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.
In the heat of a summer's afternoon Sandown Esplanade might be mistaken for the Spanish Costas with its towering beach-side hotels, miles of golden sands and the aroma of Ambre Solaire. However, on a miserable gusty evening in April it was more like Skeggie than the Costa Del Sol. Battling against the wind and under a glowering sky, Matt and Cat were positively sand-blasted by the time they fell through the door of the resort's Reef restaurant.
This was no happen-stance visit; many readers of this website have suggested the Reef - and all in glowing terms. But although Matt has a certain historic fondness for Sandown, the town of his boyhood, The Cat has no such sentiment. So far she has been a bit underwhelmed by this coastal town they forgot to close down. But it's not all over for Sandown, The Bay regeneration may uplift this faded dame. And, on this blustery night, Matt and Cat were pleased to find a welcoming haven.
For once Matt and Cat aren't going to start a review of a Cowes eatery with jibes about yachties and DFLs. Instead, let them tell you about how lovely this waterfront town was looking on an unexpectedly clement Saturday in May. The sun was shining intermittently though fluffy clouds and it was warm enough for The Cat to finally dispense with her trademark mittens.
'Twas a day for weddings and Matt and Cat made way for troupes of be-suited chaps with their clip-clopping consorts. The precinct was turned into a human aviary with the clucking and squawking of women wearing this season's fascinator hats; feathers bobbing in the light breeze. M and C dodged into a junk shop to escape the nuptial flash mob but, without much to sustain their interest amongst the piles of dusty tat, they soon left.
A chance encounter with fish fryer and Twestival compère Richard Quigley led Matt and Cat to lunch at The Fountain. This prominent hotel is part of the Greene King chain which Matt and Cat have found to be patchy in both service and food. How will the Cowes branch fare?