are a few aspects of eye-rolling cheesiness in the form of the Tolkien homages - some 'search for Bilbo' game for the kids, so the magnificent ingenuity of the mechanization of food production is punctuated by pictures of characters from the books. However, it is complemented by some information describing Tolkien's own account of how the Mill and it's surroundings appear in the stories.
He's right, of course. The sprawling industrial suburbs wrecked his rural idyll. But, when you are sitting outside, drinking tea and listening to the sounds of the Mill and the traffic, you realize that this particular destination perfectly epitomises that moment when what was, becomes what is.
*Before, in fact, Birmingham was relatively 'uninhobbited'
**Or, if you like, 'hobbit-forming'
Wednesday, 23 April 2014
Do you remember in As You Like It when Celia says 'I like this place/And willingly could waste my time in it'? I reckon she could have been talking about this place. Seriously, I mean it. This cafe/restaurant combo is unsophisticated, with basic plastic-and-formica decor. The windows are covered with gigantic stickers depicting idealised rustic views (presumably because the view would otherwise be 20th century Brutalist car park); but, like Celia's country retreat, it is perfectly comfortable and has everything you need. If you are fainting for succour then this will all do very nicely. Your food is even served by local Corins amiably shuffling toward you with platefuls of food that, OK, is not exactly prepared from flock and pasture, but the Morrisons version of it that they call Market Street; and it's tasty, filling, and cheap.
In terms of space, access is absolutely fine. Though the chairs and tables are bolted to the floor, someone has had the foresight to designate a couple of spaces at some tables for wheelchairs meaning that no one has to suffer the indignity of being perched on the end of a table, blocking the aisle and feeling horribly conspicuous. The main difficulty is that you have to serve yourself to virtually everything. Meaning that there are coffee machines, and coke machines, and milkshake machines and orange juice machines and a vast refrigerated counter of sandwiches, cakes, pasties, sausage rolls, biscuits, juice boxes, portions of fruit, bottles of water, fresh orange juice, fruit juice - if you have wheels, you won't be able to have coffee and a cake without help.
The breakfast menu is great. I recommend the Flying Start Breakfast. For a mere £2.79, you get egg, sausage, fried bread, half a grilled tomato and bacon which is as near as dammit only a portion of mushrooms short from many of the more expensive all-day options in the town. And the bacon is crispy, there's a glossy look about the sausages, a satisfying gravelly crunch on the fried bread, and an elegant, ever-so-slightly crispy frill around the fried egg. The fish and chips is only £4.75 and quite acceptable. Thick cut chips, not terribly crispy, but neither do they taste like warmed-over potatoes. A portion of cod, in a thickish batter, pale gold in colour and slightly crunchy. I had mushy peas, being, of course, the more civilized option, but you are offered baked beans and garden peas. Drew had the lasagne which is offered with salad as an option but we stopped laughing long enough to cut our losses and ask for the chips. The lasagne came served in a separate round dish, presumably as it is heated up when ordered, but at less than a fiver neither of us were anticipating full-on artisan fare.
Just a heads-up - you are charged 10p each for sachets of sauces and mayonnaises so be careful that an otherwise cheap meal doesn't get drowned in three quid's worth of condiments because you grabbed a handful of everything as a matter of course. Too much of a good thing and all that.
Monday, 10 March 2014
I had the popcorn chicken with fries. Apparently this qualifies as a 'meal' - but that might be age talking. A teensy box of what are essentially chicken nuggets and the usual fast food fries. Still, it's cheap. And, apparently only 600 calories. It tasted the same as any fast food meal always does - that sort-of-salty meat taste that does something indefinable to your taste receptors and you are somehow convinced that what you are eating is wholesome and palatable and not at all bad for you, and by the way where's the rest can I have some more? Drew had the fillet burger meal which was served on a just-about-palm-sized bun with some rather flabby lettuce; but then this kind of stuff only has green stuff on it so you are duped into thinking there is something healthy in front of you.
Monday, 17 February 2014
Interesting twist on the Cotswold tea shop though. This is not a ditzy place, all lace doilies and china teacups, fake flowers on the table, condiments kept on a Welsh dresser. The table was covered in a wipe clean cover with distinctive sixties shutterstock-style flowers. My earl grey tea was served in a Poole pottery twintone tea set, as was Drew's coffee. Slightly incongruous, given that the building is so very olde worlde with low beams, dark wood, crooked shelving and a plethora of dark wood.
All the better for it, though. My earl grey tea was Canton Tea company brand, extremely aromatic, pungent aftertaste. The Eccles cake was smashing, though so flaky I ended up wearing most of it.
Monday, 3 February 2014
Three years later, we finally made it. This is a hotel and restaurant that sits in splendid isolation on the crest of a hill, although largely overlooking the car park. The décor is Modern Pub. Semi-rural, but not too rustic, just enough of an evocation of rosy-cheeked, twinkly-eyed country living to make you think of a bucolic idyll; but knowing there is the wi-fi and flushable, vigorously bleached toilets essential to modern living. Access is superb - alongside the steps to the entrance is the widest access ramp I have ever seen, not too steep with plenty of turning room at the top, unlike some of the hairpin bend obstacle courses of some establishments.*
There are three choices of menu. One is the day-to-day two meals for £9.99 offer, always a bargain. Although be careful, the menu presentation makes it seem that, at first glance, there is a starter, main and dessert included in the deal. Squint closely (or put your glasses on) and note that the starter or dessert is £2.50 extra and the list of available main courses includes some dishes that are a mere pound extra. Somewhere in there is ham, egg and chips, fish and chips and that perennial vegetarian favourite the three bean chilli. The second menu is specially prepared gastro-fare made exclusively by the in-house chef. Sadly, I can't remember the specifics but I'm pretty sure that scallops were involved somewhere.
We opted for a choice from the third menu, the standard Old English Inn franchise fare. As it was Sunday and lunchtime we did the only proper thing and ordered one of the '5 Fabulous Sunday Roasts'. I had turkey, Drew had the beef. This is all carvery style, so fresh cooked stuff, served with mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, a largeish Yorkshire pud, with a reasonable dollop of thick gravy. Drew had horseradish sauce - advertised as horseradish mayonnaise - with his beef, which looked like an awfully runny concoction, but I'm told tasted punchy and strong. Not as much meat as I would have liked, but what there was, was tender, with a very mild flavour. The taste of the potatoes was earthy, very homely. The carrots were Chantenay, always sweet flavoured and smooth textured. I refused, on principle, to touch the broccoli.
The machine was broken so no latte; instead a filter coffee, served in a branded Illy cup and saucer. It was accompanied by an amaretto biscotti - surprising, given that Illy coffee is one of the slightly sweeter, more caramelly coffees. Still, it was drinkable and did the job, even if doused in milk by the unsteady hand of my favourite bill-payer.
*And, yes, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I mean you.
Friday, 17 January 2014
All this, of course, makes it very chic and retro in these days of austerity and keeping calm and carrying on. Rest assured, where the food is concerned, they have taken the sensible decision that austerity can bugger the sod off. The menu is full of wholesome stuff, rich, thick soups with rough hunks of bread, roast dinners with plenty of juicy meats and gravies and Yorkshire puds, available between midday and 2pm. Since we are currently undergoing our own austerity measures we opted for sandwiches. Mine was cold roast beef with horseradish sauce, Drew had ham and mustard. We shared to avoid unseemly public squabbling over who had what. Good, thick slices quite tender meat. Mind the condiments at this place, though. The horseradish and mustard were short-barking-cough-on-the-first-bite hot. Coffee was fine, we opted for the filter stuff though, disappointingly, not served in forties style Woods Ware utility cups.
The menu fare reflects the venue which is very 'outdoorsy'. The park is huge and rather gorgeous, especially since that nice Mr Brown did for the gardens. Expect to be surrounded by lots of Hunter's wellies, North Face jackets and kids called Barnaby.