Wednesday 18th January 2006
On a bleak Wednesday morning, which was probably not good enough to do anything else, I set out for Romaldkirk, a small village, about 30 miles from Durham and at the centre of the region I want to explore. Another reason for choosing Romaldkirk is the “Rose and Crown”.
Roger and Denise had recommended it as a good place to eat if I happened to be in the vicinity. On the off-chance that I might be able to stay there as well, I was lucky enough to get a bed for all five nights I was looking to spend hereabouts – not least because it has just been awarded the Michelin “2006 Pub of the Year”!
With two AA rosettes and any number of awards in the recent past, my expectations were high and the reception I got on my arrival suggests that I won’t be disappointed.
I have a good-sized and well-furnished room (recently refurbished) – one of five in what appears to have been the original stable block. Needless to say, further reports – including an assessment as to whether the “Michelin Man” got it right – will follow.
Dinner comprised an entrée of local farmhouse cured ham with fresh figs – yummy; then, swede and coriander soup – could almost have persuaded me to like Swedes; a main of roast rump of lamb with a kidney casserole and onion marmalade – “to die for”; and local cheeses to round off a rosette-worthy meal. I know I’m going to enjoy my time here, even at the expense of avoirdupois (if the word is still current anywhere).
Thursday 19th January 2006
Thursday tried hard not to dawn at all – and I know why. It was quite warm at about 6° C, but wet and windy, and the sort of day that is saying: “go back to bed with a good book” – a qualification which, if the first few pages are any indication, Rosamunde Pilcher’s “Winter Solstice” might just meet.
Although the weather did not improve during breakfast, my attitude to it did, helped I daresay by proper “crispy” bacon – not that thin stuff that ends up like bacon-flavoured chips/crisps mind, but thick and flavourful, and grilled to perfection! But enough of this food stuff – well for the moment, at least.
“The Bowes Museum” which, as it happens isn’t in Bowes at all but in Barnard Castle 5 miles away, was created by John and Josephine Bowes over a 100 years ago. Like the Gardner Museum in Boston, it was designed to provide a public showplace for beautiful things ranging from ceramics and costumes to paintings and furniture, though neither of the Bowes lived to see it completed. Anyway, after a few diversions – planned this time, I should add – to soak up the atmosphere of the rain-swept moors, that’s where I spent the best part of three hours.
Having been thoroughly spoilt by the feast of European paintings elsewhere, there was little here to hold my attention; and I have to admit that ceramics – the collection of which is, I gather, important – do not engage me at all.
Apart from the famous “Swan”, of which more later, I spent most of my time in the seven period rooms covering 300 years of English furniture and decorative styles from Tudor to Regency times. In many instances the panelling, fireplaces and the like had been saved from properties facing demolition. I found the journey – for that is what it was – fascinating.
But back to that swan. Not being able to find anything written about it at the Museum itself, this is from the Museum’s website:
“The Silver Swan is perhaps the best known and best loved object in The Bowes Museum. It is a musical automaton in the form of a life-size model of a swan, comprising a clockwork mechanism covered in silver plumage above a music box. It rests on a stream made of twisted glass rods interspersed with silver fish. When the mechanism is wound up, the glass rods rotate, the music begins, and the swan twists its head to the left and right and appears to preen its back. It then appears to see a fish in the water below and bends down to catch it; it then swallows the fish as the music stops and resumes its upright position. The whole performance lasts about forty seconds. In reality the fish has been concealed lengthways on a pivot in the swan’s beak and returns to this position. In real life, swans do not eat fish.”
For those with an interest in such things, there’s more on the swan’s history and mechanism on the website. I’m not sure whether this applies for the winter months only, but the swan now “performs” only once a day, at 2:00 pm. And yes I did stay to watch it!
And here’s a chance for you to see it as I did:
Purely in the interests of research (as part of my totally subjective evaluation of English cooking) I “sampled” these from the daily-changing menu: entrée, black pudding, bacon and quail’s egg with hollandaise sauce; soup, roasted parsnip and honey; main, pork fillet with wild mushrooms in a potato broth; dessert, rum and raisin ice cream. It was just as well I was walking to my stable abode – driving there would have been hazardous – and not just for the horses. So far, the AA rosettes are firmly in place.
Friday 20th January 2006
Though Friday morning was clear and bright, what little warmth there was from the sun was negated by freezing wind gusts. So suitably rugged up, I set off for Durham and the Cathedral, in particular.
Like Lincoln Cathedral, Durham’s is sited high above the city but with the Western end perched on a steep cliff-side above the River Wear. Because no photography is permitted inside the cathedral (with or without flash) I had to settle for exterior shots – a couple from the cloisters and a couple more from the riverside. Spoilt I guess by the perceived slimness of the later gothic-style columns, I found the massive carved Norman pillars here (6.6 metres high and 6.6 metres round) somewhat intrusive and bottom-heavy, particularly when topped with the slimmer look of the rib-vaulted ceiling. If what the Norman architects were aiming for was “solidly impressive”, Durham must be a perfect example.
Not content with evaluating cuisine, now he has cathedral architecture in his sights. Worry not, unlike dinners, there can’t be many cathedrals left for me to assess!
In spite of my unease about the architecture, I was moved by the wooden cross from the Somme in the Durham Light Infantry Chapel and the simple shrine to St Cuthbert and will remember the Galilee Chapel and the Chapel of Nine Altars.
With a darkening sky, I deferred my plans to visit Durham Castle in the interests of getting back to Romaldkirk before the “sky fell on me” and I made it – just!
My dinner menu consisted of an entrée of scallop, prawn and bacon risotto; wild mushroom and brandy soup; a main of char-grilled entrecote of beef with garlic mushrooms; and crème brulée with brandied apricots. If rosettes can be bruised, they suffered a little – the steak was full of flavour, but decidedly “chewy” – more, I suspect, from the choice of the cut than the cooking and the crème brulée, I’m sure Cynthia will be delighted to hear, was slightly under-done at the bottom and over-done at the top! The entrée and soup were just brilliant! Judgement is reserved pending findings on the remaining two dinners!
Saturday 21st January 2006
Saturday was “meandering around the moors” day. I had plotted a sort of course across the Pennines and ended up doing about 150 miles over 5 hours just criss-crossing the moors via a tangle of B-roads. Just like the Scottish Highlands, the roads were narrow, unfenced, “upsy downsy” and populated with black-faced sheep with suicidal intentions. And just like the Highlands, even though misty, it was just beautiful – which is why, I guess, when I got to the A-road just south of Hadrian’s Wall I drove along it only long enough to find another B-road to go back for more! A different sort of beauty from that of ruined abbeys and cathedrals or that in galleries, but affectingly beautiful for all that!
AA rosettes looking safer again: wild duck terrine entrée – quite gamey, but nice; watercress soup – delicious; roast loin of pork with savoury apple stuffing and crackling (of a size, Carolyn, that would have been a little small for Tony, but plenty big enough for me!). If pork can be luscious, that’s what it was. Oh, and the dessert was honey and whisky ice cream – enough said!
Sunday 22nd January 2006
So enthused was I about yesterday’s “meander” that I couldn’t resist the temptation of a repeat performance, particularly as the sky was clear blue – and stayed that way until about 1:30 pm when the fog rolled in. The temperature remained steadfastly chilly at 0° C when I left the hotel and didn’t ever get above 2° C. Today I headed south and west from Romaldkirk and traversed the northern part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park via (for you map-plotters) Nateby, Thwaite, Low Row, Reith, Stainton to Richmond, where the fog prompted a scuttle back home up the A66.
I thought yesterday’s scenery beautiful – this was more so. Determined, today, to capture that beauty on film, I risked life and limb by stopping on the side of the road that didn’t sport such a luxury. Needless to say I survived the experience and the cold and the results of some of the shots look as if the risk was worth taking!
A pity the fog arrived when it did because I had planned to visit – and, hopefully, photograph – “High Force” the name given to the 29 metre high falls only 20 minutes or so away from the hotel. If tomorrow morning is fine, I might be able to squeeze it in on my way north.
Both AA Rosettes restored. Dinner was close to brilliant: an entrée of scallop, prawn and mushroom risotto: beef broth; roast mallard breast with casseroled leg, roast parsnip tartlet and tiny wild mushrooms – just marvellous; and baked Alaska – scrumptious. On balance, over five nights, I think the “Michelin Man” got it right!!
My destination tomorrow is Longhorsley in Northumberland, where I’ll spend a couple of days before moving somewhere closer to Lindisfarne on Holy Island, which I’ve been led to believe is a “must see”! I daresay I’ll let you know…