Sharrow Bay - the sequel: this time it's even better
Published 27 July 2008 News Review 784th article
When I first tried to visit Sharrow Bay, a hotel on Lake Ullswater in Cumbria, I was refused entry. The two gay owners, Francis Coulson (chef) and Brian Sack (general manager) were terrified of me.
Years later, June 2001 to be precise, I applied again. Sadly by then Francis had died. At first I was told there were rooms galore. Then the manager checked with Brian Sack and told me they were full. Strange but not terminal.
Things were sorted out. The once-frightened Brian Sack and I became friends. His philosophy was, "If you give out love, you get love." Sadly, five months after my visit, Brian died. I was touched to read the contents of his house (later auctioned) included photos of him and me. They fetched a remarkably high price.
Brian told me he was leaving Sharrow Bay and his house to the hotel's managing director, Nigel Lightburn, whom he jokingly referred to as his "illegitimate son". "He'll look after Sharrow Bay and keep it as Francis and I want it always to be," he said.
Not long after Nigel inherited the hotel he flogged it to Andrew Davis of the Von Essen hotel group and retired to Brian's magnificent house on the lake.
Sharrow Bay was always a favourite with theatricals. On my first visit a famous actor-knight sat in the corner of the dining room, eyes adoringly fixed on his young male companion. I greatly enjoyed that visit, except I was put in a poky little room.
Seven years later I wondered: will it all have collapsed? It hadn't. Sharrow Bay is fantastic. The food is historic. The wonderful kitsch decor and knick knacks remain as they were. The views of the lake are breathtaking. All the staff are delightful. The manager, Andrew King, is exemplary. You'll gather I liked it.
I stayed there because in nearby Keswick was a Michael Winner film festival. They'd previously honoured Nicolas Roeg (once my cinematographer) and Ken Russell. Incidentally, I know you're all dying to attend the National film theatre on September 17 when my Orson Welles-Oliver Reed movie, I'll Never Forget What's'Isname, is shown, accompanied by me in cabaret.
Sharrow Bay has a well-deserved Michelin star. The food is simple, tasty, memorable. The chefs are Colin Akrigg and Mark Teasdale, both tutored by Francis Coulson. Some of the stuff I enjoyed ("stuff" may not be a sophisticated description, but so what?) included a stunning souffle of stilton, spinach and roast onion; roast breast of quail with truffle fettuccine and wild mushroom sauce; breast of Gressingham duckling with creamed savoury cabbage, black pudding, glazed apple and sage sauce.
The puddings (love puddings) were headed by "Francis Coulson's famous and original sticky toffee sponge served with cream". The best sticky toffee pudding I've ever had. Geraldine was equally enthusiastic about her creme brulee.
In our room (much bigger and better than I had under Brian's rule) were incredible shortbread, toffees, fudge plus more. Unfortunately, they serve ghastly Hildon water. I'm told the Relais & Chateaux organisation is sponsored by, among others, Hildon water. They don't demand, but seem to influence, their chosen establishments to take goods from firms sponsoring them. If true, it's shameful.
Another disappointment was the "Sharrow Bay cream ices". I had vanilla, creme de banana, choc chip and caramel. They were all lousy.
Other than these few quibbles, it was a marvellous experience.
Go there by private jet as I did. On the plane I had "Kettle Chips sea salt with crushed black peppercorn" (okay at best) and "Kettle Chips lightly salted, deliciously simple". They were nice.
I use European Business Jets. They let me down recently regarding my flight to Lugano where I was to meet John Cleese for our "divorcey-moon" Swiss tour. I booked to land at Lugano airport. This was confirmed many times. The day before the flight, I got an e-mail naming pilots, plane tail number, that sort of thing.
An hour later EBJ rang and said, "You can't go to Lugano."
"Why?" I asked.
They answered, "Because the runway's too short."
"You've had this booking for 13 days," I said to their operations manager, Steve Finch. "Why wasn't I told earlier?" No sane answer came forth.
I had to go to Milan's Malpensa airport, a longer flight followed by a much longer journey to the hotel in Lugano. Naturally John Cleese didn't want to drive to Milan to pick me up when we thought it would be Lugano.
Then, and this is a real laugh, when I complained to very nice Nick Messer, director of EBJ, he e-mailed me: "We've flown to Lugano several times before." Apparently it was "weather-dependent".
"But it's sunny in Lugano," I responded. "Does the runway lengthen and shorten with the weather?" What I only have to put up with. Groans of your non sympathy fill the air. All right then, hitch-hike to Sharrow Bay. See if I care.
Last week you mentioned an idiotic tax inspector, an arrogant charity commissioner, stupid letters from another charity commissioner, a miserably grotesque hotel, poor food and incapable Syndicate Asset Management employees. All this from a man who appeared to be wearing a dead wood pigeon for a hat.
Dr Richard Evans, Colwyn Bay
Our experience at Slaley Hall was even worse than yours. Our order of pre dinner drinks came with the first course. The food was like poor pub grub. Our after-dinner brandy took 20 minutes to arrive. I warn all my friends, "Don't go to Slaley Hall."
A J Hoare, Northumberland
Could you let me have the name of your Botox specialist. You looked 15 years younger in last week's photo.
Sandi Firth, Leeds
In your final sentence last week you should have followed Churchill. In the Commons in 1940 he said, "What up with which I only have to put."
Geoff Taylor, Pouzois-Minervois, France
Heston Blumenthal may be the epitome of cool, but our experience at his Hinds Head in Bray suggests he's overdoing his epithet. The restaurant was chilly, the food arrived lukewarm on cold plates and the service was haphazard. One of our party said he'd eaten better at a Harvester.
Suzanna Becks, Maidenhead
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday times.co.uk