Published 19 July 1998 Style Magazine 262nd article
Art with a tart: Diana and Richard Stockton with Michael Winner, at the Griffin Inn
I've always considered the Welsh to be marvellous. This is based on two people in my life. The first, Mrs Bawden, was, for a very long time, my cleaner. Mrs B was a small lady with dyed-blonde hair. Every year I automatically give my staff a salary increase. Every year Mrs Bawden would come to me and say: "I don't know why you've given me a raise. I haven't done anything to earn it." She finally retired to a Welsh caravan park and then, assuredly, to heaven. The second was the wonderfully vibrant actor Stanley Baker, belatedly knighted as he lay dying of cancer. Stanley was a macho movie hero of immense wit and charm. At the premiere of my film The Games, in which he starred, Stanley appeared, immaculate as ever in a dinner suit, and said: "Well, what do you think?" "About what?" I asked. "Me," he said. "Look at me!" I did notice something, but it couldn't possibly be what he was referring to. "My toupee," he finally said. "How do you like my new toupee?"
Thus, I was particularly disappointed with the lack of warmth and wit at Llangoed Hall, about which I wrote two weeks ago. Not only was I not "greeted and cared for" as promised by the owner, Sir Bernard Ashley, but on Sunday morning I noticed two guests walking down the stairs hauling a vast number of suitcases. "Why are you carrying your own luggage?" I asked. "It's easier," said the lady as they passed me by. Shortly, another two came. This time the lady was seriously overloaded. I asked the same question. "I'd rather not answer that," said the gentleman, then they paused for a chat.
I shall always remember, as an example of how not to run a hotel, seeing two very pleasant-looking Japanese girls come down for breakfast. They were beautifully dressed, casual, elegant, obviously excited at being in a country hotel. The waitress came over and gave them menus. No smile, no "Good morning", just presentation of the menu. "What is wrong with these people?" I thought. "Very snooty, aren't they?" whispered Vanessa. "That's because they've hardly got any Welsh staff," I said.
Their chef, Ben Davies, did me a very good turn, though. He recommended a number of nearby restaurants. "The Griffin Inn in the village serves good local food," he said. I got the impression he meant "good local" as a slight put-down, as opposed to the "international" food that he served. I visited the Griffin Inn in Llyswen the next morning to check out the table situation.
There are places you enter that you feel at once are going to be good: something about the atmosphere, the owner, the position of everything around you. Seated by the fireplace were four ladies talking in the Welsh language. Heaven! What a wonderfully melodious, mellifluous sound it is. I'm all for the Welsh nationalists. Ban McDonald's and Marks & Spencer, get back to traditional Welsh names and shops. Let everyone speak in their native tongue. There's quite enough English spoken in England. I may not have quite got the nationalist platform spot-on, but who cares?
The landlord, Richard Stockton, showed me a nice corner table for that evening and we went on our day's excursion. That night, the Griffin had a warm, orderly feeling. A notice on the bar read: "Eat British lamb: 50,000 foxes can't be wrong." The menu described it as a 15th-century sporting inn - whatever that was. Flowers were on every table in the small, low-beamed dining room. We had an excellent fresh brown roll. I listened for some Welsh language, but the diners seemed to be speaking posh English. Pam Morgan was identified as the lady with the most refined voice. "She can speak Welsh," whispered Richard. "But she spent a lot of time in Hong Kong."
All the food was historic-plus. It was as good a dinner as I've ever eaten. Apparently, people drive from miles around to come here. I'm not surprised. I had hot smoked salmon to start, like a little filet. With glanwye sauce. Amazing! Then roast haunch of wild venison on a shallot ragout in red-wine sauce. Venison can be tricky. This was superb. Vanessa and I emptied our plates with total enjoyment. Service was smart and speedy, Richard's wife, Diana, helping out like a good 'un.
The best was left to last. The hot treacle tart had just the right thick, treacly taste, wonderfully moist texture, great pastry. Very fine creme anglaise with it. The lemon mousse was supreme. As I was on a diet I left some of the treacle tart. That pained me.
I am writing to confess that I have traded on your name. We booked into the Splendido Mare, the new waterside annexe of the Splendido hotel in Portofino, but shortly before arrival, were advised that completion had been delayed and were given rooms in the main hotel instead. I am a painter and, with a big show coming up, went to Italy to paint the Portofino waterfront. The prospect of hauling my easel up and down the mountainside was daunting. So I made a fuss. I mentioned your name and the result was electrifying. A car was immediately put at our disposal and the next day we were moved to a suite in the Mare with a terrace overlooking the harbour. We were treated like royalty - and you must accept your share of responsibility. Thank you.
John Pawle, Ware, Herts
No doubt other readers were as repulsed as I was by Michael Winner's comment that, having found a "big blob of congealed jam" on the side of a pot, he removed it with his finger and rubbed it off under his chair. Surely after admitting to that, there will be few hotels or restaurants that will wish to welcome him.
Clive R Harris, London N20
So Mr Tim Newton (Style, June 14) finds the word "serviette" utterly loathsome, preferring the "thoroughly British napkin". "Napkin" comes from the Latin mappa (meaning cloth). Through French it became nappe , then acquired the German diminutive "kin". Hardly thoroughly British!
Francis L Morgan, London SE10