Readers may recall that my parents had their diamond wedding anniversary earlier this year in Provence. The celebrations aren’t finished! Sixty guests, one for every year, were invited to a Tudor manor, Littlecote House Hotel, on the border between Berkshire and Wiltshire for the weekend.
Originally my sister and I were supposed to share a room; less than ideal as:
1 ) Both of us snore like trucks, being overweight with short necks.
2) My sister is both accident-prone and incredibly untidy, within minutes every surface is covered. She’s what I call a ‘spreader’. This drives me mad.
3) She likes dark, warm (stuffy) rooms and I like cold, airy rooms.
“I wouldn’t worry” said my dad.”I’m sure at least one guest will die before October and then you won’t have to share.”
When you are in your 80s, friends and relatives die with regularity. My parents’ main social life is attending funerals. And so it proved…we ended up with separate rooms.
Littlecote is a two hour drive from London. The clientele is mostly quite old. You drive through five disabled carparks before you get to an able-bodied one at the far end. The birthday cards in the gift shop start from a sprightly 60 years old, up to full centenarian status. You can hire a Zimmer frame or an electric wheelchair. I had a go on one.
The house has a history: it’s where Henry VIII wooed his third wife Jane Seymour. The gardens are stylish and rather French, in the style of The Draughtsmen’s Contract, all conical topiary, autumnal pathways, trout streams, greenhouses, a pergola, sheep, a roman mosaic. Scarlet Virginia Creeper strangles the walls and leaded Tudor windows. I picked fresh raspberries in the kitchen garden: sweetly ripe and acidic.
For the price of half board, there are free lessons in archery, air-rifle shooting and Nordic walking. I tried all three: my archery needs practice but the air rifles were fun. Nordic walking, where you learn to walk with two sticks, meaning there is less pressure on your knees, was a great workout. I’m doing the Camino de Santiago in Spain this November so it was good to discover more about walking with sticks.
Entertainment in the evenings was cheesy but fun: a chubby white Jackson 5 with exhausting dance moves and a boy band, The Four Ds, with excellent harmonies. You just have to throw yourself into it.
Food however was a disappointment. A dark brown badly-lit dining room and a buffet service. It was like bad cruise food. Dishes were tasteless, reheated, from catering pouches. There was clearly a no-salt policy meaning food didn’t even taste of itself. My niece tried the gratin dauphinois and it was off; the cream had curdled. All a bit worrying when the clientele tend to have lowered immune systems.
Service was careless, many of the staff didn’t speak good English. Although my Polish waiter was honest: “Don’t order the pavlova”. My parent’s careful table plan for 60 guests, sent by recorded delivery, was first lost then ignored. So we never sat down together for a meal, it felt bitty and uncohesive.
On the Sunday, my parents wanted a champagne and canapé reception to gather everyone together. The card from the Queen and the Arsenal football team was stuck on the wall. But the private room was not set up properly. The canapés were changed into really badly made sandwiches, because the waiter said, and I quote, “canapés are a lot of work”.
My sister-in-law, niece and boyfriend (all bakers and chefs) decorated the home-made two tier 60th anniversary cake in their hotel bedroom, whipping up buttercream, with palette knife plastering and piping. As they could not chill it, it collapsed within five minutes after being carefully wheeled on a luggage trolley through the hotel.
My dad gave a speech: how he met my mum at Eel Pie Island at a trad jazz concert and asked her to dance. She said no. This made him like her more.
He asked a mutual friend what he could do to get her to go out with him: “Take off the sharp suits and wear jeans and a scruffy fisherman’s sweater” he was advised. This seemed to do the trick.
It’s a shame that the food and service are not up to the standard of the house and location. It cost my dad a lot of money and it felt like they couldn’t be bothered.
Blackberry and liquorice steamed pudding recipe
- 250 g blackberries
- 1 tbp liquorice syrup, https://www.souschef.co.uk/products/concentrated-liquorice-flavour
- 1 tbsp black treacle, heaped
- 2 tbsp golden syrup
- 175g caster sugar
- 175g butter, softened (salty or unsalted)
- 175 g self-raising flour
- 3 eggs
- 1 stick vanilla, split and seeds scraped out
- Turn over the pudding bowl and cut a circle the size of the top of the bowl, with a large margin of 4 cms (2 inches) in both the parchment and the kitchen foil. Pleat both pieces of paper/foil down the centre, a centimetre (1/2 inch) overlapping.
- Butter (well) a pudding bowl, size 36 or 24.
- Put the blackberries, liquorice and syrups into a small pan and poach the berries for a few minutes, but keep them whole. Pour the berries into the bottom of the pudding bowl. Keep the liquoricey liquid aside.
- Cream the sugar and butter together. Then add the flour slowly, then the eggs. Add the vanilla. Do not overmix.
- Pour into the pudding bowl on top of the blackberries.
- Cover the top of the bowl with the parchment paper, then the foil and cut a piece of kitchen string so that it fits the circumference of the bowl under the lip and has enough to make a handle.
- Knot the string around the circumference and tie the extra string to the other side of the bowl to make the handle for lifting out the bowl.
- Place a saucer in the bottom of a large lidded saucepan and place the bowl on top.
- Boil a kettle and fill carefully until the water reaches half way up the bowl in the saucepan.
- Bring to the boil then simmer with the lid on for 2.5 hours.
- Check every so often that the water hasn't evaporated. If it's low, top it up.
- When you put a skewer through the paper/foil lid and it comes out clean, it's ready.
- Lift the pudding up out of the saucepan and,after loosening with a palette knife arouund the edges, up-end on a plate or cake stand
- Pour the remaining liquoricey sauce over the top.
- Serve with cream or icecream.