This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Writing this column has often involved a certain element of risk, most notably early morning meals in Asian food markets, but I had never before thought of requesting danger money before I even set off.
We recently headed off into an area that radio bulletins were regularly warning us not to visit. Our plan was to spend the night within a ten-minute drive of the Somerset Levels, scene of the worst flooding in the UK for over 200 years, and then drive down to a Dorset coast battered by heavy rain, high tides and gale-force winds.
The second weekend in early February had been fixed months ahead as a suitable time for me to meet Roy Copeland, now 85, but who forty years ago did business with my late father in Manchester.
For the past 25 years Copeland has run The Lynch Country House on the edge of Somerton, ancient capital of Wessex. The relative safety of this Grade 2-listed house, built in 1812, lies in its name. ‘Lynch’ means a small ridge, so these lovingly restored buildings and gardens are well above water while offering an unparalleled view of the devastation nearby.
It also offers an excellent English breakfast, a meal that tastes so much better in the country air, with a distinctly English view from a conservatory that doubles as the location for Copeland’s musical evenings (he is an accomplished jazz saxophonist).
While we enjoyed scrambled eggs, local bacon and black and white pudding, Mike McKenzie, manager and breakfast cook, fed the three black swans that live in the pond next to a topiary. A hungry robin completed a very English scene.
Somerton is also home to historic almshouses, the St Michael and All Angels Church and the Somerset Guild of Craftsmen. After visiting these we repaired, weather-beaten, to the Buttercross Tearooms for coffee, home-made Welsh cakes and an insight into the detrimental impact this weather is having on business.
After serving us, proprietor Helen McDonald sat down at a nearby table to interview a young girl as a part-time waitress. She told her that, if the trial were successful, she must let her know as soon as possible whether she could work the last week of August. When I subsequently asked McDonald why this was, her reply was pertinent and resigned. ‘The last week of August last year was so busy it made up for our losses in January. This year it is going to have to make up for our losses in January and February.’
Refreshed, we headed south to Dorchester, Dorset, although not as directly as we would have liked due to diversions on several flooded roads. But the detour allowed time for Twitter, of all things, to point us to an appropriate address.
After my wife had tweeted asking for local pub-lunch recommendations, back came a recommendation of a Dorchester restaurant called Sienna, swiftly followed by a message from the restaurant itself advising us of its address, telephone number and readiness to serve us. We were surprised on finding it to discover that, far from bearing any relationship to a pub, it was the proud owner of a Michelin star.
Sienna is an unusual restaurant. It is small with only 5 tables, seating a maximum of 15 customers fuelled by three chefs, led by owner Russell Brown in a tiny kitchen. From my seat I had an unobstructed view of the scheduled arrivals of buses to Bridport, Weybridge and Sherborne via the information screen above the Top O’ Town bus stop that is directly outside.
The £25.50 two-course lunch menu (excerpt pictured above) offered a good choice and revealed considerable technical skill. Goats’ cheese ‘truffles’, small balls of goats cheese dusted in bitter chocolate, and tiny red pepper and leek tarts with good pastry were offered as amuse-bouches; linguini with chicory, cubes of green apple and a caramelised shallot sauce was a surprisingly successful combination as a first course; while a fillet of hake with spinach, wild mushrooms and a red wine sauce was a fresh and lively main course – although the serving of the sauce, the crucial element in accentuating the ingredients, was on the mean side.
Over dinner that night, in another early-19th-century house, one topic of conversation was whether, even if we managed to get down to our Sunday lunch destination, the Hive Beach Caféon Chesil Beach, we would find it open.
Happily it was, although it was too windy to walk on the beach before lunch. And as I paid in advance for our order and told the cashier that we were sitting at the table closest to the beach, she replied, ‘You’re lucky. Last Wednesday that table’s legs were under water.’
The Hive and its excellent bakery are the creation of Steve Attrill, who, over the past 20 years, has expanded the business out of its original wooden shell into two large, windowed tent extensions that provide great (windblown) views of the beach. And the fish, particularly a fillet of locally smoked pollock with mashed potato and chive mayonnaise, is very good indeed.
As we scurried home to the slightly drier climes of north London, I was struck by the contrast between the very English scene inside the Hive of families, dogs, and plates of fish, chips and mushy peas, and that outside, where there were huge rollers and debris across the beach, more redolent to me of the Pacific at its most dramatic than of the English Channel.
The Lynch Country House 4 Behind Berry, Somerton, Somerset, TA11 7PD
tel +44 (0)1458 272316
The Buttercross Tearooms Market Place, Somerton TA11 7NB
tel +44 (0)1458 273168,
Sienna 36 High West Street, Dorchester, DT1 1UP
tel +44 (0)1305 250022
Hive Beach Cafe Beach Road, Burton Bradstock, Bridport, Dorset DT6 4RF
tel +44 (0)1308 897070