Published 15 July 2001 Style Magazine 418th article
From left, Darren Robertson, Michael Winner, Imad Abdul-Razzak and Andrew Russell (Georgina Hristova)
There's nothing more frustrating than asking directions of passers-by. If they're tourists from Afghanistan, they're useless. If they're locals who think about your request for ever and then say, "Can't help," they're useless. If they give detailed directions, then you're useless. Who can remember, beyond the second instruction? "Take the first left, go right at the fourth roundabout, by the pub take a sharp left, at the bend in the road veer right . . . " and so on. Then the arguments start. "He said go left here!" "No he didn't, he said second left, which is further on."
I always carry my small tape recorder. As directions are given, I repeat them into the tape and play it back as I drive along. I did this when visiting Gravetye Manor near East Grinstead. People say: "It's a very nice hotel, but impossible to find." Lost and confused, I phoned the general manager, Andrew Russell. He gave me complicated and lengthy directions, which I recorded and easily followed. Were it not for my tape, I'd still be weaving around the lanes of West Sussex, getting more hysterical each minute.
As it was, we got to the Tudor, plus fake Victorian Tudor, plus fake 1992 Tudor, house in good time for Sunday lunch. It's a beautiful spot, privately owned by Peter Herbert, who was away at a friend's birthday, but left a nice note of welcome. The dining room is elegantly panelled with a Victorian gothic fireplace and offers "Gravetye Manor Spring Water from the spring which has served the manor since 1598". Since the alternative was Hildon, which is awful, I tried the Manor water. It was adequate. I also ordered an £80 half-bottle of 1988 Mission-Haut-Brion. They had a large selection of half-bottles. That's unusual.
The orange juice was very fresh with bits of orange clinging to it. Andrew took our order. "You're not writing this down?" I asked. "No," he said. "All I can say is, Andrew, God help you," I muttered.
As Andrew left, Georgina said: "I like that sort of man. Very together." What on earth is she doing with me then?
The canapes were totally historic. The bread was warm and excellent. "What's this?" I asked the waiter. "Brown bread, sir," he replied. It's nice to be certain, isn't it?
We got a superb freebie tempura of soft-shell crab with crab and mango salad. The asparagus starter was correctly cooked, but crisper than I like it. The chef was having a day off. "Why?" I asked.
"We operate 365 days a year, " explained Andrew. "If the chef can't rest, we may as well close the business."
"He could have had a day off tomorrow," I ventured. "Wouldn't have killed him."
Georgina had ordered a leg-of-duck dish from the set menu and got breast of duck from the a la carte. This happens when people don't write orders down and don't check them carefully. She was disappointed. "That was not very together," she said. The duck was good but not sensational. My roast beef was fine. The Yorkshire pudding fell in the final furlong. The roast potatoes weren't that crisp. What I'd call "restaurant roast".
"In future, I shall write down what I want on paper," said Georgina, still smarting over her incorrect duck order.
I take 43 pills every lunch time. I asked for an ashtray to put them in. "Mr Winner, the restaurant is nonsmoking," said Andrew authoritatively.
"I didn't say I was smoking. Please, just give me an ashtray," I responded.
"Mr Herbert made it a nonsmoking restaurant in the 1970s," explained Andrew.
"They should make all restaurants like that and they should shoot smokers," remarked Georgina placidly.
She ordered trio of chocolate tarts. My coffee cake was stodgy; my carrot cake was pleasant. It had a small marzipan carrot on it. I like marzipan.
The other diners were wonderfully subdued. You could hear yourself talk. It was, in general, a very pleasant experience. We took photos of Andrew and the sous-chefs in the garden. Then I drove back. I was testing a very posh second-hand sports car for which the dealer was asking £60,000. I thought it floated all over the road and was highly uncomfortable. Instead, I bought a black Saab convertible, massively tarted up by the then managing director of Saab City, Mike Powell.
"It's perfect for an estate agent, a gangster or a raging gay," I observed later to Lady Lloyd-Webber over lunch at Sydmonton. "Just right for you then," her ladyship responded, quick as a flash. When she saw it, Madeleine described my car as "snazzy". It's so camp it makes Graham Norton look straight. I'm very fond of it.
Bhs deserves Michael Winner's accolade (July 1). The "Home Stores" we oldies admired for years used to serve more meals than any other retailer. Then some potty policy-maker scrapped the restaurants and customers voted with their feet. Happily, I can now go back, to eat fish and chips, baked beans, parsnips, peas and apple tart. It's a nice change from my other favourite haunts - Shepherd's, Mirabelle and Foliage.
Andrew Bainbridge, by e-mail
I write to warn Michael of a preposterous and most disgraceful con trick. It is quite impossible for M Montgomery (July 1) to be president of the northern chapter of the Winner Appreciation Society, and for two very good reasons. First, Cheshire, his abode, is not in the north of England and only represents the soft, overfed underbelly of Manchester. Second, I claim to be the true president of the Northern Convocation of Winner Votaries and, like Michael, have the girth and good looks to prove it. Michael should visit the true north to sample fish and chips, where we would never insult his palate by serving this exquisite dish with baked beans. And, unlike Cheshire, we always fry in pure beef dripping.
Gordon Berry, Bradford
I'm sad to report that, as I write, one of Michael Winner's best discoveries, the Royal Oak Tea Room on the B4027 near Headington in Oxfordshire, is still closed because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. However, the farm shop is open, selling its wonderful home-made cakes. We bought chocolate cookies, the best we've tasted, and a fantastic lemon drizzle cake. Michael should send a chopper for a consignment of chocolate fudge slices.
Bob Morrell, by e-mail
It's nearly four years since my wedding night at Cliveden, and I thought I'd successfully suppressed the instinct to write in about the experience. But Rosemary Leheup's memories (July 1) of her terrible honeymoon night there have prompted me to come clean. We had a very similar experience: snotty staff, brittle atmosphere, faded room. We declined the offer of a Sunday paper, but on paying the bill, found that we had been charged - a scarcely credible £3 - for it. We had also been charged for lunch the previous day, despite not arriving until midnight. Thankfully, the rest of the honeymoon was fantastic -and didn't cost much more than that one night at Cliveden.
Daniel Prior, by e-mail