Since I started this blog, or more specifically since other people started reading it occasionally, I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to some pretty exciting places and to have met some amazing people. I’ve been to Germany and to Spain, I’ve met winemakers from all corners of the winemaking world, I’ve eaten great food and drunk incredible drinks. But this was a first. This was an invitation to an old people’s home in Leamington Spa.
It was quite possibly the most ridiculous idea I’d ever heard. A visit to Leamington Spa, after all, has all the disadvantages of a trip to Germany or Spain, in that it’s miles away from where I live and involves several hours spent with strangers in a long-distance transportation device, without having any of the advantages of a trip to Germany or Spain. There would be no vineyards, no winemakers, and absolutely no way it could be defined as a holiday. Travelling the 100 miles that separate London, a city full of brilliant restaurants, from Leamington Spa, a small town full of pensioners, for a bite to eat is the kind of thing that would only be attempted by a complete loon. There is simply no way the journey could be justified.
And that being the case, how could I refuse? The idea is so preposterous, I reasoned, that there would be absolutely no sensible reason to even suggest it unless the person suggesting it knew something that I didn’t. Unless, in short, it was going to be worth it.
It takes about half an hour less to get from London to Leamington on a train than it does to fly from Heathrow to Munich. You can’t even snooze on the way, for fear that you’ll miss your stop and end up even further from home than you’d originally planned, and without even an old people’s home to have dinner in. Enough time to carefully ponder the only thing I previously knew about Leamington Spa, namely a poem by John Betjeman about an old person dying, with its references to the “chintzy, chintzy cheeriness” that I was pretty much expecting to find one I got there.
She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa
That’s how the poem starts. You can find the rest of it here. As it happens it was dark when I arrived in Leamington, and I can tell you that the ev’ning star doesn’t show you much thereabouts. I was picked up at the station and driven to a large and fairly grand old building. This is Audley Binswood, inside which was a lounge, a bar, a small gym and a restaurant. It all looks pretty much exactly like this, only not quite so dark:
This is no normal retirement home. Audley have 10 locations around the country, half of them also boasting restaurants intended to be good enough to attract non-residents. The main building at Binswood, a former school approaching its 200th anniversary, looks impressive from outside and from within, having been furnished with care and with a very decent budget, to look like a recently renovated top-end country house hotel. There’s plenty of cheeriness, but refreshingly little chintz. There was a mobility scooter in a stairwell, but beyond that not much sign of its primary purpose. The restaurant’s overwhelmingly positive Tripadvisor reviews mean that it currently basks in the status of Leamington’s 59th best restaurant, though without having eaten at all or indeed any of the 58 above it I’m unable to comment on whether that ranking is as absurdly harsh as it seems.
Their wine list comes from Berry Bros, like this building a magnificent old institution that has been impressively updated, and they had a local representative there to present a few wines to us. To say this chap knew a ludicrous amount of information about his wines would be to massively underplay quite how much information he knew about his wines. The local towns, the vineyards’ geology, the producers’ names, their partners’ names, the birthdays of their grandchildren. The 10 wines were all decent or better – “I don’t want to stand here with you going, ‘I don’t like this very much,'” he said. “That’s not very good. It makes my life a misery” – and the overall impression from seeing the place and meeting the people who work in it was of a strong and admirable focus on quality. I’m sure there must be more to see outside the main building, but disappointingly the ev’ning star and a lack of time combined against me.
(As an aside, a few of the wines we tried – a Champagne, a Bordeaux and a Tokaji – carried a Berry’s label. I do think it’s a bit strange for a restaurant to serve an own-label wine when the label isn’t theirs. Berry’s might have be a superior brand, and their Ordinary Claret, for example, is a very decent bechmark claret, but there are many other very decent clarets about that don’t invite such simple comparison with retail prices. I find the sight of an own brand on a restaurant wine menu a bit jarring, but I might be being irrational about this. “We put our name to wines that represent good value and excellent quality and represent their region,” the Berry’s person (I really should have made a note of his name, apologies) insisted, and I know that this is true, but for me there’s still little difference between a restaurant serving a Berry’s wine and a Tesco one.)
Anyway, Whittle’s have plenty of interesting wine with a variety of labels, and of the ones we tried I particularly enjoyed the Roberto Sarotto Gavi di Gavi (£12.50 retail) and Crittenden Estate pinot noir, which is no longer on Berry’s list but is fairly widely available elsewhere, including Asda. As for the food, we had a buffet dinner which perhaps didn’t reveal a great deal about their standard menu but did suggest a more than capable hand in the kitchen. I’d certainly feel pretty safe about recommending it if you’re in the area, or considering retirement.