Published 16 September 2001 Style Magazine 427th article
From left: Margaret MacInnes, Michael Winner and Jane Van Nuil at the Old Smithy Restaurant (Georgina Hristova)
"We don't want you in for Sunday lunch, Michael. We've got 75 people booked. It'll be a nightmare." Thus spoke Brian Sack, the owner of Sharrow Bay on Lake Ullswater. No good telling him this didn't exactly fit with his maxim: "If you give out love, you get love." "You mean I have to wander the highways and byways of Cumbria," I observed plaintively. Apparently, thus it was to be. Even though Alan Farkin, the restaurant manager, assured me: "We'll keep your usual table for Sunday lunch, Mr Winner." "I am banned, Alan," I said. "Brian has turned me away." "You're most welcome," said Alan. "It's okay," I murmured, ever obliging. "I'll just cast my fate to the winds."
Nothing looked enticing restaurant-wise in nearby Penrith, so I set off for Gretna Green, racing up the A7 in my rented Audi sports car, hair a-blowing. After a while, I dropped into the Lynebank Coffee Shop in Westlinton. "Is this Scotland?" I inquired of the owner. "No, it's England," he said. "Will it become Scotland?" I asked, meaning the road further on. "Never," he said. Then he came outside and pointed me in the direction I was going anyway. "My wife recognised you," he explained. "She said you were Michael Winner. I never recognise anybody."
We journeyed until I came across a pretty blonde girl of about 16, sitting on a wall. She wore a T-shirt with the word "Boston" on it. "Is this Gretna Green?" I asked. "Yes," she replied. "Where is it?" I said, confused. "There," she explained, pointing to what looked like a garden centre on the other side of the road. It was a kind of visitor complex. We went in. A man came up to me and said: "Where do you think I could find a copy of the film Under Ten Flags, with Van Heflin and Charles Laughton?" I made my excuses and retired to the Old Smithy Restaurant.
This was a barn-like place with self-service counters. I took a steak pie and a bit of cottage pie. "Who makes this?" I asked Elaine, the assistant manageress. "The chefs," said Elaine, stating what should have been obvious even to me. "Why don't you have some vegetables and gravy?" she suggested. As I took them. she asked: "Are you Michael Winner?" "Afraid so," I replied. "I seem to have lost my girlfriend." An old lady behind me in the queue joined in. "I know who you are," she said. "I can't imagine you losing a girlfriend." "She may yet turn up," I remarked optimistically.
I sat down with my food, all of which was rather tasty for a cafeteria. Georgina appeared. "What happened?" she asked. "I took my steak pie and my cottage pie and came here to eat it," I explained. "Shall I do the same?" asked Georgina. "I would," I suggested.
The manageress, Jane Van Nuil, came over. "My staff are trying to work out if you're a lookalike or the real thing," she stated. I assured her I was as real as Michael Winner could be. Georgina tucked into a chicken curry with pasta and peas. She liked it. I went for my dessert. "Jane," I said, "the sign here offers fresh cream cake for £1.45. Where is it?" "We haven't got any today," she answered. So I took a cream scone and a sticky iced cookie with jam - then realised I had no napkin. At that moment, a man came over and put a napkin on the table. "How considerate," I thought. "Can I have your autograph?" he said. So I had to sign the napkin and see it taken away.
A lady asked if I'd come there to get married. Then another lady came and said: "Could I have an autograph for Maureen, she's too frightened to come over." She indicated Maureen. She was the woman who had already asked if I was getting married. Things were becoming somewhat confused, so I paid Margaret MacInnes, the charming cashier, and went into the museum.
It offered the complicated history of Lord Hardwicke's marriage laws. On display was the anvil where people used to be wed. A sign stated if you rang the bell, a man would take your photo for £2.25. A fearsome, kilted Scotsman appeared wearing a name badge lettered "John". "I'll pay the £2.25, but please use my camera. You'll save on film and developing," I asked sweetly. "I only use my camera," responded John sternly. I repeated his answer into my tape recorder. "Turn the tape off at once," said John, getting extremely irate. "Where's the sign saying I can't use a tape recorder?" I asked. "Don't you feel rather silly, John?"
We fled, unphotographed, to the souvenir shop. I wanted Gretna Green T-shirts. "We only have Gretna Green on wee china things," explained Rosie, the smiling assistant. They're losing a heap of profit there. Outside, John stood, glowering. in front of the museum. "Could I have your surname, please?" I inquired bravely. "No, you may not," replied John. "Why? Do you work for the secret service?" I asked. John looked dangerously threatening. Pity, everyone else was delightful. If Lord Hardwicke's law hadn't changed, I might have got married there and then. But only if John promised to be best man. As that seemed highly unlikely, I stayed single.
Caroline Seely (September 2) hit the nail on the head when she said that some of us enjoy the company of children in restaurants. But that is not to say that other diners wish to be surrounded by other people's (often badly behaved) children. The simplest solution is for restaurants to have a separate section for families. Then, young people without children, the elderly who have left all that behind and executives who wish to hold business meetings can enjoy their meals in peace. Those of us with kids can also relax in the knowledge that we are not spoiling things for anyone else.
Debbie Atkinson, by email
We were amazed that Reg Gifford was so affable when Michael Winner lunched at Michael's Nook (August 26). For 15 years, my wife and I have regularly stayed at Mr Gifford's other Grasmere hotel, the Wordsworth. In the whole of that time, Mr Gifford has never spoken to us once.
Shearer and Susan Sellars, by email
We missed Michael Winner's article on Il Samaritano Da Benito, but on seeing the relevant letters I decided to book a table for our 42nd wedding anniversary. I was so glad I did. The fish was fresh and beautifully cooked, and Benito is indeed a real character: he turned away several diners, taking time to explain that he prefers to work at his own pace, which included crossing the road to throw away one bottle. I can't say that every English person would be happy there, but what at first seems strange warms to become something otherworldly and, as my husband described it, "unforgettable".
Angela Hurrell, Monaco
May I suggest Mr Winner prepares himself for a disappointing Christmas? Sandy Lane is the most soulless hotel in the world; the service in the Bajan Blue is comparable to my local cafe (ie there is none); Carambola - with its plastic menus - has lost the plot (Michael Winner shouldn't be surprised if they have introduced a fixed-price set dinner if he takes his usual table); and the staff at the Lone Star give the impression of doing you a favour when you pay to eat or drink.
Andrew Lucas, by email
Three of us went to the Ivy last week for lunch to see what all the fuss is about. The vodka and tonics were very inferior. Two of us had corned beef hash, which was too salty to eat. We didn't bother with dessert -we were too full of water after the salty beef. What a waste of money.
Erica Burrows, by e-mail