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  • Nick Lander
Written by
  • Nick Lander
24 May 2001

I am not an aggressive man but I had made one point very clear to the rest of my family. If they did not treat me with due respect I would take them away for a weekend in the British countryside.

Over the past few months of course nothing has seemed less exciting. The combination of flooding, foot and mouth and unseasonably cold weather has been enough to put off all but the most intrepid. Yet even for a family of townies there does come a time when fresh air, open skies and the promise of spring is too much to resist despite the roped off footpaths.

We headed down the M4 to north Wiltshire because it contained within a short distance a pub which served distinguished food, a hotel that bore the most enchanting name - At the Sign of the Angel - and a National Trust property, Lacock Abbey, that I knew was once home to William Henry Fox Talbot, the world's first photographer, but also contained, I was to learn subsequently, a particularly well preserved brew house amongst its Tudor ruins.

Tim and Helen Withers have certainly put Rowde, just outside Devizes, on the culinary map with their running of The George and Dragon which has twice won the top award in their price category in Lunch with the FT. The pub itself shows its age and physical charm: low ceilings, lots of timber and outside lavatories.

Tim's passion for fish is equally obvious. He wears an apron covered in multi-coloured fish. The banquettes are covered with piscine images, as are the cushions round the pub. But most important is the fresh fish on the daily-changing menu, 99.5% of which comes up from Newlyn in Cornwall.

Helen runs the bar and restaurant, rather brusquely even by London standards, taking food orders whilst the first sips of the local Wadworth ale and cider reach the parts that mass produced beer and lager certainly do not reach, whatever their multi million pound advertising campaigns may claim. One first course, a crab salad with courchamps sauce (a mayonnaise incorporating dark crab meat) was excellent; another, home cured gravad lax disappointing (undercured and cut too thick).

The kitchen was back on form with roast hake with aioli and red peppers; a thick, middle slice of skate with capers and black butter; and skirt steak with a tangy herb and shallot relish. One dessert of brown sugar meringues with at least a gallon (or that's what it looked like) of thick unpasteurised Jersey double cream from a local farm demonstrated that we were far from the capital.

But sadly there was evidence of the weekend's leitmotif: service that badly let the kitchen down, most notably when our young waitress dropped the bill as she was handing it over but made no attempt to pick it up.

We should really have walked the five or six miles to Lacock but, townies to the core, we drove instead enjoying the open skies, the spectacle of the Abbey set in its well-tended grounds and the lanes around this National Trust village which dates back 1232 AD. Although it was still impossible to cross the muddy fields, there is more than enough in Lacock itself to stimulate the brain and the appetite: a miraculously untouched timbered medieval tithe barn and the next door lock-up for the village drunks; several tea rooms; and a shop window filled with the sweets, drinks and tobacco of fifty years ago. As well as the Tudor brew house the Abbey offers the world's first photographic negative of an oriel window displayed next to the window itself as well as a modern photography museum.

At the Sign of the Angel, a reference to a coin worth a third of a pound in the fifteenth century, has the same sense of history. Dark panelled walls; low timbers and ceilings; log burning fires surrounded by swords and copper pans (although not doing much good to the red wines in the racks above) and a steep, uneven set of stairs to the bedrooms and lounge on the first floor. There is not an even piece of flooring in the whole building.

In candlelight, with a roaring fire and the dark wooden tables laid up with bone handled knives, the dining room looked authentically period and most of what the kitchen produced and the waitresses happily served were its equal. The repertoire is unashamedly traditional and the best dishes included two soups, one a thick cream of Cornish crab, the other a clear mushroom and Madeira, an old fashioned steak and kidney pudding and lamb's kidneys in more cream and Madeira. The bedrooms are directly above the dining room which means that although the aroma of freshly baked bread entices you down to eat, the clatter of the final guests and the washing up intrude until sleep, helped by the wine and cream, finally takes over.

Driving back to London, I mulled over what had been an undeniably enjoyable and instructive Saturday night away from town, made even more memorable by a late afternoon walk in uninterrupted spring sunshine.

Yet the pleasure had come at considerable cost. Lunch for four at the George & Dragon had cost £95 (although it would have been less had we stuck to the excellent-value three course lunch menu at £12.50) whilst our overnight stay in Lacock with dinner and breakfast was £350 so with petrol there was not much change from £500. We would, I am sure, have got better value for 5000 French Francs or US$750.

This feeling would not have been so pronounced had these exemplars of British tourism gone out of their way to welcome us and want us to return. The service in the pub-restaurant was sloppy, the welcome at the hotel hardly accommodating. We were not asked whether we needed help with our suitcases. A Sunday paper was out of the question. And the hotel is still charging a 25% premium for Saturday nights despite this year's fall in bookings. Even returning to the National Trust property proved difficult. Whilst its shop was open at 10 on Sunday mornings, the Abbey is firmly closed until 1pm which makes it difficult to see how the Trust can make up for visitors it has so far lost to foot and mouth.

And that was my most lasting concern. Whilst many in the British tourist industry have been the innocent victims of foot and mouth, it would only compound this situation if they were to rely on government hand-outs and marketing initiatives to welcome us back. Better service, longer opening hours and some exciting offers are needed to supplement the obvious history, lovely countryside and talented chefs that are already there.

The George & Dragon, High Street, Rowde, Wiltshire SN10 2PN, 01380-723053.

At the Sign of the Angel, 6 Church Street, Lacock, Chippenham, Wiltshire SN15 2LB, 01249-730230.