A perfect pub

IT MIGHT BE OBVIOUS to many that the village pub is, along with the local parish church, often the social hub of small settlements all over England. Since the outbreak of the covid19 pandemic, we have not made our usual annual long trip to India. Instead, when public health regulations have permitted, we have been taking the opportunity better our knowledge of the country where we live, England, by making frequent trips to different parts of the land. On all these excursions, we have stopped for food and drink at pubs in many small places. Some of these pubs have become more like restaurants than traditional village social centres, but many still act as communal living rooms where local people gather to drink and chat together.

Inside the Pig and Abbot

In Cavendish, a small village in Suffolk, there are two pubs. One is more of a restaurant than a traditional pub. By the way, it serves very excellent food. The other pub serves no food except packets of potato crisps. When we visited it, we were told that it only offers drinks. This pub was full of locals talking to each other quite animatedly. One, whom we overheard, claimed to be having a fantastic sexual relationship with a French lesbian, in whose house he had done some plumbing work.

One pub, which we have visited more than half a dozen times since early 2020, is in south Cambridgeshire. The Pig and Abbot at Abingdon Piggots, a village with about 60 households not far from Royston, successfully combines being a meeting place for locals with being a place where very well prepared, tasty food may be enjoyed, either in a small restaurant area or at tables near the centrally located bar.

The current owners, Mick and Pat, have owned the pub for almost 20 years. Pat is a superb cook and warm hostess, and Mick is a knowledgeable and charming host. He told us that the early 18th century building in which his pub is located used to be the local dower house, in which the wife of the lord of the manor lived after she was widowed. Back in those days, women usually outlived their husbands. The dower house was far from being a peaceful retirement home for widows of lords of the manor. It was a hive of activity. It was in the dower house at Abingdon Piggots that bread was baked, and other food prepared, not only for the manor house, but also for all the local families that worked for the lord of the manor. The manor, which had been in the Piggott family, many of whom have memorials in the local church, ended up in the hands of the De Courcy-Ireland family. In the early 20th century, a descendant of the Piggott family, who had inherited the manor married the Reverend Magens De Courcy-Ireland (died 1955). Mick told us that the dower house became a pub during the second half of the 19th century.

While we were enjoying a superb lunch during a recent visit to the Pig and Abbot, we asked Nick how many of the local villagers used the pub regularly. He told us that of the 60 households, 10 were regulars. We wondered whether we were amongst his customers who lived furthest away from the village. He said that we are, but his furthest customer, a former resident in the village, a biologist, now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. However, whenever he is in England, he makes a point of visiting the Pig and Abbot. Despite this outlier and us, most of the regulars do not come from afar, and I noticed that Nick seems to know most of his customers by their first names.

Of the many pubs that we have visited during our extensive roaming around the English countryside, the Pig and Abbot has become our favourite. From its warm welcoming staff, to its great food and drink, to its range of well-chosen decorations, and to its lovely wood burning fireplaces, it ticks all the boxes, making it a perfect pub. Visiting the Pig and Abbot gives one a wonderful idea of what has made the English country pub such a successful institution over many centuries.

Piling it on along the canal

NEEDING BREAKFAST ON our way from Warwick to visit Baddesley Clinton House, we chose to stop at the Hatton Locks Café, which we had noticed on our road map. What we did not know is that the café is located next to the uppermost of a flight (or series) of 21 canal locks. The locks are situated on a stretch of the Grand Union Canal that was, when it opened in 1799, the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, which was built to carry locally mined coal for use in power stations and nearby factories (https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-history/history-features-and-articles/the-history-of-hatton-locks). It became an important transportation link between London and The Midlands.

 The 21 locks are spread along an almost 2 mile stretch of the canal and the towpath along this section of the waterway is popular with cyclists, walkers, and their dogs. Some of the locks are narrow. They were built when the canal was first constructed. Other locks on the flight are far wider. They were built in 1932 and allow two craft to use the lock simultaneously. The newer locks were built at a time when the canal system began to have to compete with motorised road and rail transport.

The café is about 310 yards northwest of a small car park and is reached by walking along the towpath. Near the café, there are some unusual looking tables and benches made of old timber. Most of the timber pieces are planks with a short semi-circular projection at one end. These wooden piles used to be driven into the floor of the canal between parallel wooden blocks that held them straight upright against the walls of the waterway. Their purpose was to prevent the banks of the canal from being eroded by the water flowing past them. Nowadays, they have been replaced by coir matting that serves the same purpose because it is considered to be more eco-friendly that timber. The wooden piles were driven into place by a mechanised hammer system aboard a motorised boat that plied along the canal. One of these boats, now disused, has been preserved near the café.

The locks on the Hatton Flight looked different from the many other canal locks we have seen on our travels around the country. Each lock is flanked by what looks like a pair of tall, stout candles. These things house the mechanisms that control the flow of water into the locks and are operated by canal users equipped with a special handle or windlass that fits onto a projection that is linked to the gearing that operates the valve.

The Hatton Locks Café is a real treat, both visually and gastronomically. Both inside and outside, it is decorated with a profusion of objects, some folkloric, some whimsical, and others related to the life and traditions on the canal. A team of friendly workers produce simple but excellently prepared English breakfast items as well as very acceptable coffees. So good was our breakfast that we made a detour to return to this place on the following morning. Most of the clientele seemed to be locals, many of whom were on friendly terms with the staff. Although we had only been once before on a busy morning, the staff remembered exactly what we ate and drank on the day before. When we are next nearby, we shall certainly visit this wonderful establishment again. On our next visit, we will join the other walkers and stroll past all the 21 locks.

Gin and tonic by the pulpit

NAPOLEON BONAPARTE DIED in captivity on the tiny island of St Helena in the south Atlantic. While he was imprisoned on the island, Lieutenant General Sir Hudson Lowe (1769-1844) was the Governor of St Helena. He was buried at St Mark’s Church in North Audley Street in London’s Mayfair, where a commemorative plaque can be found by the main entrance. St Mark’s was built in the Greek Revival Style in 1825-28, designed by John Peter Gandy (1787-1850). In 1878, the church architect Arthur Blomfield (1829-1899) made considerable alterations to its interior including adding a timber vaulted ceiling over the nave.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the size of St Mark’s congregation diminished significantly. In 1974, the church was made redundant, and this is how it remained until 1994, when the church was used by The Commonwealth Christian Fellowship. It continued to serve this group until 2008. After that, it was used as a venue for occasional events. In about 2019 after a 5 million Pound restoration programme, the church underwent a surprising reincarnation.

After passing beneath the grand portico supported by two columns topped with ionic capitals, one enters the church’s large vestibule. Since 2019, this has become a marketplace selling upmarket Italian delicatessen goods. Entering the body of the church is rather like taking part in a Fellini film. The floor of the nave is filled with tables and chairs and people drinking and dining. The side aisles, north and south, contain several kitchens, preparing and serving a wide variety of foods, from Turkish to Thai. On the north side of the chancel, just behind the neo-gothic stone pulpit, there is a gin bar, and facing it on the south side of the chancel, there is another bar providing alcoholic refreshments. Look upwards and you can admire the splendid timber roof supports. The wide gallery surrounding the nave at the first-floor level is home to more food stalls, each offering tempting looking fare at not unreasonable prices, especially by local Mayfair standards.

In 2019, the church became home to a branch of Mercato Metropolitano, whose first venture was converting a 150,000 square foot disused railway station in Milan during the 2015 World Expo in that Italian city. The idea of the company was:

“The development of the first Mercato Metropolitano was carefully planned to retain the site’s original appearance, which nurtured the local community’s affection for a special part of their urban history.”

 (https://www.mercatometropolitano.com/mmarketplace/#the-mercato-story).

And this is what has been done at the former St Mark’s in Mayfair. Many of the church’s fittings (for example, the tiled floors, the stained glass, the monuments, the pulpit, and the sacred paintings at the east end of the chancel) have been preserved. Entering the church is like entering the scene of a lively gargantuan feast. Seeing the large number of customers on a weekday lunchtime demonstrates that Mercato Metropolitano have successfully created a great place to meet, eat, and drink. It is highly original and exciting, both visually and gastronomically.

In Chapter 21 (verses 12-13) of the Gospel according to Matthew, we learn that:

“…Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.”

I just cannot help wondering, as many of you might also be doing, what The Good Lord would have made of what can now be seen inside the Church of St Mark’s in Mayfair.

Boy meets girl: dining in Bradford

BRADFORD IN YORKSHIRE is a vibrant multi-ethnic city. Many of its inhabitants have their roots in the Indian subcontinent. We found that many of these people with subcontinental ancestry regard themselves as neither Pakistani nor Indian, but Kashmiri.

International restaurant in Bradford

When we first visited Bradford a few years ago, we were itching to try the local restaurants serving what is generally called “Indian food”, regardless of whether it has been cooked by an Indian, or a Pakistani, or a Bangladeshi, or even a Kashmiri. As we drove from the station to our hotel in a taxi, we asked the driver, who was of Kashmiri descent, where he thought we would get good Indian food. He recommended ‘X’ in Bradford and ‘Y’ in nearby Shipley. A couple of other people, of whom we asked the same question, both recommended X. With three different recommendations for X, we decided to book it for that evening.

When I phoned the restaurant, a lady answered. I asked to book a table for two. Then, she asked:

“Is it two males or a male and a female?”

Puzzled, I replied:

“A male and a female.”

When we reached the restaurant, we were given a nice table. We had arrived at X with high expectations and good appetites. It was a pleasant restaurant with obliging staff. However, we were served one of the worst meals I have ever eaten in a restaurant serving Indian food. After this experience, we did not try another ‘Indian’ restaurant in Bradford.

During that unsatisfactory meal, the head waiter or manager came up to our table to ask if all was well. Politely, we replied that it was, but my Indian wife, who had seen ladies entering the restaurant but disappearing up a flight of stairs, remarked:

“I have noticed that apart from those little girls with their father, I am the only woman in this room. It does not bother me, but it is a bit strange.”

The head waiter looked perturbed and said:

“Sorry, so very sorry. You should not have been given a table in here. I was not aware of your arrival. Had I greeted you, I would not have seated you in here. It is reserved for men, and sometimes they can get rowdy. Can I move you to another table?”

We said that we were happy where we were. After the man left, we wondered how it was possible that men could get rowdy in a halal restaurant that clearly did not serve alcohol. At the end of the meal, we noticed that there was another section of the restaurant where men and women could dine together, a sort of ‘family room’. We also noticed that groups of women unaccompanied by men were directed to another part of the restaurant on the floor above. While the food at X was memorably poor, the experience was far from dull.

Recently, in September 2021, we revisited Bradford. There, we met our Polish host. Remembering our unfortunate experience at X, we thought it would be fun to try something different, a Polish restaurant perhaps. We asked Pavel if he could recommend one. To which he replied:

“There used to be a Polish restaurant here, but it’s closed. Anyway, I don’t like Polish food. You should eat curry here. Try the International. It’s just around the corner and gets good reviews on Tripadvisor.”

In view of our previous ‘Indian’ meal in Bradford, we entered the bustling International with some trepidation. When the food arrived, our fears evaporated rapidly. We were served some of the best ‘Indian’ food we have ever eaten in the UK. The portions were enormous, and we noticed that at every other table, diners were taking home the remains of their meals in packages. We also noticed that at almost every table, diners had ordered chips (French fries) with their ‘Indian’ dishes. The restaurant’s owner, the son of its founder who opened it 50 years ago, told us that in Bradford:

“These young people eat chips, pizzas, and burgers all the time; sometimes they don’t even eat curry.”

We asked him whether the International was an Indian or a Pakistani restaurant. He told us that it is the latter, but he and most of his staff are Kashmiri.

Tandoori king prawns at the International

We enjoyed the International so much that we returned there for dinner on the following day. Once again, we enjoyed first class food served in huge portions. Thinking of the tandoori king prawns and lamb chops makes my mouth water as I write this piece.

On both occasions, we sat at tables on the ground floor. On the second evening, our table was next to a staircase leading to an upper floor, which we were told was used for parties. Both waiters bearing trays loaded with dishes of food and also customers continuously dashed up and down the stairs. At one point in the evening, a group of heavily bearded Asian men dressed in loose fitting robes, Pathan suits or similar, began ascending the stairs. One of them looked down at us, an Asian and European dining together, and we saw him smile and then heard him say:

“Boy meets girl.”

Eating securely at Baltic Amber

HAVERHILL IS IN SUFFOLK, close to where this county’s border meets those of Cambridgeshire and Essex. It is not a place that is near the top of Suffolk’s list of attractions. It does not rival, for example, Lavenham, Bury St Edmunds, Long Melford, and Southwold, to name but a few. However, we chose to spend a couple of nights there. When exploring the town’s dining opportunities, one place caught my attention. It is a restaurant/bar named Baltic Amber.

On the establishment’s website (www.balticamberrestaurant.com/), there is a pair of sample menus. One is in English and the other in Lithuanian. The restaurant was established by a Lithuanian family in March 2020. Despite this, there are only a few Lithuanian dishes on the menu. When we visited, of the five Lithuanian dishes, one must be ordered a day in advance, and, sadly, another was unavailable.

On arrival at this modern place next door to a large Travelodge hotel, we were met at the entrance by two burly but extremely friendly uniformed security guards. One of them checked our names on a list which was attached to a clip board. We asked them if they were expecting trouble. They answered, half jokingly, that they were there to “… keep out the riff-raff to allow diners to enjoy their meals peacefully.” Then, we were led inside and met by a waitress, to whom the security guard said: “table 24”. We were greeted by the lady, who turned out to be Lithuanian and she showed us to our table. I practised the three words of Lithuanian, which I know, on her and later on the owner. Both seemed pleased with my efforts.  The interior is modern and almost Scandinavian in design. The chairs at the tables were comfortable. Outside the restaurant, there are tables and chairs as well as a couple of fire-pits around which diners can be seated and kept warm.

Lithuanian potato pancakes with soured cream

We sampled Mead Vilnius, and aromatic spirit, rather like the Czech Becherovka. We also tried a Lithuanian beer. We ordered one of the Lithuanian dishes to share as a starter. Made of grated potatoes, which were fried and served with thick soured cream, they had a great resemblance to the Jewish dish, ‘latkes’. We followed that with Beef Stroganoff and Duck in an orange sauce. Both were above average both in quality and quantity.

The restaurant was full. The other diners, probably locals, were all having a good time, as did we. The place has good service and a pleasantly lively atmosphere. I am glad that I ‘discovered’ this place and would happily go again.

Dining in a church

A FRIEND INVITED us to dine one evening at the exclusive Mosimann’s Club in West Halkin Street in London’s elegant Belgravia district. As it was dark when we arrived and I was too busy chatting with our host, I failed to notice the exterior of the establishment. Years later, I noticed that the narrow façade of this fancy eatery, named ‘The Belfry’, is that of a Victorian gothic church with a slender spire.

The church was being used by the Presbyterians in 1866, so wrote Edward Walford in the 1880s. The website of The London Metropolitan Archives catalogue reveals more:

“…a chapel was built on Lower George Street, called the Ranelagh Chapel. In 1845, on the death of the Methodist minister, the church joined the English Presbyterian Church and was renamed Ranelagh Presbyterian Church. The lease on the Lower George Street chapel expired in 1866 and the church merged with a Presbyterian Mission in West Halkin Street, Belgrave Square. The name Belgrave Presbyterian Church was adopted. The church was rebuilt in 1881. In 1923 the church moved to premises in Emperor’s Gate, Kensington.”

The former church is an unusual structure in that the end facing the entrance is considerably wider than the façade. As to when it was originally built, I am uncertain. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, does not give it a mention in his extremely detailed guide to the buildings of the City of Westminster in which it is located. However, he does mention the chapel’s neighbour, to the left of it as you face the façade. Far more attractive than the chapel is the façade of its neighbour which is decorated in a neoclassical style. It has two porticos supported by pillars with Doric capitals. This building was built in about 1830.

Today, the Doric pillars flank entrances to a branch of Waitrose food stores. This shop also has an entrance on the street parallel to West Halkin Street, Motcombe Street. Thus, two temples of food stand side by side. If you cannot afford to dine in the former church, then you can console yourself and appease your appetite by acquiring something edible in Waitrose by stepping between the Doric pillars. In case you are wondering what we ate at Mosimann’s, I am afraid I cannot recall as it was so long ago, but I do remember enjoying it.

Where seven streets meet

SEVEN ROADS MEET at a point in London called Seven Dials. A column with seven sundials attached to it stands in the middle of the circle where they meet. Long ago, on the 5th of October 1694, the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) noted that he went:

“…to see the building beginning near St. Giles’s, where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area; said to be built by Mr. Neale, introducer of the late lotteries, in imitation of those at Venice, now set up here, for himself twice, and now one for the State.”

The pillar with sundials facing in seven directions was erected in 1694 by Edward Pierce (1630-1695) and Thomas Neale (1641-1699). Pierce was a sculptor, architect, and stonemason. Neale was a Member of Parliament for 30 years; Master of the Mint; gambler; and entrepreneur. His achievements included:

“…development of Seven Dials, Shadwell (including brewing and Navy victualling), East Smithfield and Tunbridge Wells, to land drainage, steel and papermaking, mining in Maryland and Virginia, raising shipwrecks, to developing a dice to check cheating at gaming. He was also the author of numerous tracts on coinage and fund-raising and was involved in the idea of a National Land Bank, the precursor of the Bank of England. The extent of his interests – as a prominent Hampshire figure, as a member of the Royal Household, as a long-standing MP serving on dozens of Committees and as the promoter of an extraordinary plethora of projects” (www.sevendials.com/history/thomas-neale-1641-1699).

In July 1773, the column bearing the seven dials was removed because it was believed that there was a substantial amount of money hidden beneath it, so wrote Peter Cunningham in his Handbook of London (1850). None was found. Another theory suggests that the pillar was removed:

“… to rid the area of the undesirables who congregated around it. The remains of the column were later moved to the garden of the architect James Paine (Junior) at Sayes Court, Addlestone, but not re-erected.” (www.sevendials.com/resources/Seven_Dials_History_of_the_Area_by_Dr_John_Martin_Robinson.pdf)

It was not until 1989 that the demolished column was replaced. It was reconstructed according to Pierce’s original design that is lodged in the British Library. The new column was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on the 29th of June 1989.

The entrepreneur Thomas Neale would have approved of a venture that commenced in his Seven Dials district in 1976. That year, Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998) opened his Whole Food Warehouse in a disused warehouse in Neal’s Yard (formerly ‘Kings Head Court’), named in memory of Thomas Neale. In Saunder’s words:

“I decided to start a wholefood shop which I would like myself – one that was cheap, efficient and would not make customers feel bad because they could not recognise a mung bean. At that time wholefood shops were mostly of the hippy style – folksy looking with open sacks and used paper bags; nice meeting places for the in-groups but hopelessly inefficient, expensive and tending to make ordinary people feel like intruders.” (https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/history/).

His venture proved successful. Various other businesses including Neal’s Yard Remedies, Neal’s Yard Dairy, Casanova & daughters, and Wild Food Café, opened nearby. Saunders wrote:

“The Yard has developed into a social scene. Even though the businesses are each independent, everyone who works in them, and many of the regular customers, identify with the place. In fact most of the workers are customers who had asked for a job. My old idea of a village community has manifested in the form of a community of small businesses, each one individual and free to go its own way. It is rather like a family, with me as a father and the businesses as my grown-up children.”

Although we made our last visit to Neal’s Yard in the middle of the covid19 pandemic, when the place was empty and closed, it is safe to say that the Yard continues to be a vibrant ‘social scene’ and its shops are still thriving despite the fact that shops supplying ‘whole foods’ have multiplied considerably since Neal’s Yard was established. Saunders is commemorated in the Yard by a wall mounted plaque.

Apart from selling food and remedies, Neal’s Yard was home to the film studio run by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam between 1976 and 1987. It was here that they edited the Monty Python series of films.

One of the entrances to Neals Yard is an alleyway leading from Monmouth Street (formerly ‘Great St Andrew Street’), one of the seven streets leading to the Seven Dials. The street is home to one of London’s older still existing French restaurants, Mon Plaisir, which is close to Neals Yard and was founded long before Saunders established his venture. The brothers David and Jean Viala started the eatery in the 1940s.

My parents moved from South Africa and settled in London in the late 1940s, by which time Mon Plaisir was serving customers. I do not know when my parents first ate there, but during my childhood I remember it as being one of their favourite places at which to to eat out. Until 1972, when new management took over the restaurant, Mon Plaisir occupied one shopfront. Its characteristic quirky décor rich in everyday French posters and other ephemera remains substantially unchanged since the 1940s. As a child during the 1960s, I was taken there infrequently. I remember liking it. One thing that I recall was that the toilets were approached through a doorway at the end of the restaurant furthest away from the street. An artist’s palette was nailed above the doorway. It bore the words “Le Pipi Room”. On a visit made this century to the enlarged restaurant, I noted that the sign had disappeared. When life returns to ‘normal’ again, another meal at Mon Plaisir is on our ‘to do’ menu.

During my childhood, the Seven Dials did not make any impression on me. I knew about Mon Plaisir, but never ventured south the few yards to the Dials. With the opening of the Donmar Theatre on Earlham Street, another of the roads leading to the Dials, in 1977, which we have visited often, the Seven Dials entered my London radar.

Before ending this somewhat rambling piece, here is a true story about the theatre. Soon after it opened, an American friend, a keen theatregoer who was midway in age between my parents and me, invited me to join her at a performance at the Donmar. It was a play with a Chinese theme. We were seated in the front row, literally on the stage. My friend who had long legs, stretched them out onto the stage and the actors had to take care not to trip over them. Halfway through one of the acts, my friend began fumbling in her large bag and withdrew a thermos flask. She removed the lid, which served as a cup, and gave it to me to hold. Then, she filled the cup with hot soup, which she proceeded to drink whilst the drama unfolded in front of us. I often wonder what the actors, who were so near us, thought when they saw a member of the audience enjoying her picnic in front of them.

The Seven Dials and the streets radiating from the column are full of fascinating buildings, some old and others new and there are plenty of shops to explore apart from those pioneering wholefood shops in Neals Yard. If you can manage to get a ticket to the Donmar, and this is quite hard if you are not on their advance booking scheme, then it is often worth watching a performance there.

This time last year

WE MARRIED TWICE. That is to say that Lopa and I had a civil marriage in a registry office in October 1993 in London’s Chelsea Town Hall and then a religious marriage in mid-January 1994 in my in-law’s garden in Koramangala, a district south of central Bangalore. Both ceremonies were memorable and meaningful but the one in Bangalore was more colourful, and far lengthier than that in London.

Between November 2019 and the end of February 2020, we were in India. Just before leaving for India in November 2019, we celebrated our English anniversary with our daughter at a French restaurant in London, the Poule au Pot, where one can enjoy typical classic French cuisine in a dimly lit but pleasant environment.

Mid-January 2020 found us near the port of Mandvi in Kutch, formerly an independent princely state, a largely arid, desert region, now part of the Indian State of Gujarat. We were staying with Lopa’s cousin and his wife in their lovely remote and spacious 150-year old farm house, which has been in his family for several generations. Informed of our anniversary, they decided to treat us to dinner at a nearby resort close to the sea. After the meal, we walked to the car under a star-filled clear sky and returned home. There, we sat on the veranda and enjoyed a dessert that Lopa’s cousin’s wife, an accomplished cook, had made specially for us.

A year later, a few days ago, we celebrated our ‘Indian’ anniversary in London. Interestingly, the temperature in wintry London was higher than it was when we were in Kutch (at night), but there was far less sunshine. This year, in the midst of strict ‘lockdown’ conditions necessitated by the covid19 pandemic, we celebrated alone, and not at a restaurant. We had a celebratory cup of coffee outdoors and enjoyed a good home-cooked meal prefaced by gin and tonics. Had we been in India as we often are in January, but not in Gujarat, which is teetotal, we would most probably also have celebrated with ‘g and t’ but sitting outside under the stars on a warm evening in southern India.

Little did we know when we were enjoying ourselves in Kutch last January, that a year later, the idea of visiting India, let alone leaving London, would be out of the question. Well, as my late father used to say, rather annoyingly when misfortune struck:

“Such is life”, or “These things happen.”