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.
Matt and Cat visited this modest hotel for one of its popular Christmas lunches. They had been advised by other diners in their party, who were regulars at the hotel, that the venue was a bit retro. They weren’t kidding. The Sunday Telegraph famously described it as an ‘astonishing anachronism‘. However, unlike, say, a trendy boutique hotel in Brighton, the Northbank was innocently unironic. Whilst the mid-twentieth century hung heavy in almost every feature of the hotel, this was never contrived, but original – and still in use.
Taking time to admire pictures of the Queen and Churchill, Matt and Cat handed over their coats and made their way to the bar. This glorious little wood-clad room had last been refurbished in 1964 by a skilled craftsman whose expertise was clearly in fitting out boat interiors. From a ceiling rack hung branded Babycham glasses, on the bar was an authentic Watney’s Red Barrel pump. Handing around peanuts dispensed from the gaping mouth of a glass fish, 70’s chic aficionado Cat found it hard not to gawp, her mouth mirroring the fish-nut-caddy’s slack jaw. It was clear that throughout the hotel similar items had hunkered down for years of service; the patina on the signed picture of Keith Floyd could not be simulated.
After drinks in the bar, the group was summoned to the dining room by the Northbank’s proprietor, who runs the place with help from his family. Passing the vast radiogram in the spacious lounge they met some of the other lunch guests – a pleasingly catholic assortment including young, old, visitors, locals, well-heeled and casual. The staff greeted some of the diners by name, and they reciprocated.
A polite waitress in a traditional pinny shepherded Matt and Cat to their table, which was all laid out ready for the feast, with crackers, candlesticks and Christmas decorations. A simple menu was waiting, and bore everything you might expect if you were dining out in 1972. Matt and Cat soon realised the other-worldliness of the Northbank was genuine enough. Somehow they did not mind that the cutlery and crockery did not match – either around the table or within each place setting. M&C discovered that old-fashioned food need not mean skimpy or slapdash – if anything, the opposite. The meals were presented simply, but with care and style.
Soon after the crackers were pulled, paper crowns donned and jokes read, Matt was picking delightedly at a classic prawn cocktail starter, whilst Cat was crowing with pleasure at a melon galleon – a vessel she thought long scuttled. The fresh, tasty starters were soon consumed, and Matt’s roast turkey dinner was next. Cat, replete with melon already, was happy to take the other meat option, salmon coulibiac. Their pals included a vegetarian who reported very positively on the cheese and parsnip roulade. Predictably enough, the waiting staff were experts in silver service, with plentiful fresh roast vegetables and two types of potatoes for everyone, served directly onto the plate.
The food was great. Piping hot, plentiful and tasty, it all made for a wholesome and satisfying Sunday lunch. Matt’s turkey was freshly carved, and served with sausage, bacon, stuffing and as much gravy as he wanted. Cat’s slice of salmon was lovely; a kind of fishloaf in a crusty pastry shell. The coulibiac was an interesting mix of salmon, mushrooms and hard-boiled eggs packed with rice. It was a bit carb-heavy with both rice and pastry – but then it was Christmas dinner!
Christmas dinner @ £15 per head
Bottle Adgestone Vineyard
dry white wine £15
For dessert, Cat forewent the chocolate roulade with fresh raspberries (what, no Black Forest gateau?), choosing instead cranberry and sloe gin jellies with syllabub – a grown-up’s version of kids party favourite jelly and ice cream. However, its similarity to Rowntrees and milk evaporated on the first spoonful. The alcoholic jelly seemed to fizz slightly on Cat’s palate, creating what wine tasters call a ‘mousse’. The syllabub was topped with a cheeky pair of frosted grapes and the whole dish was delightful and refreshing.
Matt’s dessert was, of course, home-made Christmas pudding. After roast turkey, what else could he choose? This hot, crumbly treat came not only with a rum sauce (no feeble custard here) but also an accompaniment which was, for Matt, the star of the whole show. A stainless steel bowl – the kind which trendy chef Jamie Oliver uses to spoof a retro twist – a was full of a soft, sweet homemade brandy butter, garnished with a glacé cherry and angelica. Yes, friends, angelica. Remember that? Matt was in heaven.
Stretched on a sagging sofa back in the lounge for their coffee and After Eights, Matt and Cat felt as though they were dining as houseguests of an eccentric and kindly family – which wasn’t far from the truth. A gentleman with a neatly folded newspaper was sitting at the window, admiring the passing shipping. A Union Flag fluttered smartly on the flagpole in the garden. The waitress came round to top up the chocolates. All was right with the world.
Northbank Hotel, Seaview