Somewhat tempted by last month’s ‘KCWToday’ back page, I was then reminded by Lady H that I owe her a weekend away “somewhere nice” I can`t remember if this was for some long forgotten (by me at least!) misdemeanour or deferred payment on a cancelled Paris trip, but anyway, it seemed an ideal time to explore Dorset. The weather forecast became slightly worse as the day approached, but I decided it was time to waken my old jag from its garage slumbers, and, just for the hell of it, see how far I could get with the sunroof unfurled.
Even after spending more than a few quid, I still had to hop from one mechanic to the next to get it properly ready for the trip. To be fair, old cars can be like that; at times inspiring plenty of love & elbow grease, at other times you feel like chucking the key over a hedge and having a good cry at their petty failings. But I kept the faith, and fuelled up to the brim we nosed out of town heading for the delights of the M25. It was a relief to see most of the traffic piled up in the opposite direction, but I didn`t really relax until we reached the M3 and let the unfashionably large V12 motor properly clear its throat. It`s an inspiring feeling, hearing the exhaust roaring like constantly tearing calico, and watching the speedo heading effortlessly towards license losing territory, but before long, reality bites and we slow to the inevitable crawl past Stonehenge.
After outrunning most of the rain we reach Sherborne, the ancient market town that has many ancient things, from castles and an Abbey to nearly 30% of its population being over 65. It’s a delightful place though, and has history both ancient and modern from King Alfred the Great and Sir Walter Raleigh, through to schools which can trace their origins back over a thousand years, and who have in more recent times turned out such well-known names as Jeremy Irons, John le Carre, Hugh Bonneville and genius WW2 code breaker Alan Turing. Connecting us to a bit of history, the Yew suite at the Eastbury sports a fabulous 17th century 4 poster bed that has been beautifully refurbished and which makes you feel suitably regal. If serfs were still available, this would have warranted at least two each.
The Eastbury is an interesting place that is well over half way through its de Savary transformation from the very trad (evoking thoughts of an Agatha Christie murder or two in the pantry) to something which, whilst not forgetting its recent past, wants to add some quirky and modern touches. How about a Hobbit Mound hidden at the bottom of the garden? Sounds a bit risky (perhaps even towards the bonkers end of offbeat in this environment) but all the signs point to it becoming the funkiest private room in town. Not many saw that one coming, nor the recently constructed Victorian Potting Sheds which are 118 years too late for her reign. These will house Spa treatment rooms for those in need of hydrating, manipulating, steaming and generally patting and primping. Despite being a bit of an unreconstructed bloke for much of the time, I`m not immune to the charms of the odd treatment, though you can delete the word “beauty” in my case. It`ll take more than an extract of some rare seaweed to turn me into anything resembling a cover star.
What I can do justice to though is a top quality restaurant, and although this place is currently awarded 2 AA rosettes, I`m told that’s set to be upgraded, which would be a fitting reward for head chef Matthew Street and his team. The Seasons restaurant is, essentially, a conservatory built on the back of the building, so it’s not all grand columns and lofty ceilings, but it is light and has about 150 degrees of views onto the garden. Even those not going for the tasting menu get to enjoy a stylish amuse bouche of Gazpacho, local breads and tomato butter (cunningly disguised as a real tomato, complete with stalk) I liked this place so much I decided to forego my usual rule of trying somewhere in town for the 2nd night, so prepare yourself for what seems like a rather extensive meal. Starters over the 2 nights included Devon Crab (which was subtle & skilfully executed, but not ground breaking) Braised Ox cheek Ragu (with exquisitely thin hand cut pasta, a subtle dash of truffle oil and Old Winchester cheese; absolutely perfect in every aspect)and the Carpaccio of Octopus which was generous and beautifully presented.
For mains we ranged from the special of Faggots (done properly, and a big nostalgic hit with Lady H) to the Rump of Lamb served with caramelised red onions, Greek yogurt, courgettes and oregano. Cod with a Garlic & Herb Crust sat upon a throne of Leeks & Crispy Capers and came with Roast Cauliflower, and the Venison Loin arrived with a neat quenelle of salt baked swede mash, spiced red cabbage, sage and almond pesto, and a juniper sauce. Produce is mostly locally sourced, but the inspiration for the dishes extends joyfully from the local farm gates all the way to Mediterranean Sea. Stand-out dessert was the Valrhona Chocolate Cremeux, with passion fruit cream & toasted hazelnut ice cream, and although there’s enough to share, very little got passed over.
I was sorry to be packing my bag for the return trip, but hopefully the next time my glamorous companion calls for a weekend away, she will be voting for a classy room “somewhere in the Sherborne area”. The old jag will know just where to head for, providing it`s not feeling grumpy and in need of a visit to its favourite mechanic.
The Eastbury Hotel: 01935 813131 / theeastburyhotel.co.uk