So, I Was Right



The Daily Telegraph
November 6, 2010

By Clive Aslet

Lunch was at The William Bray in Shere, a pub now owned by Julian Bailey, a former racing driver. Local lamb - although not local duck - was eaten beneath photographs of Jackie Stewart and James Hunt.

Bray had been a contemporary of Cobbett, a prosperous solicitor and antiquarian who kept a diary. One observation, blazoned over the bar, caused me particular pleasure.

A while ago I met the British historian Simon Schama, in full flow about his enthusiasm for baseball (he spends much of his time in New York); the sport, I suggested, was one of the few not invented or codified by the British. I would characterise the reply that I got as sniffy. Yet here is Bray on Easter Monday, 1755: ''After Dinner Went to Miss Jeale's to play at Base Ball with her, the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Flutter, Mr Chandler, Mr Ford & HParsons & Jelly.'' I stand corrected.

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All too sadly, lunch hasn't been something much done since the credit crunch. It seems, though, that word has yet to reach Lincolnshire.

An organisation called Select Lincolnshire invited me to a feast - lunch is too modest a word - at Borough Market in London, a meal for which the only adjective that I can find to do justice is lucullan.

There were seven courses of Lincolnshire produce, with a roast pig's head on the side. Such is my sheltered life that this was the first roast pig's head that I'd tackled.

I wouldn't recommend cooking one for a dinner party: it consists principally of crackling, which is tricky to get right. But no part of an animal killed for our benefit should be neglected and such meat as could be extracted from the cheeks was meltingly sweet.

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A land of low horizons and the black Fenland earth, Lincolnshire produces or processes 20 per cent of our food. But it is not one of those farmed landscapes that people generally go to for holidays. This is a place where people will sit on the sea bank to watch the Chinooks shoot up targets on the bombing range at Sutton Bridge, and Alfred Lord Tennyson's father took to drink. A plaque on a wall at Horncastle marks the site of a cobbler's shop owned by William Marwood; Marwood, when not mending shoes, was a hangman who ''studied the Long Drop''.

But if Lincolnshire has resisted some modern influences, that's been to the good of Louth, which remains one of the most perfect Georgian towns. One innovation, though, is that Lincolnshire, long famous for potatoes, salad crops and wheat, now also makes cheese. I recommend Cote Hill Blue.

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Now that Julian Fellowes' drama Downton Abbey has millions of viewers slavering at the prospect of owning a stately pile, it is timely to consider the responsibilities that come with any grand dwelling - not least the care of the villages and villagers that can be attached to them.

Like most ducal dwellings, Albury in Surrey has ''never condescended so far as to be popular, smart, or even fashionable.'' So wrote Thomas Hay Sweet Escott, a gossipy Edwardian, in Society in the Country House - a book that Fellowes should have had at his elbow. Indeed, the village bears out a truth I discovered when roaming the countryside: most of our prettiest villages are owned by estates. Sometimes that estate is the National Trust, which has a duty to freeze its holdings as though in preparation for the filming of a Jane Austen serial. Other estates are of the traditional landed variety, run by people who value beauty, balancing it against the competing needs of community and economics.

Unlike most businesses, they can afford to take a long view, in the expectation that the family will still be going in 50 or 100 years. One might have thought that such a treasure as Albury (I close my eyes to the landfill site that is a source of local controversy) would have been developed with commuter homes to take advantage of its position just south of Guildford. Instead it is an unblemished essay in Tudor chimneys and tile hanging. Praise, then, the Dukes of Northumberland - one of them inherited the estate from his wife in 1890 - for their enlightened patronage.

My end destination was the next door village of Shere, magically preserved thanks to the ownership of another estate, that of the Bray family, and composed in much-photographed harmony around the Tillingbourne, complete with ducks.

In other times the Tillingbourne, gathering strength as it made its journey towards the River Wey, powered watermills; they inspired one of William Cobbett's finest rants when he looked down on a valley apparently created by ''a bountiful providence, as one of the choicest retreats of man'', which had been perverted to serve ''two of the most damnable inventions that ever sprang from the minds of men under the influence of the devil!''

He meant the making of gunpowder (understandably) and, more surprisingly, the printing of bank notes. Whatever would he have made of quantitative easing?

I would recommend it for a dinner party: it consists principally of crackling

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How are you celebrating 2012? I'm not thinking of a certain sporting shindig, but the other event that year, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

The Woodland Trust has an idea: it is encouraging landowners who have 60 acres to spare to plant woods. There will be 60 of these Diamond Woods, with, I suspect, hot competition to get into the club.

Don't despair, though, if you can't grow on that scale; the trust is also assembling packs of 60 trees - free to community groups - with which they hope a myriad of smaller Jubilee Woods will be created (call 08452 935689). I wonder how this legacy will compare to that of the London Olympics?

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