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Like a duck to water

Published 13 October 1996
Style Magazine
171st article

Making feathered friends: Michael Winner with the toy duck at Chewton Glen (Vanessa Perry)

My friend Peter Wood, creator and boss of Direct Line insurance, recommended Chewton Glen. He holds executive work-ins there. Much as I love Privilege, his posh-car insurance bit, for saving me a lot of money, I don't want his staff on my away weekend. Instead, I came across a group from an engineering firm in Southampton. Many people have praised Chewton Glen, in New Milton. "Too much expectation is not a good thing," cautioned Martin Skan, the owner, on the telephone. I agree. Better to be pleasantly surprised.

We arrived at 11 at night to be greeted by Mr and Mrs Skan, who've had it for 30 years, and Peter Crome, the jovial managing director. They'd put 35 excellent sandwiches in our room. Vanessa thought they should have some without meat or fish as she is almost vegetarian. The next day a fine view of lawns and trees greeted us. Chewton Glen is a pleasant but unimpressive building. Basically Edwardian, with a hotchpotch of later additions, it boasts an enormous indoor pool, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, gymnasiums, and treatments galore from Espa mud envelopment to Clarins bronzing. All no use to me. Vanessa tried the Espa detoxifying algae wrap and a facial. Were they making a statement by placing me in a suite labelled The Diary of a Blase? It was nice, professional accommodation, not overfussed, but well decorated. The only problem being the bath: as you lay back in it you immediately slid down to the opposite end.

Chewton Glen has a famed, Michelin-starred restaurant. The first thing we got was bread. Ghastly! The film producer Dino De Laurentiis said to me you could judge a restaurant by its bread. If that was so, Chewton Glen was dead in the water. It was doughy, chewy, tasteless. Things improved. My double-baked ernmenthal souffle served with a fondue sauce was totally historic. My friend J Cleese, ex of Weston-super-Mare, also found it exceptional. Vanessa, in an inexpensive mood, chose caviar. The blinis were odd. One was twice as thick as the other; both were too thick. For my main course, I had braised pork cheeks and lobster flavoured with ginger and lemon grass garnished with young vegetables. It was a sort of Irish stew and the odd mix of lobster and pork worked wonderfully. Other than Vanessa's vegetarian courgettes filled with this and that, which she found pleasant but unexceptional, all the food was very good indeed. This included desserts such as compote of rhubarb and strawberries served with fresh ginger ice cream and an excellent meringue.

It's very posh, we all wore a tie for dinner. Scattered around in a twee way that works are the "left-about" detritus of nonexistent guests: a pair of high riding boots here, an old concertina camera there, books, a wicker picnic basket of apples. There were a number of fires, real ones, not silly fakes like at the Lanesborough. And a very nice model duck in my bathroom. "I have a complaint, Peter," I said one evening. Guests listened intently. "Oh dear," he murmured. "My duck does not float. It keels over to its beak side. I tried it in the bath and in the sink." "I know it doesn't float, I've tried, too," said Peter. "What's more, bits of paint are now flaking off," I continued. Brigitte Skan (Swiss) kindly gave it to me as I left. I shall get out my watercolour set and touch up the bald patches.

I think Chewton Glen is exceptional, even though it had a few other "funnies". My eclair with icing cream on top was stunning, and they're difficult. But the chocolate roll cake with choc icing was no good at all. "Stodgy and cloying," I dictated at the time. Sandwiches got a first-rate mark. The only really awful thing was, on a quiet Sunday, having the peace shattered by a group of guests laser-shooting at clay pigeons, like some dreadful holiday-camp activity. Lots of bangs, clanks and shouting. I retired to my room, opened the balcony to sit in the sun and there were those morons again, making a terrible din, with an instructor shouting "Not bad" and other meaningless twaddle. However, the overall ethos of a hotel is what counts. At Chewton Glen it transcends by a long way any minor irritations. The staff are friendly to a degree of professionalism seldom seen. It all runs smoothly under the immensely omnipresent guidance of Peter Crome. As I left, the owner, Martin Skan, said: "We'll see if you come back. That'll show if you really liked it." I have some bad news for you, Martin: I'm coming back.


Michael Winner never ceases to amuse, outrage and entertain me. Thank you. If you have ever seen the Mappa Mundi, Mr Winner, you will know that the peoples of England are advised not to venture into Wales as "Here be dragons"! However, I have just ventured forth for a small escape break to Mumbles, near Swansea. I simply had to share with you an amazing find; not dragons, and something even more valuable than Welsh gold: an excellent chef by the name of Mark Comisini. He works at the Norton House Hotel and provides food beyond description. So, if you can brave the risk of dragons and are ever in south Wales, I would strongly recommend this wonderful restaurant.
Diana Wallis, Hereford