More even than anything from Shakespeare, those lines from Brooke’s celebrated poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, have echoed down the epochs. All that is cosy and comforting about Britishness can be found in those two lines: “… Stands the church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?”
Yet while the man who made debutantes swoon scratched those very lines in a trench, he must have reflected privately that the exploded brain of his childhood friend a few away was already providing supper for a reinforced regiment of resident rats.
So nursing a G&T before dinner in the snug, period bar, overlooking a grass tennis court so perfect it could be the baize of a billiard table, even those of us forgetful of our teenage poetry-reading could summon the opening lines of Brooke’s most celebrated poem:
“Just now the lilac is in bloom/ All before my little room/ And in my flower-beds, I think/ Smile the carnation and the pink/ And down the borders, well I know/ The poppy and the pansy blow.” Familiarity turns so much verse into cheap cliché, but the horror which awaited Brooke and his generation at the Somme means those homely lines describing the familiar never lose their poignancy.
The Park House Hotel, rolled out on an unchanging landscape of quite impeccably-behaved beauty, is how we like to think England used to be: none of the poverty or harshness from Dickens, but the England which even progressive, modern types secretly miss. Large Edwardian windows give onto perfect borders housing a bowling green, with a golf course in the gloaming beyond. I do not listen for the church clock, or even look to see if there is a place of worship over the old brick wall, for there is no need: this, surely, was the kind of backdrop Brooke was conjuring when he recalled “…oft between the boughs is seen/ The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .”
The hotel was founded after the last war by Ione O’Brien, and remains owned by her grandson. While the plumbing and the food – we will come back to the latter -– has surely improved, the essential polite, smart domesticity is an unchanging verity.
In the bar, photos of past guests decorate the walls – from Ronald Reagan to the Crazy Gang’s Bud Flanagan, who spent the last six months of his life living here; there can be worse places to prepare to join the world’s biggest army, that of The Fallen.
So I am surprised when a fellow diner tells me that Prince Harry was spotted here recently: it makes me re-assess the tabloids’ “Playboy Prince” – could he, after all, hide a gentler, subtler disposition? Or perhaps it simply reminds him of Balmoral, without the drafts, the dead animals stuffed on the walls and the Tupperware breakfasts. I am less surprised to learn that the rules of polo were recently re-drawn in the drawing room – this no doubt acting as a rather grand staff canteen for the hair-flicking, air-kissing boys and gals of Cowdray Park.
High summer is the perfect time to dine at Park House. It is still just light as we take our seats in a room of soothing sage, still able to admire the gardens while wondering if in the fields beyond when “the night is born/ Do hares come out about the corn”?
As if on cue, an amuse-bouche of sweetcorn chowder leads the charge, with crispy bits of bacon shrapnel adding a touch of smokiness to the sweetness of the corn. We drink it down in keen anticipation, especially for Diana’s starter, which was surely created for sunny summer evenings such as these: asparagus, Parma ham, grated truffle with hollandaise. The asparagus has been dipped in water no longer than a wary tourist’s big toe testing the morning temperature of the pool. This bundle of crunchiness is wrapped in a slice of ham and an even thinner sheet of filo pastry, with runny-yolked quail eggs, and shavings of truffle. Bar the truffle, this dish is scarcely more revolutionary than the vintage Bentley snoozing on the gravel drive, or an Edwardian colonel’s country tweeds, but as the colonel would no doubt aver, why rip up what works? And it sure is a lovely dish: summer on a plate.
My starter is more contemporary: smoked eel tortellini, horseradish and bacon with garden peas. It melts in the mouth more quickly than money evaporates in the pocket of a young blade out on a first date. Tortellini can be stodgier than granny’s slippers, but this is supermodel thin, strutting on a catwalk of pea puree. Again, crispy bacon is added for texture and taste to this otherwise smooth dish.
We move on to turbot with lobster ravioli, asparagus, courgette and fennel. Crunchy baby carrots and courgette ribbons compliment the soft ravioli filled with sweet lobster, aromatic fennel, and perfectly cooked turbot, served with an even sweeter red pepper and tomato sauce, binding the flavours together. Caviar, perhaps in deference to Harry and his crew, brings a note of unexpected bling luxury.
Even better is the fillet of beef, with further studies in cow of tail and cheek, with crushed new potatoes and blue cheese rarebit. The beef cheek is served on the side of the fillet, falling apart at the first bayoneting of the fork. Boy is it moist and tender, making Diana savour every mouthful. The tail, cooked in breadcrumbs, combines with the fillet served with a mini rarebit on top to form three very happy amigos.
And in a sign that we diners must be enjoying ourselves, we glance up to see the lawn has now succumbed to darkness. “And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass/ Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,” as Brooke put it so much better.
Pudding highlight is ginger and rhubarb apple crumble, again trusty, traditional flavours, but well executed. The topping is crunchy without any unfortunate sogginess. The sharp rhubarb and aromatic stem ginger ice cream somehow convinces us we are not eating anything super-sweet and therefore in this age of sugar-austerity, we can indulge without guilt (if you turn a blind taste-bud to the custard). A pudding which would surely be recognisable to a young subaltern before his trip to the front.
Amaretto tiramisu is served in a glass tumbler, with confit orange and amaretto biscuits. Replacing the original ingredients with amaretto and orange gives us a twist, but the sheer quantity of mascarpone is over-powering to me; the chef’s one culinary shot to miss its target through a finely executed dinner.
It’s late as we leave, and I can only imagine beyond the window “…in that garden, black and white/ Creep whispers through the grass
But it makes me long to return for a weekend of croquet on the lawn and Pimm’s over breaks in the tennis. Yes, this is where a Tommy would long to be, where there is always honey for tea.
Worth going for: Home comforts probably far more comfortable than your own house
Where: Bepton, Nr. Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 0JB.
01730 819020; parkhousehotel.com