The pandemic has laid waste to events large and small. Wimbledon fortnight was cancelled, a time I’ve always loved, partly because we can hear the crowds from our back garden and partly because the whole world comes to us. There are also close encounters with the greats: the 1973 mens’ finalist Alex Metreveli in the butcher’s round the corner, buying sausages for a barbecue, or the inimitable Martina Navratilova, strolling alone along the nearby shopping parade. But much more important than a mere tennis tournament was the ritual of wife’s birthday at the end of November. We’ve long celebrated with a short break abroad. Usually just across the Channel, once in a chilly Venice. Invariably with Michelin starred cooking and hang the expense. This year none of that. Where on earth could substitute. And when?
I called the Red Lion Freehouse, a pub with the requisite star in the village of East Chisenbury, only two hours’ drive or so away in Wiltshire. Though it would be too late for the date in question, could they take a booking as soon as the month-long lockdown expired? And what if the Government decided to extend it? No problem. Pay for the first night (we only wanted one) and if we couldn’t make it they would keep the dinner bed and breakfast rate against a future booking. Seemed a fair arrangement. And so, after a small glitch caused by an inconvenient hospital appointment, we threw bags and walking gear into the boot and headed off.
After a brief diversion to refresh memories of Salisbury we arrived to find they had upgraded us to the top suite. This did not damage their already depleted revenues. We discovered later that we were the only staying guests. The accommodation is a minute or two’s stroll along the lane from the pub itself. Rooms have decks a few feet from the River Avon, where you might catch sight of a grey heron. From the outside you might imagine this was some kind of functional motel – but inside all is beautifully appointed. Our suite had a deep bath in one corner of the bedroom and a rain shower in the bathroom. There was a Bang & Olufsen TV and a Nespresso coffee maker – with a small jug of fresh milk in the fridge. The wonderfully comfortable bed, the in room literature informed us, contained all manner of constituents, from cashmere to horsehair.
The thatch roofed pub dates from the 14th century. It became an inn in the 19th. In 2008, it was taken over by chef/proprietors Guy Manning and his American wife Britanny. In normal times there would have been beer drinkers at the bar. Despite the sophistication of the cooking, the Mannings have insisted it should remain, essentially a pub. As they put it: “Table cloths and tasting menus all the time? No, thanks”.
But what great cooking it is. One look at the a la carte menu persuaded us to ditch the dinner B&B deal. My starter was a featherlight Cornish crab tart with a dressed leaf salad, hers was a sumptuously rich chicken liver parfait with Madeira jelly and toasted brioche. As mains, we both took fish. Hers was turbot with stuffed cabbage, squash, wild mushrooms and sauce forestier. Mine was a masterpiece of cod, glazed octopus, pickled mooli, chili, ginger and ‘masterstock’ – with a spoon to get every last delicious drop. Puds were a Valrhona chocolate tart with spiced pear and stem ginger ice cream for me and a superb cheesecake with roasted pineapple, lime and passion fruit sorbet for her.
Breakfast was outstanding: fruit salad with a little granola and yoghurt followed by eggs Benedict, with the kitchen’s own sourdough toast and jam and marmalade made in the village. We were provided with a walking route leaflet that directed us up a path by the pub and out onto the largely open grassland of Salisbury Plain. This was the landscape of WH Hudson’s 1910 classic A Shepherd’s Life, which I read at school and which taught me – for some reason unforgettably – that the leaves, twigs and bark of the yew tree are poisonous to horses. It is an account of a rural existence largely vanished. Today, walking paths are crossed by military vehicle tracks. In the distance that morning was the thunder of artillery practice. Like the year in which so many of our enjoyments have been lost, our brief outing was one of those episodes that bring home how rapidly time passes. At least the Red Lion, with its memorable food and determination to remain a village institution, had made it seem to slow down for a while.
How much? The dinner B&B rate was £225. They knock off £28 a head if you want to switch from set menu to a la carte. The total, including two aperitifs of sparkling wine from Danebury Vineyards near Stockbridge in Hampshire, wine with the meal, and a discretionary service charge, worked out at £325.