Published 4 August 1996 Style Magazine 161st article
Afore ye go: Michael Winner, Simon Haigh and Michael Leonard at Inverlochy castle (Vanessa Perry)
Vanessa wanted to see a tree. I don't know how the word Scotland got in, but suddenly it was a typical Winner excursion. "I'll think about the private jet - is £9,000 the best you can do?" "Take the helicopter from Inverness to Inverlochy Castle and back. £1,300! That's bloody high!" I had found Inverlochy Castle in a guide book; it said the room rate was £276 per night. On Thursday, I phoned. "Have you got a cancellation for the weekend?" A voice said: "Yes, as a matter of a fact we have." It turned out to be Michael Leonard, the general manager. "I'll take it," I said. "What's the name?" said Mr Leonard. "Michael Winner." There was a pause. "The Michael Winner?" he asked. "Afraid so," I replied. Another pause. "Maybe I shouldn't have said we had a cancellation." "Too late now," I said cheerfully. "Ah well," said Mr Leonard, uncertainly. "We like a challenge."
I decided the jet, at £9,000 for two nights, was a bit over the top, so I ended up on the British Airways shuttle. Mistake, that. The helicopter was next to it when we landed on Saturday morning, and a dramatic ﬂight ensued over Loch Ness through varied weather from bright sun, to rain, to light cloud, to black cloud. There were great mountains sweeping down to rivers and lakes. I'd never seen the Highlands before. We landed on the lawn a few feet from the Victorian pile that is Inverlochy. Not so much a castle, more a wonderful, 19th-century fantasy of Ye Olde Britain. Mr Leonard was there to show us up to a very large room (upgraded from a small room when I'd first phoned) that had a lovely three-window bay with views over lochs (lakes), bens (mountains) and glens (valleys), only slightly diminished by a paper mill in the distance standing up from the town of Fort William.
The shower was ridiculous. It was above the end of the bath that slopes down, and trying to stand under it was like climbing a slippery hill. At what turned out to be £600 a night, a proper shower would be reasonable. There was ample room to take the lobby outside the bathroom and . . . oh, never mind. In the bedroom were prints; one, with the inscription Throat, showed two fighting cocks with one holding the other. The next, Death, showing the victor standing on the vanquished's dead body.
The hotel lounge was comfortably regal with a real log fire. The main hall was a period Disneyland with Venetian chandeliers, cherubs on the ceiling, old-style British chairs and a chess set laid out on a table. It all worked rather well. Mr Leonard came as I checked out the dining room. "I'll sit there!" I announced, showing him the table in the centre bay window. "I fear that's taken by a regular visitor," said Mr Leonard. bravely. "We think this is the nicest table." He indicated one at the side bay window. "It has the best view." "Not for the person sitting looking at the wall." I remarked, dourly. I alternated tables. "King Haakon of Norway gave the tables and chairs to the present owner," advised Mr Leonard, going on to tell me that Charlie Chaplin, King Hussein and Mel Gibson were among those who had stayed.
The food, knocked up by a young Michelin-starred chef, Simon Haigh, was mostly extremely good. Ballottine of foie gras with smoked apple puree, very fresh salmon, later amazingly fresh and juicy lobsters, raspberry creme brulee. Only two mini-disasters. I checked the vegetable soup (adequate) for Vanessa, who's vegetarian, and they said it had a meat stock. So we asked for a salad two hours in advance. When it arrived it was full of bacon! And the morning Loch Fyne kippers were very tired. Later, Simon took exception to my criticising them. "It's a Mallaig kipper and it came in Friday." "Mr Leonard said it came in Wednesday," I said. "What does he know, he doesn't order them!" said Simon. As Mr Leonard was standing next to him, I thought that rather brave. "I would not have called the kipper juicy," I continued. Mr Haigh defended his kipper to the death. Nice chap, though.
After that we turned to important matters, like how he finds girlfriends in this distant part of the Highlands. Bit of walking, bit of helicoptering around, all very pleasant. Hotel service was exemplary. Coming back Monday morning, we were late to Inverness airport. "Land beside the Shuttle," I instructed the pilot. "Then it won't be able to take off and they'll have to let us on." He did. Nothing like private planes, really, they're great fun. Except when you get the bill.
I read with interest Michael Winner's comments on Le Pont de la Tour (July 28). Our experience with the restaurant was even more disappointing than his. I read in the Good Food Guide that this restaurant had spectacular views of Tower Bridge, and so I telephoned a week in advance to book a table for four in the window. The girl who took the booking said that there was no problem. I told our guests of the promised view. On the day, I faxed a confirmation, again mentioning the table in the window. We arrived and the restaurant was half full. We were shown to a table in the middle of the restaurant sandwiched between a column and a servery unit. When I asked for a window table, I was told those tables only sat three. I did not make a fuss in front of our guests, but I asked why I was not told this on the telephone and was greeted with a blank stare. We asked for house champagne and the wine waitress suggested rose. The bill showed this to be more than double the price of house. I wrote to complain and, after a pause, received a letter of non-apology. The manager enclosed a £50 voucher to be spent, guess where? Our bill was just under £300. We have given the voucher away.
Tonty Woollard, London, SW19