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There's no debating quite how important I am

Published 19 December 2004
News Review
597th article

Michael Winner next to Rebecca Gill and other Durham students (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I love Durham. The north in general is a bit odd. So am I. Actually, the north is more than a bit odd. It's like another country, if not another planet. They talk funny, they dress funny, but they're very good-hearted people. That's much more important.

In Durham, Palace Green is one of the major sights of the world. It's staggering.

At one end is the massive 11th-century cathedral, rightly described in the guidebook as "one of the great architectural experiences in Europe". The other side is the castle, also 11th-century, now housing Durham's University College. In between is a large green surrounded by old buildings dating back to the 15th century.

One of them, the Almshouses Cafe, was rebuilt in 1666. Gilly and Eric Marrion own that. It has a door leading to the adjacent dining room of the university students' union, the debating society.

Eric and Gilly cater for special dinners when highly distinguished guest speakers, such as me, are asked to perform.

I particularly liked Durham's undergraduates. They lacked the pomposity, show off and fake sophistication of those at Oxford and Cambridge. The Durham lot were open and cheerful.

The union president, Rebecca Gill, is studying politics, will change to law and then hopes to be a political lobbyist. That's unbelievable! Who in their right mind aspires to be a political lobbyist? Ah well, she's a nice girl. Good luck to her.

The food that came through the door from the Almshouses Cafe to the union's big dining table - seating 14 people - was most acceptable.

I think we had some sort of soup to start, if we didn't, too bad. We definitely had excellent venison in orange and red wine; I'm sure of that because Rebecca identified it for me.

"What are these things, Rebecca?" I asked. "I think they're shallots," she replied. "What are shallots?" I continued. Geraldine said: "A small onion."

Rebecca added there were chestnuts as well. It's nice - no, not "nice", essential - that I have help in these matters.

There was a bowl of mashed-up sweet potatoes, which was totally sensational. I kept serving myself more. We finished with a lemon tart. It was fine without being historic. The surroundings were historic. That's enough historic for one evening.

I was staying in the presidential suite of the absurdly named Durham Marriott Hotel Royal County. I'd describe the accommodation as modest but not bad.

They brought tea and cellophane-wrapped biscuits with no napkins. The breakfast came on time but was pretty awful. The bacon was tough, the scrambled eggs had been tipped out of a cone and left too long to dry, the hash brown potatoes also seemed to have stood about and were far too chewy.

Geraldine said: "It must be nice to have a hotel -when people give you crappy presents you can put them in the guest rooms." She was pointing to a grotesque china clock and a horrid vase.

From our windows we had a clear view of the cathedral, the castle and Bhs.

You needed a code to raise the hotel car park barrier. Reception didn't give it to us. So we drove to the barrier, failed to get out, and had to drive back for the code.

In the evening a police car, parked diagonally, totally prevented my driver leaving.

There were many empty spaces the police could have used. "I told the police they were hemming me in," said my driver. "They just said they'd be back soon."

I waited. Then I went to the hotel receptionist who explained: "We've got a difficult customer in the bar."

There, three policemen faced a man on the sofa. "Hello, Michael!" the drunk yelled cheerfully. "Who's got the car keys?" I asked. "We'll be out in a minute," a policeman replied abruptly.

In the car park we opened the unlocked police car and pushed it aside. I'm placing a National Police Memorial in the Mall as a tribute to our nation's police. When I see antisocial behaviour, such as from the Durham police that night, it saddens me.

  • Here's our Christmas competition. Prize is £50, a signed copy of my autobiography and the last set of cutlery, designed by Terence Conran, ever made for Concorde. It was used only once on a trial flight from New York to London, then British Airways went to plastic cutlery.

    Question is: in my various travels what impressed me the most? Funny answers are acceptable. If no one gets it right all entries go into a sack; the one pulled out wins! A happy Christmas to you all.

    Winner's letters

    I couldn't agree more with your remarks last week with regards to the Crabwall Manor and Stanneylands hotels. Cheshire is almost devoid of good hotels and restaurants. Could you also comment on housekeeping? We often find this a disaster area in so-called five-star hotels, with dirty bathrooms and tiling.
    Jon Kennerly, Cheshire

    The photo of Michael and Geraldine at Crabwall Manor illustrated a touch of genuine dismay in their eyes. The article was constructive and obviously just criticism. I hope their imminent stay at Sandy Lane will be more fruitful.
    Barry Mason, Staffordshire.

    Crabwall Manor doesn't deserve the blanket condemnation you so relentlessly gave it. We've enjoyed our visits. However, your comparison with prices at the Ivy highlights a genuine complaint. Prices in London do tend to be lower than up here. Or one gets better value.
    Harry Royce, Cheshire.

    After dinner at Crabwall Manor my wife and I retired to the bar. At about 11.20pm a waiter shouted across the room that as we weren't residents he wouldn't serve us any more. Heads turned. The next day I phoned the manager who said drinks could only be served in the restaurant after closing time. Since then I've had the satisfaction of dissuading a number of people from dining there and even persuaded a close friend not to use it for his wedding. It seems things haven't improved.
    John Evans, Chester.

    Michael, can I take it from your review last week that you wouldn't recommend the Crabwall Manor hotel?
    David Blackburn, Cheshire.

    Geraldine looked, as always, fabulous in last week's photo. But how caddish of you to make her wear your cast-off holiday shirt and ancient corduroy gardening jacket in order to make your own appalling outfit look relatively stylish.
    Colin Key, Algarve, Portugal.

    We've been agonising over where to dine on our wedding anniversary. After reading all the hyperbole in Cheshire Life, we chose L'Endroit in Congleton. Fortunately, my wife's boss had been there and said his main course was so disgusting he refused to pay. Who the hell writes these reviews?
    Richard Grenfell, Cheshire.

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk