Middlethorpe Hall is a William III country house hotel, a £5 taxi ride from York Station and a million miles away from the mundanities of every day life. However, itÕs not a far cry from Kensington. ItÕs where those people with terraced Georgian mansions bigger than GodÕs /think/italics/ they live when they sink into the depths of their uberchintz sofas, and admire the paintings of miserable, long dead ancestors hanging on their drawing room walls. Middlethrope Hall has lots of those, as well as chandeliers, gilt mirrors and two bookcases with neatly lined, suitably aged tomes, which guests are asked not to touch (with wire stretched across them to deter the disobedient). They also have a full compliment of elaborate curtains, ruched into more folds than a nonagenarianÕs forehead, and lots of willing staff, one of whom was competing with the portraits in misery, stomping self-importantly across the layers of pea-green carpeting. In contrast to the indulgent, stately home atmosphere of the main hotel, a spa with swimming pool and punitive gym occupies a couple of converted cottages in the substantial, pretty outbuildings. These days, luxury not only comes at a price, it comes with a treadmill.
The restaurant occupies two rooms Š one with sombre wood panelling - and another with glittery gold brocade wallpaper and a piece boxed off at the end festooned with carved pineapples which donÕt afford much of a disguise. Both rooms overlook acres of beautiful, peaceful rolling parkland with giant, ancient trees whose branches sway in the wind, sweeping the lawns like long green skirts. On my visit the dining room was deserted but for a silent retired couple and three roly-poly men, their stomachs lolling against the table like bowling balls whilst they conducted a long whispered discussion on traffic. It was so quiet I could hear the waitress breathing as she stood like an invigilator watching the few diners as though we might be caught cheating on our table manners, while the steady clump of Mr Miserable reminded us to sit up straight and pay attention every time he strode through the room carrying a tray.
What are you having? I asked my companion. No response - but then sheÕs a peculiar sort of a person: Odd as a back to front apron, and terrible company - which is one of the reasons I try to avoid spending time alone with her. But what can I do? IÕm stuck with the boring old bag Š for hours and hours, and days and days, with no-one and nothing except food to break the monotony. I even have to sleep with her, which IÕm told on good authority, is not the fragrant bed of roses it once was. Ah Marion, youÕre a bloody bore - this is what happens when you go away by yourself. ThereÕs no escape from the voices in your head and the irrefutable proof of your own dullness.
The straightforward, fairly traditional a la carte (£36 for three courses) is not offered at lunch time - but most dishes are available if customers are willing to make allowances for the extra time it takes the kitchen to organise them. Sample dishes could be tea smoked trout, ravioli with black truffle and spinach with quail eggs and pancetta, or terrine of rabbit. These might be followed by squab, fillet of Angus beef with mashed pumpkin or roast guinea fowl. Puddings, on my visit, included warm chocolate tart and Peach Melba with thyme ice cream.
I decided on the three-course lunch for £19.00 so as to cut down on time spent grinning pathetically at the waiting staff and attempting cheerful conversation with the salt and pepper. After the girl offering bread rolls snatched her arm back and ran out the room, it was clear that chatty pleasantries with the staff were not on the menu. I passed on the pumpkin soup and grilled sardines and chose a meltingly creamy chicken liver parfait with a spare serving of delicious lentils, and served with toasted brioche whose sweetness pushed the richness of the overall dish perhaps a tad too far.
I followed with glistening honey roasted belly pork - more sweetness to offset the creamy pepperiness of the accompanying earthy, black pudding mash and the slivers of perfect cabbage with bacon, curly and iron-hard, like a pensionerÕs perm. Even the irritating inner voice couldnÕt stop me eating the lot. Other choices were confit duck leg with polenta and seared salmon with saffron and mussel risotto, all dishes served in sizeable portions.
I asked the invigilator about the cheese board, which was sitting on the windowsill, soaking up the last of the summer sun. ŌOh, Stilton, CheddarÉIÕm not sure whatÕs on it,Õ she stammered edging away, looking vainly for reinforcements. Instead, I had a fairly uninteresting, moulded cold rice pudding, enlivened with a drizzle of honey, served with a nice poached pear and prunes which I ate while watching a single magpie dart up and down the lawn. One for sorrow? Well, solitude isnÕt /that/italics desperate. Though their coffee is.