Published 26 April 1998 Style Magazine 250th article
A manor of speaking: Michael Winner and John Guy at Hollington House (Vanessa Perry)
I think a host is very important. Someone you feel connected to. A place alone is not enough. Excellent hosts who come to mind are Mara and Lorenzo at San Lorenzo, Johnny Gold at Tramp and those two exceedingly elegant gentleman who patrol the Ivy and the Caprice. The least entertaining host I ever came across was Fred Brown who runs the much-praised (though I know not why) Altnaharrie Inn, on a peninsula near Ullapool. He creeps around with a grim expression. I never even saw his wife, the cook, Gunn Eriksen. Had Fred, I wondered, done away with her? And would the 20 guests diminish one by one each night like an Agatha Christie novel. If so, Fred did it!
I am drawn to these ruminations recalling John Guy, a small, intensely jolly Australian who owns Hollington House near Newbury. I find it odd that Hollington House, like many country hotels, does not serve lunch on a Saturday. What are residents supposed to do? Sandwiches and silly things offered in the lounge are not enough. Thus, when I phoned the effervescent Mr Guy, he said: "We'll put lunch back on for you. Just tell me what time you are coming." This turned out to be only a marginally good idea, because sitting alone in a large country house hotel dining room is not my idea of heaven.
Hollington House is, like its proprietor, delightful and cheerfully odd. It was built in 1904, in styles ranging from gothic to Tudor through Victorian to American luxurious, by Mr Kelly of Kelly's Directory. There is a large stuffed stag's head above an open fire in the hall. "My accountant in Jersey gave it to me," said John. "I think it sits there beautifully." He paused. "My wife hates it," he added. The stag faces two primitive oil paintings of ships. One of my childhood delights was pantomime. There, an actor always shot at a ship painting on the wall, the ship fired back and then was sunk, disappearing beneath a wavy sea I waited in vain for a pantomime performer to fire at Mr Guy's ships.
At the top of the stairs is a painting of a Harrods window. I was put in supposedly the best suite, called Eliot-Cohen. There was a strange watercolour of his wife, Dulcie, above the fireplace. They were the previous owners of Hollington House. My toilet bowl was so positioned that if you stood in front of it guests arriving in the drive below had a perfect view of you through high, leaded windows, as did other guests walking in the grounds.
In the dining room, Vanessa started with braised tomato with spinach, which she couldn't eat as it was too creamy. I had chicken sausage and beans - very nice. Then jovial John arrived. He noticed my partly uneaten liver. "Was that a bit stringy?" he asked. "Yes, it was," I replied. Vanessa, on the other hand, loved her poached salmon and veg.
"John," I said, "since I am writing this major piece about you, I'll have dessert."
"Don't!" said John.
"When was the apple and custard crumble tart made?" I asked.
"About six weeks ago," he said, then changed it to "fresh every day".
It was very good. "The only thing I would say, John," I added, "is there was not enough cream with it. The cream portion could have been at least double, or you could have had a little jar of cream."
"That's expensive," said John, “the other stuff was cheap."
"I am very big on wine, now," I added expansively. "You mean you have gone past beaujolais?" was the reply. Witty, these Australians. "No, I haven't got that far," I replied.
After lunch, John said: "I've got a photo of you on display somewhere." He proceeded to race through his various sitting rooms decorated in a liberally eclectic style. "I'm not exactly prominent," I remarked, as John gave up. He kept referring to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's nearby house - to which I was going for dinner - as Symington. I eventually corrected him and said "Sydmonton".
I've only stayed at Hollington House when visiting Lord L-W, so I'd never before had anything but tea and breakfast. Tea on the terrace facing a stunning English country view was amazingly good. Banana cake, home-made scones which were very light, chocolate eclairs, jam rolls - which are very rare, sandwiches and a first-rate fruit cake.
They give you a nice postcard of the hotel, on which is written: Hollington House, the home and hotel of John and Penny Guy. I thought: "I bet John gets fed up with people saying of his wife 'A Penny for the Guy'." Think, I've known them for five years and only just thought of that.
I have been interested to note the correspondence complaining about dress codes in restaurants. Recently I was turned away from cucumber sandwiches at the Ritz, even though I was immaculately attired in an expensive blazer and matching flannels. I would like to thank them for refusing one of their many empty tables because, some 30 yards along Piccadilly, I enjoyed a delightful tea at Richoux for half what it would have cost if I had been wearing a tie.
M Morley, Rugeley, Staffordshire
Michael Winner should use his "Do you know who I am?" strategy with caution. Sooner or later he is likely to receive the reply: "No, but we have a doctor on the premises and he may be able to help you."
Jack Nelson, Blackpool
Michael Winner's statement "I eat anything" (Style, April 5) says it all. Vanessa Perry seems infinitely more discerning, recognising that fresh food, expertly but simply prepared, does not need to be "gussied up". Perhaps Winner's Dinners should be replaced by Vanessa's Best Guesses.
Sheila Wright-Hogeland, Fadmoor, North Yorkshire
Thank you for recommending the Trattoria San Marco in Venice. I ate there on a recent trip and, as you said, it was simple and unpretentious with excellent food.
Hilary Porter, Banstead, Surrey