Published 28 November 1999 Style Magazine 333rd article
A hunting we will go: Michael Winner with two of the staff at King John's Hunting Lodge, Lacock (Miss Lid the third)
Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, was due to open at 1pm. It opened at two-and-a-half minutes past. Two-and-a-half minutes can be a long time when you're waiting and don't know what may happen. Particularly when you're as impatient as I am. I strolled round accompanied by Miss Lid (Lady in Danger) the Third. We both enjoyed it. Contrary to the general view that I ponce about only in the richest and most elegant places, I like a balance. Occasional visits to the English countryside, rather twee and full of people whom I see only on television quiz shows or Countryside marches, can be quite refreshing.
When I came out of the abbey, it was past lunchtime. I eat on the dot of one. For many weeks, Marco Pierre White has sent chefs from his three-Michelin-star Oak Room to my house to cook and serve a single-course lunch for me and my colleague Mr Fraser. After we encouraged them to realise punctuality was above godliness and that green vegetables were required, however posh the rest of it might be, we got on fine. It's worth every penny, although I'm not telling you how much.
It was 1.40pm by the time I was in the pretty village street of Lacock, despoiled only by plebeian cars littered everywhere. I entered the village sweet shop-cum-post office. "I'd like one black-and-white-striped Basset's Liquorice Allsort," I announced. The owner looked unamused. "I'll pay for it," I said. The owner poured a quarter of a pound onto the scales.
I took the one I wanted. "You can keep the rest," I said. But he put them into a brown paper bag. So I paid 60p and turned to a young lady who'd come to buy a newspaper. "This is your lucky day: you've won a quarter of a pound of Liquorice Allsorts," I said, and gave them to her.
Lunch could be a problem. But near the church was a little old stone-and-beamed house with a back garden serving refreshments. We sat under an apple tree. A bee was trapped in the sugar bowl. I ordered a pot of tea and a "warm cheese and olive round" for £4. It was like a savoury scone with a lot of nice, crisp salad and spicy home-made chutney. I also had teacakes, which were very large and as good as I've ever eaten, and a cup of tea. Miss Lid the Third had delicious fresh vegetable soup. I asked her what the flowers were, this being late summer, and she said they were very popular in Bulgaria. This was not, botanically speaking, terribly helpful.
The bill, ex gratuity, was £12.35. It included very fine lemonade. The service was excellent. I went into the kitchen to congratulate the owner, but Margaret M Vaughn was having an operation. The place is called "St John's Hunting Lodge. Tea rooms and guest house". It's a credit to the nation.
Thus fortified, I went to look at the local church. I like churches. Occasionally, on a Sunday, I go to St Paul's Cathedral. They rope off an area where the service is going on, but I walk through and sit down. It makes for a most pleasant 30 minutes. After that, my tolerance level for religion takes a dive.
The church in Lacock was very British and pretty. The lady in charge that Sunday said it was a great honour to see me, so I gave her £50. Then I dropped into an arts and craft fair a couple of doors away, signed some autographs and bought Miss Lid a decorated box. I'm the last of the big spenders.
Unlike in London, they didn't expect you to pay to come in. I think it's a terrible cheek when I'm asked to pay admission to visit a series of stalls selling antiques or whatever. I make a point of walking past, looking neither to right nor left. It's very rare that anyone tries to stop me.
When I went back to the post office-sweet shop, the owner asked if I wanted a single Liquorice Allsort, because now I could have one. "You made that lady's day by giving her the bag," he said.
I drove my Avis rental car, which was filthy when delivered, through the village of Slaughterford. It was unspoilt and in a beautiful area of countryside. Large signs indicated that the locals were trying to stop some horrid property development. The England I was brought up in is gone, savaged by new housing and other monstrous building. Slaughterford will doubtless go the way of the rest of it. Down the tubes. It's enough to make you weep.
Well done Michael Winner. Only you would have the nerve to slip the word diarrhoea into a review of Sunday lunch at the Ritz (Style, November 14).
Neil Fletcher, Liverpool
Reading your column a few weeks ago (Style, November 7), I was disappointed to find that your lucky new companion Miss Lid appears somewhat obsessed with other people smoking. Perhaps she has a highly sensitive olfactory organ, or perhaps she is merely intolerant. Either way, I am sure that you would find your restaurant visits a lot more relaxing with a considerate and open-minded companion who happens to enjoy the odd cigarette. I am available if required.
Helen Reay, London
Some time ago, you ran a letter from Mr Graham-Wood, which suggested that we wanted to charge "cakeage" to serve a home-made cake for his mother's birthday. Sadly, it appears that Mr Graham-Wood was given incorrect information when he booked. We in fact make one or two celebration cakes a week, and if unable to do so, invite customers to bring their own. We certainly don't charge cakeage. I'm glad to say that the misunderstanding has now been resolved and Mr Graham-Wood has made another reservation for a few weeks' time.
Hugh Thomas, The Withies Inn, Compton, Surrey
For truly appalling service, you really should pay a visit to Le Restaurant de l'Hotel de France in Fayence, France. For brevity, I will mention only its grosser failings, such as bringing our main courses one full hour after they were ordered, only to find that two were completely wrong. First, the waiter tried to persuade us to accept the meals, then the chef virtually accused us of ordering the wrong meals (we all spoke perfect French) and finally told us it would be a long wait. Half an hour later, the correct meals arrived (two of them had simply been kept warm). On being presented with the bill, I suggested that, in view of the delay, he could have not charged for the second bottle of wine. His reply was: "But I warned you it would be a long wait."
Esther Phillips, by e-mail
"Winner's Dinners" A collection of Michael Winner's reviews is published by Robson Books, priced £16.95. Sunday Times readers can buy it for the special price of just £14.95. To order, call The Sunday Times bookshop on 0870-165 8585