In John Carpenters 1981 Sci-fi classic, Escape from New York, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has to save the US President and then break out of Manhattan which, circa 1997, has been turned into a lawless penitentiary.
Anyone who has ever attempted to leave London on a Bank Holiday weekend will know exactly how Snake felt. In fact, Mr Plissken, it could be argued, had it easy. At least he could just smash his way through road blocks and despatch death to anyone who stood in his way – unlike the millions of Londoners who head for the door marked exit for a long weekend. More often than not, hours are spent sitting in never-ending traffic jams, before even glimpsing a signpost for the M25, that giant, eight-lane orbital motorway that encompasses the capital and whose near constant gridlock effectively acts as a prison wall for anyone on four wheels. It was while enduring a lengthy tailback that the idea first came to me. There must be another way, another way to get out of London on a Bank Holiday weekend. So we set three of our foremost writers a simple task, break out of London on the Friday evening and, within two hours, reach their favoured destinations and report back to us.
The Great Bank Holiday Weekend Diaspora is already in full flow, the airways choking with reports of tailbacks, road works, industrial action, flight cancellations and every major London artery, from the A1 through to the M40, some forty thousand miles of black asphalt, grinding to a halt. A lorry has flipped its load on the M25, a car fire has closed two lanes on the M4s northbound carriageway and Ryanair are refusing a fat person a seat on a flight to Perugia: the globes capital city is on the point of a major cardiac arrest.
None of which is of the slightest concern to me. I’m street-wise, have an honorary PhD in traffic avoidance, when it comes to breaking out of London on a bank holiday weekend, I am the king, the champion, the satnav almighty, plus I’ve pulled rank and taken the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano from LUSSOs supercar pool. With a class-leading 5,999cc V12 derived directly from the Enzo supercar, producing a g-force inducing 620hp and topping out at a cruising speed of 205mph, nothing road-borne is going to touch me. It would take a calendar conflict between Judgement Day and the Second Coming to stop me reaching my destination in the allotted time.
Leave the kids! I shout excitedly to the wife, pulling on my driving gloves, they can fend for themselves. She, however, takes issue with my wisdom, pointing out that you cannot simply leave an eighteen month old baby to fend for itself just because you have your latest boy toy outside.
I sit impatiently drumming the camel leather steering wheel cover and it’s not until 5.15 that the V12 finally erupts into that most perfect sing-song of combustion. A whole 15 minutes, how the hell am I going to make that up? Sensei! Feel the unleaded pumping through your veins! If the entire LAPD couldn’t stop you in Grand Theft Auto… A Ferrari 599? Typical Ed, always trying to pull a fast one. A leisurely hop, skip and a jump post-work on a Friday night, I’m not going to have a nervous breakdown over this assignment, just take it nice and easy, stroll to my destination with plenty of time to spare (more like a mad dash to Paddington if I’m honest).
Isambard Kingdom Brunels masterpiece is a mass of people all trying to board a train, luggage carts, anything to get out of London over the weekend but I quickly locate the First Great Western 17.06 to Hungerford and settle down in the luxury of a reclining leather seat. Now, what to do first? Plug in the laptop and start work on this? Long week and it’s Friday after all, better review the complimentary drinks service, want to be thorough. So me and delighted partner enjoy a large gin and tonic as the train pulls out for a weekend of jollity in the heart of the English countryside. There is, it must be said, something civilised about train travel at this level; it’s not often in this country you feel, if only the journey had been longer.. There’s a reason for that. Most train journeys are plenty long enough, thank you very much. I don’t really care if the engineering works are scheduled or a complete, bleeding surprise – it’s still causing a delay or making me get a bus for part of the route.
However, if the scheduled – and otherwise – engineering works mean that all journeys will be as, well, old school as this one, bear with them chaps. It could all be worth it in the end. Two hours out of London had me thinking many things. Helicopter west to one of Michael Caines places, perhaps? Boat to Whitstable? Lockheed SR-71 to New York? Steal that rather swanky looking 599 GTB from LUSSOs car park? For various reasons – helicopter and boat-inspired nausea, the lack of, ooh, 5m to buy a second-hand SR-71 – these ideas got scratched.
Then, a rather obvious solution arose. Paris. For most people, that would be an exciting alternative. For me… Yes, I realise it’s a lovely place, yes, there are great restaurants, yes, the architecture is stunning, yes, its romantic, yadda yadda yadda. I can appreciate why people feel that way but I never quite got it myself. But journalistic needs must and my wife – Paris lover and former resident – and I found ourselves stretching that two-hour challenge and heading for the Eurostar. And that’s where the transformation began. To me, Eurostar meant the bland horror of Waterloo and that embarrassingly slow, bone-shaking train journey on the English side followed by a slick, speedy, efficient, French journey that rubbed our collective faces in it.
And then St Pancras entered the equation. What a station! What a great bloody station! I am, it must be said, slightly blinkered when it comes to UK travel; everybody knocks it but, for the most part, I think it’s great. I love the Tube. I think our bus system is terrific. I think our cross-country rail network is a thing of engineering genius. Even so, when a truly world-class terminal drops into our laps, it’s a reason to celebrate. So we did, with a couple of pre-train glasses of Laurent-Perrier at the elegant Champagne Bar.
I am a supercharged hare but am moving as about as fast as a tortoise with no legs, clockwise down the North Circular towards Hangar Lane and the promised land, the A40. The radio is stubbornly silent on my predicament, I have interrogated several stations, even switched on the Traffic Announcement, that annoying bit of technology that always switches to a traffic report right in the middle of Knowing Me, Knowing You but never when you actually want to hear one and then always reports a sheep straying onto a pike in Outer Carmarthenshire. So exactly what is keeping my Banzai skydive to countryside luxury on hold? Ikea’s huge Wembley store is what. Do people still shop there? The cardboard boxes last longer than the furniture.
Forget bendy buses, why hasn’t sideshow Boris, Eastender actor and bit-part Mayor of London not got rid of this eyesore and carpet bombed it with Selfridges from a great height? Putting down the bodice-ripper that I’ve been meaning to finish for a while, I take a sip of my drink and glance out of the window, the M25 doesn’t look too clever. It doesn’t appear to be moving at all, in either direction and there is a thick pall of smoke rising over towards the junction with the M4. I wonder how Ed is getting on in his 599? A refill? Yes, don’t mind if I do. Mellowed by such superior fizz, we took our seats for the tedious journey south. The train pulled away smoothly, in surprising silence. The next recognisable landmark we saw was The Dartford Bridge, some 15 minutes later. Sorry? Kent in 15 minutes? Are we on the right train? As anyone who’s done the journey will know, yes we were.
The St Pancras link has meant a new route to the Tunnel, a superior bit of track-laying that – yes! – is even better than the French side. Within the hour, well be on Gallic soil! The French must be choking on their anisette. Is it illegal to chase ambulances? Lawyers do it all the time so why not me? I mean, if I pull out behind the one making its way up through the traffic behind me, will I get done for it? I could always argue that I wanted to lend assistance, while not actually being a First Responder, I did do RYA First Aid, back in, er, 1990.
The M25, which doesn’t appear to be moving at all, finally comes into sight. I pull out of the tailback of cars queuing to join the automobile orbital carnage, scan the rear view for any blues and twos, probably got their hands full at present, and tell the wife to hold on. Bang! It’s at this point the 599s automated F1 superfast gearbox kicks in, with its reputed 100ms gear change, me and the wife are too busy screaming to record the time it takes for us to lurch forward in our seats and back again.
We fly over the M25, I kid you not, rolling down the window and shouting, suckers! at the gridlocked traffic below before slamming on the carbon ceramic brakes, another one of the 599s F1 derivatives and just in time to avoid rear-ending the slow-moving traffic thats fleeing the M25. We crawl on, immensely overpowered but looking good, to Junction 2. It’s a disappointment that our destination was as close to London as Hungerford, Berkshire. At an almost criminal 18.15 we arrive at our stop and a short taxi ride later, at 18.35, with a whole twenty-five minutes to spare, we pull up in front of The Queens Arms Hotel. I wonder where the others are?
Located in East Garston, famous for its racing horses (you couldn’t move for the things, the French would have had a feast), the Queens Arms Hotel is a charming, intimate place with a healthy country pub feel minus the usual Countryside Alliance inbreds lurking in corners. Given the postcode, the horses and the proximity to Windsor, the name probably isn’t just for effect. It’s Royal Berkshire out here, laddie, and don’t you forget it. That’s certainly brought home by the size and pleasingly sprawling nature of the pub. It might only be an umble village tavern, m’lud but its big enough to justify the royal name and location.
Appropriately enough, the founder of the Queens Arms is the multi-barrelled Matt Green-Armytage. Matts philosophy is that, the great English inn is the cornerstone of any thriving village. You can’t argue with that, nor can you argue with his notion of what makes a good pub, hard work, excellent food, great beer and a wonderful wine list. Publicans across the UK could do worse than have that tattooed upon their persons.
The result is a property that’s royal by name and nature and a business that’s warm and friendly and hospitable. That’s not an easy balance to achieve but Green-Armytage et al have managed it admirably. The rooms, while not large, are comfortable and themed around sports such as fly fishing and hunting. Indeed, proof that Green-Armytage is a sound businessman is here in abundance as each room is sponsored by a company involved in outdoor pursuits. There’s a Holland & Holland room for those that like to pack sporting heat, for example, while Tweed lovers might prefer the Cordings bedroom. Photographs around the pub also play testament to the owners love-affair with country pursuits, with many a gun-toting man and dog featuring. Happily, while the influences are obviously classically English, there are some modern flourishes.
Free wifi is available in each bedroom – a perk that should really be compulsory these days – and another rather nice touch was the mirror in the bathroom doubling as a television; there is no greater place to watch Girls Aloud music videos than whilst sitting on the loo.
Pulled into Gare du Nord precisely on time and only 25 minutes over the allotted two hours from leaving London. Of course, the journey may have been efficient but, big deal, it still only brought us to Paris and after a short Metro ride, my usual prejudices were revealed. Why do people celebrate the Metro so much? It’s cleaner and more efficient than London, they bleat. After treading over a couple of homeless people to reach our train and fighting with a suitcase through the pathetically small turnstiles, I can advise that, actually, no, it’s not. And then we exited at St Paul, in the Le Marais district. The sun was shining, well-heeled students and arty types were milling around, happy crowds spilled out of restaurants and boutiques and a rather excellent fromagerie… Hello, I thought. What’s all this then? By the time we reached Place des Vosges, I wasn’t so much warming to Paris as falling head over heels. Place des Vosges is called, the most beautiful square in Paris, by people who, clearly, know what they’re talking about.
It was full of gorgeous buildings, more of those happy drinkers, not to mention the legendary beautiful people of Paris sunning themselves in a charming little park. Over there, Victor Hugos house. Over here, a statue of Louis XIII. And right here, through a classically Parisienne courtyard, our hotel, the Pavillon de la Reine, an oasis of effortless calm behind, er, this other oasis of calm. It’s stunning and eclectic, stylish but cosy. Not just the best Paris hotel that I’ve ever stayed in, it’s probably the best city centre hotel I’ve ever stayed in anywhere. It’s exquisite. It was tempting to stay there, use the small but perfectly formed spa and just find steak frites somewhere nearby but, of course, the purpose of this trip was to dine (approximately) two hours out of London so we showered, relaxed, drank some more champagne and readied ourselves for our mission: a restaurant called Il Vino d’Enrico Bernardo.
Err were wandering around lost in Berkshire, the clipped tones of the Ferraris satnav having fallen ominously quiet. We stop and ask at a local petrol station, they’ve never heard of the place, even though by my dead reckoning, we can’t be more than half a mile away. Finally, I find one of those estate walls that run for miles and says, in a spooky, Vincent Price voice, all ye who enter here make sure you bank at Coutts. Must be getting warm then.
I follow the wall looking for a way in but it leads us into one of those twee Berkshire villages and we spot a local looking somewhat, how should I say? slightly more conducive than your average petrol station bod. Excuse me, do you know where the Cliveden is? The food in the Queens Arms Hotel is great – breakfasts are simple and delicious. Homemade granola bars, normally only useful for using as door stops were gooey and moreish – a perfect accompaniment to vanilla flecked yogurt and compote. The bar menu is complete with all the usual suspects – no pub worth its salt doesn’t have an, insert pub name here, burger and their’s is a good effort, coming with a great pile of worthy onion rings.
In the evening, the welcoming back room becomes a restaurant, with a slightly posher menu that, for once, in a pub, doesn’t feel contrived. A small kitchen turns out delicious seasonal fare that is unfussy and well thought out. Not overly complex, not trying to change the world but simply treated food served with style. A prawn cocktail was an excellent example of this – the classic dish evolved with the addition of some lightly pickled tomatoes giving delicious bite to the dish. A lamb rump was cooked perfectly and served with a selection of well-treated summer vegetables and a meaty, dark jus. And, if there’s a better post-yomping winter dinner of braised pig cheeks, white pudding mash and scrumpy sauce in the area, I’d be very surprised.
Puddings too, satisfied the modern diner – me – and the traditional crowd – er, pretty much everyone else. Lemon posset, for example, was a textbook example, with a soft, gentle, salty shortbread to balance the sharpness. It was also a pleasure (although perhaps inevitable in the circumstances) to see Queen of Puddings on the menu. There’s a bit of traditional English that’s long overdue, a full on revival. It’s also pleasing to see them offer a couple of savouries to finish; the obvious cheese plate – all English, naturally- with a locally produced quince paste and the less obvious Welsh rarebit with spiced apple chutney. Imagine a post-dinner glow, a plate of that and a port or two in front of a fire. Makes you nigh on ashamed we lost the Empire.
When the Il Vino was first suggested, the grumpy, cynical side of me – which, frankly, makes up about 75% these days – thought, a) ooh, what an original name and, b) oh Christ, a novelty restaurant. Il Vino, as the name suggests, is all about the wine list. So much so, in fact, you don’t order food. You specify any allergies or dislikes, order your wine and they bring out food that matches it. Pretentious, huh? However, they’ve also got a Michelin star which, while often more about the decor than the enjoyment, does tend to indicate a level of quality. In this case, those anonymous tyre people have got it spot on. We opted for the five course, A L’Aveugle menu – blind – where they select both wine and food and don’t tell you whats in your glass until you’ve finished. By the end of the second course – a sole fillet, with a butter sauce with lemon confit, new potatoes and shallots – and the second wine – a very subtle Gruner Veltliner – I was a convert.
On its own, the sole seemed delicate but underpowered, ditto the wine. Together? Come here, angels of food and dance on my tongue Langoustine in a Tempura Almond Crust with a Vinho Formal had a similar jaw-dropping effect, while in the accompanying and enjoyably heated wine debates, we smugly spotted a Chablis – paired, brilliantly, with seared tuna, sesame and ginger – and a Cotes du Rhone that accompanied Breast of Duck with apricot, peach, swiss chard and bacon. Best of all though? A Melon and Orange Canneloni of exquisite lightness and a Moscato d’Asti. On their own, very good. Together, a revelatory experience. Much, it must be said, like Paris itself. Finally. Sited some 200 feet above the River Thames, the Cliveden, the name means valley among cliffs, is about as close as you can get to Brideshead Revisited without actually changing your name to Lord Sebastian Flyte.
A grandiose country house in the English Palladian style and I mean grandiose, it became notorious during the inter-war years as the base for the Cliveden Set, a group of upper class, right-wing Nazi sympathisers centred around Nancy Astor. Strangely, this wasn’t its last brush with ill repute either, for it took centre stage again during the Swinging Sixties, as the location for the spy and tickle of the Profumo Affair. The house just begs you to go make history, it’s not good enough to just go and stay there.
While the house is now somewhat more sedate, belonging as it does to the National Trust, when the latter closes its doors, everything reverts to the Von Essen Hotel Group and it’s only then, with the sight-seeing masses departed, that you really get to prance about and enjoy the majestic – imagine Christine Keeler but without the right leaning sympathies. If there are better ways to spend an evening than drinking pink champagne on the open west terrace and watching the rose-red sunset over the Parterre and River Thames, I’ve yet to discover them.
Having overcome the trauma of getting here, it’s reputedly only a 40 minute drive from central London on a good day, head down to the Terrace Dining Room, one of Clivedens three restaurants, the others being Waldos, named after Thomas Waldo, the sculptor responsible for the rather garish Fountain of Love that crowns the front drive and the Club Room, a converted stable with menu to match. While Waldos is considered a superior gastronomic experience to that of the Terrace, it is located within the solid brick viewing terrace the house is built on, essentially a basement and thus lacking both the grandeur and views afforded by the house. Having dined in both, I’d opt for the Terrace, the dining experience greatly embellished by the palatial surroundings and what went on in them and the food is just as sumptuous.
The rooms, mostly the houses original bedrooms, are equally engaging, retaining the style and decor of that gilded age – four-poster beds, antiques, period furnishings. Indeed, when one wakes up and pulls back the curtains (I mislaid the bell to summon the butler) one has to remind oneself that one hasn’t woken up on the set of a period drama. The Cliveden experience, put simply, is living history – the very privileged end of it and the hotel staff go a long way to ensure that the levels of service are not too dissimilar to that enjoyed by Lady Astor herself. Of course, it goes without saying, that if you’re going to arrive, then arrive in a style and manner that’s befitting these magnificent surroundings. Wheel spinning the Fiorano up the long gravel drive has two benefits, for one you wont get waved into the National Trust overflow car park and, secondly, it tends to have a galvanising effect on the front of house of staff. Failing that but equally befitting, avoid the crush and arrive on time by fluttering in on one of Von Essens personal helicopters from Battersea Heliport. Now why didn’t I think of that earlier? Bet Snake Plissken would have.