Sunday, 3 November 2013

Stamford - and Lunch and Dinner at The George Hotel

This was quite an experience. I'm no stranger to posh hotels and restaurants, or at least places that promote themselves as posh, but this hotel seemed genuinely upmarket. And I'll make it plain, right up front, that you shouldn't do what I did unless you are prepared to pay decidedly upmarket prices! It was the opinion of A--- (when I saw her six days ago) that there is Serious Money in Stamford. The existence of The George, and this hotel's ability to charge what it does, makes me feel she was dead right. She has actually been there herself. So we have both admired the 'Botticelli' murals in the ladies loo - or should I say Ladies' Boudoir? I'll show you pictures of those. But first, some stuff to set the scene.

The phrase 'East Midlands' conjures up a vision of big cities such as Leicester and Nottingham and Peterborough, sprawling places with not a lot of obvious holiday appeal. But in fact it's an area of small towns in wide-open countryside, which is rolling and rather attractive everywhere except the flat bit where Peterborough lies. Although there are no high hills, it all looks green and well-tilled, the soil obviously rich and fruitful. Here and there is attractive mellow woodland, and the spires of rural churches soar skywards all around.

Remember that Leicestershire used to be the classic fox-hunting shire. And that towns like Melton Mowbray built their reputations on the production of foods of great excellence, as well as hosting, in season, the rich and fashionable in search of country sport. Places like Stamford were kept unsullied by industry because of powerful local noblemen (in this case, the Cecil family, a succession of Lord Burghleys). Since the 1970s, the large blue expanse of Rutland Water has been added:

In the past there has indeed been some iron-working, quarrying and coal mining. But nearly all of that has vanished, or has been greened-up so that you can't see it. So what is left of the Tata steelworks at Corby is hidden behind the clean façade of a reinvented town. The tall Hanson cement works at Ketton remains, the only prominent industrial landmark in the Stamford area; but Ketton itself, which must once have been a much more nondescript place, has become a charming village for the well-heeled:

If that honey-coloured stone reminds you of the Cotswolds, then you'd be spot on. This part of the East Midlands is an extension of the Cotswolds, and in most respects resembles what you'll find in Gloucestershire. By the way, this is all a secret - don't go blabbing about it, or the area will get 'discovered'. But perhaps you can see now why I chose the East Midlands for my late-autumn holiday.

Back to Stamford. That too is built of honey-coloured stone, and fancies itself as 'the most perfect stone town in England', although no doubt some other towns would contest that:

It's full of specialist shops, and stuffed with nice places to eat, and obviously makes a a great destination for a weekend break at any time of the year. I'd love to be there in the festive run-up to Christmas. I can just imagine how wonderful the atmosphere would be. It's not a city, just a small town, and it has a very intimate feel, quite unlike large places like York and Oxford and Bath. And it has a Waitrose. I have to say, here and now, that if I were ever obliged to uproot myself from Sussex and live in the East Midlands, Stamford would be my Number One choice. If, that is, I could afford to buy a place there.

As you come into town on the south side, before you reach the old bridge over the River Welland, you see a wooden arch over the road:

That's where The George Hotel is. It's very old, the main block dating from 1597. Well, just over a week ago, on Saturday, late in the morning, I walked in to see whether I could book dinner there that evening. It might not be possible at such short notice, of course. It was reassuring to see that there were two dining rooms, but even so... It was all dark oak panelling, very traditional. All the staff looked smart, either in uniform or smart outfits. A man in a well-cut suit asked me ('Madam') how he could help. The booking system wasn't ancient and oak-panelled, it was computerised. We consulted the screen. Hmmm...he could fit me in if I were willing to come and go by nine o'clock. I could. We agreed on a table for one at seven o'clock, in the main dining room. I didn't want to be the only diner at that time, though. No, other diners were eating early too, and would arrive at intervals while I was there. Attire could be smart or formal. That suited me! Just in case, I'd brought my green dress, and would wear the new Tigi jacket over it, with black tights and flats on my legs and feet. I do like eating properly clad for the occasion!

I had a look around. As I said, there were two posh-looking Dining Rooms. There was also an oak-panelled bar called the York Bar for drop-in lunches and evening drinks. An ancient staircase led upstairs to the ladies loo, of which more shortly. At the rear was a smart open-air but covered space filled with shrubbery, which looked just right for coffee al fresco:

I could see that the hotel was quite extensive. It went on and on. From the outside coffee space (presumably the old coachyard in coaching days) you went under an arch to an outer area that must once have been the place for stables and servants:

Back inside, I went upstairs and found the ladies loo - and inspected the wall paintings, which A--- told me had been executed by a female artist. She'd made a good job at adapting Botticelli's paintings Spring (1482) and The Birth of Venus (1486), to the needs of a modern hotel - see and for some background.

You don't get a lady scattering fragrant pot-pourri over the Three Graces in the original masterpiece: clearly an improvement!

Astonishing that Botticelli omitted the hair-drier in his version. Glad to see it restored. But shouldn't Venus be coyly standing in a shell? Wish my hair was like that. Sigh. At this time of the day, I was not dressed in ethereal Renaissance costume, nor in wrap-around Rapunzel hair, but in something more suitable for the late October breeze:

It was time for lunch. Why not the York Bar at the Hotel? Why not indeed. A team of uniformed staff greeted me from behind the bar. I ordered a gin-and-tonic (not Gordon's - a local gin that tasted wonderful), and, feeling extravagant - that hey-ho, I'm on holiday, why spoil the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar frame of mind had enveloped me - I also ordered a plate of smoked salmon. Here it is. Scottish smoked salmon, plenty of it, with bread, capers, and a lemon slice to squeeze, that was wrapped up in a linen bag so that one's dainty fingers wouldn't get wet - a nice touch, to be sure:

A snip at £19 for the food and drink! I hardly noticed. Honest. The rest of the daytime was spent in Peterborough, then I got ready in the caravan and returned to The George in posh garb, arriving at the stroke of seven o'clock, like rich eccentric Phileas Fogg, who, you may recall, made precision and punctuality his defining characteristic. And indeed in Jules Verne's story Around The World In Eighty Days, the plot relies totally on his precise timekeeping and willingness to spend whatever it takes. I rather like Phileas Fogg's attitude, which is explained fully at I just wish I could live up to it all the time!

One of the Dining Room Managers, Katie, introduced herself to me, and presented the three waiter/waitresses who would be meeting my needs, one of whom was a very nice young girl called Gaby. I saw much of all four. You do not get neglected here. They put me in one of two corner tables. One table was tucked in somewhat behind a door. I got the other, that had a wide view of the whole scene, by now filled with flowers and lit up with candles, the polished cutlery, serving plates and table tops reflecting the light. (I apologise for the yellowish tinge to the photos - it was indoor lighting, not natural daylight)

I was the very first there, and for half an hour had to begin in solitary state; but then other diners started to arrive. I didn't mind. For a while I had all the attention of the waiting staff.

I had already decided on a fish main, Dover Sole no less, so I chose half a bottle of French white wine to drink (a Sancerre), plus of course a carafe of still water. First off, canapés - olives, with a savoury on a biscuit, and a little glass of soup:

Then my starter. I'd decided on chicken liver pâté within a border of clarified butter, a strawberry on top, edible leaves, and a strawberry jus. Plus a generous amount of toast. I didn't manage to consume all the pâté. To do so would have been the reckless act of a piggy porker.

Next up, the main. Dover Sole. The girl serving me asked whether I'd like her to fillet it for me. I knew how, but let her do it. I could see that a little performance would take place. I was right. She wheeled up a small table, and (very skilfully) took the bones out, leaving the fish presented neatly in four sections on my plate, complete with a lemon slice in a linen bag and a tasty sauce. Then a young male waiter brought a selection of vegetables to choose from. I deliberated over this - it was clearly part of the game - but ended up having a bit of everything on a side-plate.

Having eaten all this, and I did eat it all this time, I felt a bit stuffed, and asked Gaby for a ten minute rest before diving into a dessert from the Sweet Trolley, which seemed to be her special province. This is what a bursting-at-the-seams Miss Piggy looks like. Flushed, or what?

While recovering, I took in the scene, which was now rather more populated. Next to me were a young couple in their late twenties. I thought they might be celebrating an anniversary, or were recently engaged. But in any event, they were certainly both in good jobs, because they'd be facing a bill for at least £150. She was obviously used to posh dining, he less so perhaps, but I could overhear a lot of what they said to the waiters, and they clearly both knew the ropes. They were not startled by the Rack of Lamb Carving Theatre that I witnessed. The waitress who had filleted my Dover Sole brought the small table up again, with a carving block on it. From under a silver cover, a very neatly trimmed rack of lamb emerged, the bones beautifully shaped and tapered. It was for the girl. She had been asked to choose her vegetables before any lamb went on, which seemed the 'wrong' way around. Now I saw why. The waitress delicately separated each lamb rib with a sharp knife, and arranged the ribs in a kind of stack over the vegetables. It looked like a tall crown. How artistic!

I also noticed an older couple sitting across the room, in lively conversation. He looked very much like the famous author Sir Salman Rushdie. Impossible, surely, but who knows? She looked like Dame Judi Dench, the famous actress. Not so impossible, but rather unlikely. At any rate, they were getting a lot of respectful attention from the serving staff. Perhaps they were the Hotel Owners, or someone just as important. I asked Gaby, but she didn't think so. Just very regular customers then. (They must be loaded!)

I noticed other things. Down the Room was a trolley with a huge domed silver cover on it. I asked Gaby. This was the famous Roast Beef Trolley. One of the things The George was renowned for. I'd seen someone on TripAdvisor remark that a few hunks of prime roast beef carved off the joint of beef under that dome would turn you to gluttony. I could believe it.

Before launching myself into a dessert, I thought I'd better finish my wine, so it was 'Gaby, could you pour my wine out for me, please?' and this gave me the chance to ask her about the goodies on the Sweet Trolley. They all looked fantastic. She took me through the lot. I settled on raspberries in an elderflower jelly, with a raspberry sauce and cream. I kept it simple, as Diogenes would have. Here's Gaby, pouring on the cream, and below, the plate I then tucked into.

Yum! Then it was coffee with white chocolate bon-bons, and time to settle up. Katie dealt with that. With a tip, I paid a cool £90. Hey ho. I staggered off to the loo again, to put my dishevelled appearance to rights.

That tummy looks even fatter!

An expensive, but memorable, meal. I would have liked to have enjoyed it later in the evening, but I'd been fortunate to secure a table at all at such short notice. Some company would also have been nice, but that's not without a problem - I only know a couple of other people who would have been completely nonchalant about paying £90. Most of my friends (sensible ladies) simply couldn't consider spending so much, or on principle wouldn't. What price an experience to remember, though? You only live once. Or did Nancy Sinatra have it right in her 1967 Bond song, You Only Live Twice?

You only live twice or so it seems
One life for yourself and one for your dreams

You drift through the years and life seems tame
Till one dream appears and love is it's name

And love is a stranger who'll beckon you on
Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone

This dream is for you, so pay the price
Make one dream come true, you only live twice

And love is a stranger who'll beckon you on
Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone

This dream is for you, so pay the price
Make one dream come true, you only live twice


  1. £90 sounds a lot, but I recall a restaurant near St Just that we regularly frequented in the mid 1980's and often ended up with a bill of £100 or more for the two of us. £50+ per person, 30 years ago, must equate pretty closely to what you forked out.

    Sadly, the restaurant has long since gone, but we do have the cookery book written by Ann Long, who created the culinary masterpieces. We shall have to treat you to one or two of them.

  2. Why not occasionally, you can live on beans for a few weeks to balance things up...

  3. Angie, I look forward to being treated!

    Caroline, you're right, and I actually like beans on toast!



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