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.
It's grand, it's old, it's the Duke of York. And it's even half way up a hill.
Cowes has a rich variety of eating-houses spread along its wandering High Street, but if one continues southwards into the territory of boatyards and terraced houses stuffed with glamorous young digital professionals, a wholesome-looking town pub comes into view: the Duke of York. This Victorian hotel probably once provided ale and lodgings for stevedores and sailmakers. It now attracts yachties from the nearby Cowes Marina, as well as itinerant food reviewers. Matt was invited to this Cowes pub for a meeting of the Wightbook book club, and so he popped along early to see if the food was any good, for once leaving Cat to dine elsewhere.
England is a country simply dripping with history. Colonials, when visiting, just can't get enough of it - understandably, maybe, as they have so little at home.
The Isle of Wight is no different. Famous as the last place in England to convert to Christianity, later history is equally lively. Can there be anyone brought up on the Island who hasn't endured the story of King Charles getting stuck in the window of Carisbrooke Castle, whilst trying to escape his prison? And every town has its claim to fame - Darwin, Marx, Keats, Tennyson, Icke and many other great names have walked these shores.
But what about Cowes? Yes, Cowes, the dreadfully celebrated home of yachting. For such a famous place, it's pretty short on historical namechecks. In fact, there are some living there yet who haven't got over the snub of Victoria and Albert deciding to live across the river in East Cowes of all places. The shame! So Cowes has to make the most of those connections it does have, and one of the more obscure of those is that in 1874 Lord Randolph Churchill met his future wife in Cowes - and thus the parents of Winston Churchill came together. And where did this portentous rendezvous occur? Why, outside a place called Holmwood House, which is now the New Holmwood Hotel. In complete ignorance of this historical connection, Matt and Cat met there one wet February night 137 years later, to see if the food was any good.
It's confusing enough that the Island has so many eating-places named The Boathouse.
Matt and Cat know of at least four. Of these, two clearly were once boathouses; one other, with some stretching of the imagination, could have once accommodated some modest vessels. But the fourth - the Boathouse at Puckpool - quite plainly has never entertained a boat in its life, unless it's a ship in a bottle on the mantelpiece: it's a solid Victorian pub.
It's also proven to be a fickle mistress for quite a few owners and managers, changing hands several times in the last few years, sometimes under less-than-favourable circumstances. Matt and Cat have had both good and bad meals there, and comments on previous incarnations suggested similarly mixed experiences. At its nadir, some years ago, the Boathouse was the place that people would just love to gossip about - regularly passing on to Matt and Cat stories of heinous crimes against food that cannot possibly all have been true. Once the reputation of a venue goes that far down, it's a very long way back. The Boathouse began its return journey to respectability last year with an infusion of sensible cooking and decent service from the Liberty's team. This year, yet another management team is at the helm and at last, the word on the street seemed to suggest that The Boathouse really had finally settled down. So Matt and Cat set out to see what was going on at Puckpool.