Although it is a mere four miles away from home, Spitbank Fort luxury hotel and restaurant is not the sort of place you can just rock up at - it’s a sea-castle in the middle of the Solent for crying out loud.
Vessels have to be chartered and lunches pre-ordered to ensure that the champagne reception has the prescribed amount of canapés. Still, Matt and Cat willingly complied with the booking arrangements as their keenness to visit the fort overrode their natural indolence. As they crossed the days off their calendar, their lunch date drew closer - and landlubber Cat kept an eye on the forecast. Snow ground the Isle of Wight to a customary halt and then, on the day itself, temperatures plummeted heralding the arrival of sleet.
Wrapped up in their warmest togs, Matt and Cat started their journey on the Island Line train. Three boat rides later - with a pleasant intermission in the fort’s luxurious Gosport-based departure lounge - M&C found themselves staring up at the granite edifice. Its presence may have been sufficient to deter Napoleon III’s steam-powered warships from chuffing up the Solent but it didn’t daunt Matt and Cat, not when they knew there was a Sunday lunch inside.
M&C visited the Priory Bay Hotel for the first time in September 2011. Unexpectedly, their conclusion back then was a less than ringing endorsement. They said "The meal satisfied the tongue, but didn’t stimulate the imagination. And when dining at this level - and at this cost - one should not be afraid to expect to come away amazed and intrigued."
Since then, there have been big changes behind the scenes. A new kid has appeared on the block - local man and ex-Noma alumnus Oliver Stephens - who is creating quite a buzz with his lively advocacy of foraged food and hyper-local ingredients. He has a flamboyant cooking style which Matt and Cat witnessed at a Red Funnel food show. As well as tempting the food theatre’s audience with his own pickled whelks, Stephens also cooked some locally-shot duck by pan-frying it, covering it in hay and bits of Christmas tree before setting light to the lot with a blowtorch. Judging by his impressively theatrical performance, Matt and Cat were keen to see if he'd ignited a fire under the Priory.
It’s all over. The sun has resolutely taken off its hat, brushed it down and stashed it away until next year.
The summer of 2012, with its diamond jubilee, record-breaking rainfall, Olympics and Paralympics is a distant memory. Wenlock has closed his vast single eye and Mandeville’s name is tainted with the scandal of the late Sir Jimmy Savile’s association with his namesake hospital. Also consigned to the past is the day the Olympic torch came to the Isle of Wight.
Like most of the summer, the torch’s national tour was played out with a backdrop of typically British weather; yet the drizzle didn’t stop the crowds from gathering to see one of the eight thousand torches flicker through their neighbourhood. On the day the relay visited the Isle of Wight - passing through Yarmouth to East Cowes before you could say £11,000 pounds well-spent - Matt and Cat somehow missed the entire razzmatazz.
While hosts of their fellow Islanders were gawping ten-deep at joyous but sodden torchbearers, Matt and Cat were snug inside the dining room of Dandelion Café, enjoying the spectacular view of the heritage coast across Freshwater Bay and beyond.
It is often said that the Isle of Wight is England in miniature.
With its castles, tube trains, Neolithic stone monument and Doveresque white cliffs, it’s easy to see why the comparison is made. But it’s not just topographically that the Island reflects the rest of England. Visitors and residents can also experience living history. Admittedly some of the county is almost on a par with the modern world but there are anachronistic pockets. Take Cranmore, for example. Residents of this semi-rural backwater enjoy a peaceful existence, living according to pre-war rules when the Town and Country Planning Act and free dental care were mere jottings on the back of Clem Attlee’s ration book.
Another time-tunnel can be found at Seaview. The village itself perpetuates a charmingly Blytonesque feel; with wholesome children spending their summers in ancestral cottages with Pater and Mummy, Hugo and Phyllida. And within this little corner of England can be found the very epitome of contextual solecism, the Northbank Hotel.
After another hard day toiling down the corporate salt mine, Matt and Cat were sat in traffic inching their way homewards.
Some might imagine the reviewing duo plotting their next visit to some unwitting restaurant, but nothing could be further from the truth. A typical debate ensued: should they scrape the frost off whatever was in the bottom of the freezer, or stop at the Co-op and play short-dated-stock roulette?
Just then there was a peeping interruption from Cat’s phone. A pal was ringing to see if they’d like to go out for the evening. Go out? For the evening? It seemed the fish fingers were destined to spend another evening buried in Electrolux tundra. Soon the two were standing by the roadside, suited and booted, waiting for a ride to the West Wight. After a sedate drive in a flashy car, the party of three pushed open the exclusive door of The George Hotel, Yarmouth. In the absence of a greeter, they wandered around the historic hotel until they ended up at the restaurant.