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All was going swimmingly - until the tea bag incident

Published 5 September 2010
News Review
894th article



Michael at the Samling with Claire Pollock, the hotel's former manager, and, behind them, Kerry Maguire, restaurant supervisor, and Peter Vellacott, Michael's helicopter pilot (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I don't know how you can make money on a hotel with 11 rooms. But as I'm not an accountant, tax inspector or financial wizard, what I think doesn't matter. The Samling, an exquisite Edwardian hotel in the Lake District, sits on a 67-acre estate. That makes six acres per room. So guests such as Tom Cruise and David Beckham could have cavorted in generous space.

Since I was there, nothing's changed except the manager. It's no longer the woman in our photo, Claire Pollock. She was temporary and left for the Cotswolds. The woman in grey with our helicopter pilot, Peter Vellacott, is the restaurant supervisor, Kerry Maguire. The hotel manager is now Andrew McKay, who, with verve veering on insanity, offers guests a refund if it rains during their stay. "Even if it drizzles," he announced to the press. He didn't say how big the refund would be.

During my visit I complained bitterly that I was given tea bags instead of loose tea. Not good enough for an exclusive hotel. Claire said she'd put it top of her agenda to get loose tea. She didn't. The hotel still serves tea bags. Black mark, Andrew. Deal with this.

Other than the tea bag problem, everything was fine. The Samling even provided butter as well as jam and cream for the scones. Not many places do that. The brochure calls it a hidden gem, which is more or less true. There's a great view of Lake Windermere.

At dinner the waitress, Londi, said, "I've got some canapés here for us."

I said, "For us? Are you going to join us?" She didn't.

We were served Blenheim water, along with Tufa and Hildon - "bottom three world", as the actor Bruce Dern used to say regularly about almost anything.

"Pigeon parfait, soft egg, shallot purée, that's my starter," I announced. For my main course I got a couple of bits of duck that were red and a couple of bits of lamb that were red. I'd never have known which one was which if I hadn't been told. Sounds odd, but they were okay. The starter was good, too.

Then the waitress said, again, "Here's a pre-dessert for us."

"I don't know why she doesn't sit down at our table if it's for us," I dictated. Londi declined to join "us" for "orange marmalade, lemon and lime sorbet, tequila jelly, lemon and lime zest". That's more information than I need to know. But it was very pleasant. So was my real dessert, pink grapefruit jelly, honey, ginger and granola biscuit, which Londi did not suggest was for "us". Had I offended her? The chef, Nigel Menham, did well. He'd have done better if he'd blown up the piped music supply. I got the staff to turn it off, but really. A marvellously understated old place, beautiful rooms and piped rubbish. What comes over these people? Don't they think punters can live with their own conversation? I find my dialogue fascinating. I could talk to myself for hours. Often have to, because no one else is interested.



  • Investigations continue to find a venue for my 75th-birthday party. We looked at Princess Margaret's apartment in Kensington Palace. Great things are being done at the palace, but not to Margaret's place. It resembled the dole office in Plaistow. The only lavatory was like a 1970s council flat gone wrong.

    The Wallace Collection museum is grand beyond belief. Too corporate.

    My favourite caterer, Johnny Robertson-Roxburgh of the Admirable Crichton, came round to help. We considered Chiswick House but it closes at the end of October for restoration. I needed it on October 30 for 24 people. I've hired a superb harpist, Nicola Broke, to play during pre-dinner drinks. But where? I suppose McDonald's, Kensington High Street, is out of the question. I'll keep trying. Only eight weeks left. Must make more effort.



  • My wonderful PA has quit after a year.

    "Because you're a bad-tempered git," I hear you unkindly remark. No. If this isn't the most extraordinary reason to lose a PA, what is? The lady is an unmarried mother living in Essex. Seeking a new companion, she went to a website called sugardaddies.com. Within seconds the man she met had given her a £35,000 diamond ring, followed by other jewellery galore, followed by a new 4x4 BMW, and promised her a half share in a multi-million-pound house.

    She bade me farewell - I couldn't compete. She's a great gal. I wish her continued happiness. I'm £9m in debt. When I need a couple of mil I'll know where to go.



  • Mrs Cohen goes to a fortune teller. She's told: "Your husband is going to be beaten, mutilated and murdered." Mrs Cohen asks, "Was I acquitted?" For this gem I thank my neighbour, the Academy Award winner Don Black, co-lyricist for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love, currently a box-office hit at the Menier Chocolate Factory.



    Michael's missives

    I'm surprised you hate phone calls from people trying to sell you something. I thought you'd be glad to hear from anybody.
    Lillian Donaldson, Cheshire

    Diane Vreeland said that "unpolished shoes are the end of civilisation". You're doing your bit. What do you leave outside your hotel bedroom to entertain night-shift staff? A pair of Geraldine's pumps?
    Peter Stancombe, Wiltshire

    You recommended Den Gouden Harynck in Bruges. We told Marijke, the owner, that my girlfriend was vegetarian. Her asparagus came wrapped in ham so I asked for it to be replaced. Marijke said, "Just pick it off," and walked away. Belgian charm!
    Tim Mort, Kent

    I disagree with you about Nicole at La Petite Maison. When we went there she yelled from 10 metres, "What do you want? " My husband said, "We'd like to book a table." She screamed at the full audience, "What do they think they are?", then told us to go elsewhere. Since serving Nicolas Sarkozy she's become even ruder!
    Josette Andre, Nice, France

    At your favourite Petite Maison, Nice, a couple were being served champagne. The woman pouring their glasses filled another, and walked towards me. A yard away, without taking her eyes off me, she let go of the glass and it broke on the stone floor. The waiter said she was the owner and did that regularly!
    Bryan Franks, Middlesex

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