Perfectly happy in an imperfect palace of naffeness
Published 13 October 2002 News Review 483rd article
A content bunch: Hanson, Winner and McKenzie at the Vineyard (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
You could rewrite the dictionary and put under "naff" The Vineyard at Stockcross, Newbury. It's not just ordinarily naff, or prodigiously naff. It is so naff it's in an outer space orbit of naffness. I enjoyed it greatly.
The first super-naff thing is its appearance. I drove up to see a leftover shiny pipe rising in the air, which is apparently a sculpture. So is the raised pool with gas jets in it facing the hotel entrance. That's called Fire and Water. I think they said it was by someone called Pye. The building itself resembles a French chateau interbred with council flats.
The managing director, Andrew McKenzie, and the manager, Nick Hanson, were waiting for me outside. Did they have a helicopter plotting my path? I wondered. "You can leave it here if you like," they said, referring to my immaculate, silver-grey, 1975 Bentley. I parked it outside the front. "It's very decorative," I assured them.
Inside, there were absurd paintings everywhere. I was led upstairs past a wall of framed reviews. "We've got some real stinkers displayed there," explained Andrew McKenzie with admirable candour. An old one from this newspaper was definitely poor.
"That's clever," I said. "Display all your reviews and everyone will think they're good. Who's going to bother to read them on a staircase?"
My suite was very comfortable. The bathroom was superbly fitted, the four-poster bed draped in a style I'd describe as - naff. The pictures were beyond belief. In the sitting room above the fireplace was a clumsy nude in oil called La Toilette. On the opposite wall another full-length nude asleep and languorous. There was also a dreadful portrait, supposedly of Vivien Leigh. She looked like a Playboy bunny gone wrong.
In the bathroom there was a nude by the same non-artist, Boris Smirnoff, above the toilet, revealing pubic hair and looking gross. She was called The Brunette. A second Smirnoff nude, back view, on another bathroom wall was labelled Innocence. You can't get wall decoration naffer than that.
We took tea by the flaming pool. It was absolutely superb. An exemplary ham sandwich with a bit of mustard, smoked salmon in rye bread, "Scrumptious," opined Ms Lynton-Edwards. The scones were as good as I've ever eaten and they had the sense to serve butter as well as jam and cream. The Earl Grey was just right. The cake was good, the fruit tart historic, the cream cake excellent.
My bedroom had an electric clock with red-light time-signs. It read seven o'clock in the morning, so I got up. Later I discovered it was wrong and it was six o'clock. The literary agent Ed Victor was staying there. He called the desk in the morning to order tea and the man said: "Good evening." Downstairs he ordered "scrambled eggs well done", and the waitress returned to ask how he wanted his fried eggs.
At breakfast I asked where the kippers came from. The restaurant manager, Mark Murray, said: "Loch Fyne." I ordered them and was served whisky porridge. When my kipper finally arrived it was horrendous. It looked like no known object. It had the look of tasteless "plastic". I sampled it, rejected it, and got very good scrambled eggs, sausage and tomato.
The next morning I came downstairs with Geraldine. The restaurant manager was passing by. He looked towards us and walked on without a word. The manager was polite enough to say: "Good morning."
Later I was sitting outside having breakfast and the chef, a nice young man, John Campbell, stopped by. "Where do you get your kippers from?" I asked. "A supplier called Minola in Abergavenny, Wales," he replied.
"The restaurant manager told me they were from Loch Fyne," I said. "He doesn't order them," said John definitively.
The owner then appeared. An extremely charming man called Sir Peter Michael. He's chairman of my favourite radio station Classic FM and was previously brilliantly successful in electronics. He also has a top Californian winery. He told me the 2001 vintage was "rivetingly good".
He explained he'd bought the Vineyard and ran it as a hobby. "It's nice to get everything right," he said. I was just reaching for salt and pepper for my traditional English breakfast. There wasn't any. I thought to mention it would look like a putdown, so I stayed silent.
I've only told you about my accommodation, breakfast and tea because I was there for Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber's at-home arts festival where he provided miraculously good lunches and dinners. Nevertheless, the cost of my two-night stay at the Vineyard was £1,300 for bed, breakfast and tea. I was perfectly happy. Make of that what you will.
We, too, had some dining disasters at the Belfry (Winner's Dinners last week). We reserved their "top" restaurant, but they lost our booking. We checked whether they'd accidentally reserved the other one, but they hadn't, so we complained to the manager, who didn't know we'd checked and pretended the wrong one had been booked. The next day we decided to have sandwiches in our room while watching the grand prix, but the staff watched it too (we went to check!) and brought our food an hour and a half later.
S Wilson, Marlow
As a group of five couples we booked Sunday lunch at the Chewton Glen hotel, Hampshire. We were advised that due to the size of our group menus would be e-mailed to us so we could pre-choose. My e-mail advised that all five couples would have to choose the same starter, main and sweet and that a £340 deposit was required. We cancelled and had an excellent roast at the Fisherman's Rest, Lymington, with no pre-selection or pre-payment.
Jon Sutton, Lymington
Having sampled the food at the Belvedere, I thought it very wise of Michael Winner to take his own sandwiches (Winner's Dinners, September 29). If, as Gordon Ramsay said, he knows nothing about food at least he knows something about bad food. As for awarding Marco Pierre White the Machiavelli prize, I couldn't agree more! I have worked with the man.
Mark Hatton, Manager of the Box Tree, Ilkley
The restaurants referred to by Michael Winner (September 29) that are rude in response to customers' complaints should take a leaf from John Tovey's book. Several years ago at the Miller Howe, Windermere, as a result of revamping the dining room to meet growing demand, our party was ushered directly to our table instead of enjoying aperitifs in the lounge. There then ensued a wait of about 45 minutes. On writing to Mr Tovey to complain we received a personal apology with an invitation to a free meal. Not only this, but the great man joined us halfway through the meal with his steak and salad to again apologise and explain what was being done to avoid a repetition of our experience. Perhaps he is of a dying breed.
Alan Dunn, Milnthorpe, Cumbria
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times. co.uk