Published 24 January 1999 Style Magazine 289th article
Interior motives: Ted Saunders and Michael Winner at Fawsley Hall
Fawsley Hall is bizarre. It was Jason Phillips, restaurant manager of The Room at The Halcyon, who told me about it. I was enjoying another excellent meal from chef Martin Hadden, part-demolished by the atrocious paintings that hang on the walls of the basement dining room. The Halcyon offers delightfully over-the-top, camp decor that ends suddenly when you get to the restaurant, as if they'd run out of ideas, energy and money. Instead of buying some decent paintings that fit the style of the room and into the wall panels, they take freebies of ghastly pictures for sale, the styles differing every few weeks, as if they needed commission from the artists supplying them.
Jason produced brochures of Fawsley Hall, managed by the Halcyon. It offered "Fascinating architecture, relaxed, refined living and delicious cooking". The photographs showed what appeared to be a historic house, tastefully converted to hotel use. Photographs can be deceptive. Ever adventurous, I drove the very next weekend through delightfully unspoilt Northamptonshire countryside, down tracks that coated the Ferrari with mud, until, near Daventry, we reached Fawsley Hall. The brochure describes the house as a "panoply of styles". I'd say a fair old mess, aided and abetted by poor decoration and tarting up which add to the confusion. Thus the central Tudor courtyard has had a conservatory built onto it, which houses the reception desk. This is all in plain white, rather like the Japanese-modern Hempel in Bayswater.
The vaulted Grand Hall looked pretty good in the brochure. In real life it gleamed brightly. The hammer-beam ceiling has some dark old oak next to light new oak, so you get a disconcerting colour pattern. The wall panelling is light, the Holbeinesque oil paintings practically fluorescent. Tim House, the manager, assured me they were done in India and sold by Galleria in the King's Road. Later Ted Saunders, who had owned the hotel before "running out of bank support", and is now a shareholder, told me they were copies from Florence. The old English pictures in the bedrooms were painted in India. It seems the entire World consists of people sitting in front of English paintings copying them for hotel use. "The initial impact is good," said Vanessa. "And when you look it's terrible." She wasn't far wrong.
She also objected to tea bags in the mint tea, when it should have been real tea. Mr Saunders, who decorated the place, owns a local warehouse. He sells reproduction antiques to America. The tall metal "Tudor" candlesticks, called prickets, were made in the Far East.
The dining room is divided into separate areas, like Sheekey's, only larger. I sat in a high-ceilinged room with leaded windows, a tapestry and a fireplace, regrettably not in use, with some stone walls and some plaster walls.
The minute I tasted the water I thought, "How awful." I looked. It was Blenheim Water, which I absolutely detest. It was introduced at the ever superb Wiltons in place of Malvern. When I complained, I was told the Duke of Marlborough was a personal friend of the owner, Rupert Hambro, and basically I could take a flying jump. Although they do kindly keep Evian hidden, just for me. After I'd had a good old moan about Blenheim Water in this column, the Duke of Marlborough wrote me the most astonishing letter saying his water had been tested and found pure by the licensing authorities. Drinkable in the scientific sense it may be. Taste-wise, it's horrid.
We had a rather pleasant Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste Pauillac for £115. My deep-fried salt cod with a garlic veloute was excellent. Vanessa had asparagus and herb risotto with a red wine sauce, which was "tasty". The service was very quick indeed. At the next table were the only other people in the room. Six of them. They talked very loudly in "off" voices and laughed hysterically at anything and everything. It was not what I'd call "refined living", but then the chap who wrote the brochure came on another evening. My main-course roast pigeon and braised savoy cabbage with foie gras and lentil sauce was good. The food's the best thing at Fawsley Hall. The chef is Tim Johnson, under the consultancy of Nico Ladenis, in my view one of the world's very best. If Nico tried the petits fours, he'd have a fit.
The Halcyon management team were coming out of it very well until, on Sunday morning, two children ran screaming relentlessly round the corridors from 7am. I can't believe nobody in management heard them. They should have been captured with a large net and put many miles away. When you look like me, beauty sleep is essential. And basically futile.
In his article on Sheekey's (Style, January 10), Michael Winner claims that part of the pleasure of eating out lies in being able to comment on friends and acquaintances sitting at the neighbouring tables. This may well be the case for Mr Winner, whose connections extend into all spheres and echelons of life. But surely the vast majority of diners are unlikely to know those sitting around them? Perhaps we should take Mr Winner's comments as flattery: he obviously seems to think us far grander than we actually are. Tom Collie, Kingston upon Hull Aficionados of this column may not have noticed a moment in its history that occurred, appropriately, in the first edition of 1999 (Style, January 3). Our hero bares his teeth weekly at restaurateurs (or actors, depending on which hat he's wearing), but never - until the photograph that accompanied the aforementioned article - has he done so at his dear readers. I've often wondered what that tight-lipped smile hid until now. And what did the photographer do to coax his grin that Vanessa et al could not?
Geoffrey Brown, Welwyn Garden City, Herts
On a recent holiday to the Caribbean, I spotted a restaurant with a "Winner Free Zone" poster in the window. The question is: did they know that the great man was in the area and therefore erected appropriate forward defences? Or do they leave it up all the time - just in case?
John Adams, Richmond, Surrey