Published 6 August 1995 Style Magazine 109th article
High tea: Peter and Christine Smedley and Michael Winner, top, and Ston Easton Park (Vanessa Perry)
They were kind enough to put a large white cross on the croquet lawn at Ston Easton Park, Somerset, so my helicopter pilot could see it and not deposit me at the wrong hotel. I took this transport (50 minutes instead of two-and-a-half hours) because there was a rail strike and I assumed the roads would be packed. As it happens, they weren't, and I looked down on fast-moving traffic some £1,500 the poorer.
The manager, Mr Kevin Marchant, came to greet us with a member of staff. As the luggage was being taken upstairs I caught sight of tea laid out on a round table, circling a bowl of flowers, in the highly impressive Georgian lounge. This was too much for me. I immediately started eating. It was the best tea I have ever had. I am normally a pig, but on this occasion I excelled myself. There were egg mayonnaise and cucumber sandwiches, carrot cake and coffee cake, eclairs and meringues, fruit cake and ginger cake, scones and a great deal more. Every item was utterly exceptional in its quality. The Earl Grey was served in a splendid room in first rate crockery. Dominating the lounge (other than me, of course) was a bust of Pitt the Younger by Nollekens. This is a splendid, supercilious figure, one that I see most days of my life because I bought an identical Pitt at the sale of the Londonderry House contents in Park Lane in the early 1960s. After I got it the curator of Kenwood House told me he'd been instructed to buy it, and could he have it? I said no. The bust was, I am told, taken from Pitt's death mask by Nollekens who had always been refused a sitting when the master was alive. Mine has a City of London's police helmet, presented to me by the commissioner, sitting on it. Pitt, of course, was Chancellor of the Exchequer aged 23 and prime minister at 24. He made a taciturn tea companion.
Ston Easton is an architectural gem dating from the mid-18th century. When I had tea the next day with its admirably hands-on owners, Peter and Christine Smedley, they explained they'd bought it from Sir William Rees-Mogg. "Didn't know he had that sort of money," I muttered stuffing down a bakewell tart. Apparently he got it in wrecked condition, sold it on to the Smedleys who lived there, then "as needs must" they opened it as a hotel in 1982. It is superbly decorated, in unison and with great taste, although my bathroom was terrible. Not only was it small, it looked like every item had come from a warehouse sale on a bad day. They've had a number of famous people to stay. "Terry Wogan and Larry Hagman," said Christine helpfully, "and Cary Grant." "Before he died, of course," added her husband, Peter.
Dinner, I'm sorry to say, was less impressive than the tea. We had homemade courgette and dill soup which was all right. But the dover sole, oddly served with slices of hot grapefruit on it, had definitely died of exhaustion after being on a lengthy diet. However, I greatly enjoyed (or should I say endured!) the gems of conversation from other tables. "Was it under British mandate at the time?" "Oh yes, very peaceful, a lot of Palestinians and very few Jews." The lime sorbet was good and the room was elegant, but I'd call the food English-boring. It was much better, though not historic, at Ston Easton's more modest, nearby rival, Hunstrete House. This is "an 18th-century manor house set in 92 acres of deer-park, woodland and exquisite gardens" none of which I could see because it was night. The service was a delight, very friendly and together. The gem of the evening was a bottle of Haut Brion 1961 at £275 inc Vat.
What?! I hear you say! Well, the same bottle is £790 inc Vat and service at Chez Nico At Ninety and I recently bought some in auction for £391.12 a bottle. So £275 is a gift. "Could you wrap a dozen up for me," I asked the wine waiter. But they didn't. A Miss Rosie Bartlett wrote to me saying she and her boyfriend had seen me dining and wasn't it terrible that their car radio was stolen that very night and why didn't the hotel offer to compensate them! Personally, I've always thought the country to be exceedingly dangerous. Why should we think normal afflictions like robbery disappear because of trees and grass? My condolences to Rosie and her friend. Anyway, what's a missing car radio compared to the thrill of seeing me eat!
The next time Michael Winner visits Val d'Isere in France, he might like to try a restaurant which is a real find and not yet in the red Michelin guide. Situated next to the Le Blizzard Hotel, where we parked our little MGB sports car between a Rolls from Monaco and a Ferrari from Geneva, the Le Pre d'Aval restaurant offers local specialities in a crowded but cheerful and efficient atmosphere. Their brazerade dish is a real treat a glowing charcoal brazier on the table which throws out masses of heat and you grill your own slices of rump steak to eat with various sauces in the fondue bourguignonne style. Choose the gratin to go with it rather than chips; this is a really delicious creamy cheese and potato dish. But for an unconventional delight which must on no account be missed while in Val d'Isere, Michael should sit on a park bench in the sun and lunch on a ham sandwich from the Sherpa supermarket. These are made from the most delicious baguettes in France. For afters, they sell cornets with the incomparably delectable Movenpick ice cream, which is now available outside Switzerland.
Geoff Leggett, Lauzach, France
When Winner's Dinners started, I recall reading with sheer disbelief that anybody should be so flush with money as sometimes to spend in excess of £100 for a meal and £400 upwards for a bottle of wine. I was moved to write a letter to Mr Winner, presuming on a brief acquaintance when we both supported a fund-raising function in London. In this letter I invited him to come to Wye Valley, where we are registered providers of b&b. Here he could stay, have a good night's rest and a hearty, cooked English breakfast for £15. If he required a four-course evening meal, this would willingly be provided for £7, to include a glass of wine or fruit juice. We received a very nice handwritten note from Mr Winner thanking us for the invitation and saying he would bear it in mind for a future occasion. Since then we have read with increasing astonishment his comments - rarely complimentary - on waiters, doormen, managers, institutions and so on. Perhaps it is all just tongue in cheek and the exercising of a puckish sense of humour in order to puncture a few inflated egos and reputations. Nevertheless, notwithstanding a visitor's book filled with kind notes of appreciation from countless honoured guests from home and overseas, I feel it is most unlikely that we could remotely pass muster on his minimum requirements. So please, dear Mr Winner, we should still be more than happy for you to be our guest, but not, repeat not, in your professional capacity.
Wm PJ Watts, St Briavels Common, Gloucs