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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Sunshine and Showers - Mistley Thorn Hotel

When I was a child, the English summer was a perpetual gleam of bright sunny days; puffy clouds drifting through soaring blue skies and a warm breeze nodding the grasses in our garden. It wasn't really of course but I do remember that sometimes there was sun. Not so this year. Our summer so far this year was a day in early March. Since then, it has rained and rained some more and then rained for a bit longer. Arks are making a comeback. In such dreary weather you have to make summer up as you go along and I have always found one solution is to bolt off to some rural hidey-hole with the promise of an ambitious chef and a high thread count. So hi then to Mistley, on the muddy banks of the Stour Estuary in Essex and as we set off, there was a minor miracle. The rain stopped and the sun came out and we put the top down on the car. Dazzled like damp moles by the unaccustomed brightness, we splashed through drenched roads and dripping trees until we emerged at Mistley an hour or so from London.





Once it was a busy quay with squat sailing barges landing coal from Newcastle and horse manure from London (a city which in 1900 was clearing a thousand tonnes of the stuff from its streets every day*). Today it is largely retired, mostly due to the rail lines to the ports of Harwich and Felixtowe either side of the mouth of the estuary to the east. Apart from what looks like a small gravel dock a little further along the bank, the quayside is now an empty concrete space fringed with disused warehouses and partly subsumed by a building supply firm. The Georgian merchant's houses have been prettied up in pastel colours and the extraordinary swan fountain, which was to be the heart of a grand scheme for an eighteenth century saltwater spa, survives like the last remnant of a long-forgotten fairground.

I have never seen so many swans in one place. Mistley has always attracted them; first because of the grasses they like to eat along the River Stour, and later because of the barley brought to the maltings which set up in business here. After a couple of questions to that nice Mr Google though I found another reason that they like to gather in Mistley. Apparently the leader of the local "Swanwatch" group has been feeding them grain three times a day, to the dismay of many in the village who are fed up of the mess and the hazard to drivers (and the swans themselves). In the first four months of this year thirteen had been hit and killed by cars.  

Overlooking the fountain is the Mistley Thorn Hotel; eight bedrooms and a restaurant in a building dating from 1723. An earlier inn on the site was owned by Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General of the 17th Century and surely one of the most appalling figures in English history. Its a shame he wasn't still lurking about the place, as after reading the accounts of his murderous life, I would have liked to have had words with him.

The Mistley Thorn Hotel seems to have been designed with the needs of the fleeing Londoner in mind. It is a two minute walk from the railway station, in a place with character but few tourists. Perfect for those of us pretentious enough to think we have "discovered" a place. Inside, it has been painted in those muted colours which lifestyle magazines tend to gush over as being "Farrow and Ball", though these days could just as easily be Dulux to be honest. The rooms have welcoming beds with creamy linen and piles of pillows, modern bathrooms with shiny fixtures, new tiling and gleaming grouting. Crisp white robes hang in the closet and there is tea, coffee and delicious little shortbreads in a kilner jar. Yes, this is what we shallow London weekend holidaymakers want; everything just like it is at home - or rather the stylised version of home as promoted by "Homes and Property".

So, tick tick tick then and the restaurant too has that sense of an unexpected oasis about it - fresh paint, lots of glassware, discreet lighting, and a happy buzz from its diners - local and visitors alike. Ticks all around again. The menu also makes all the right noises with lots of locally sourced fish and seafood - oysters, mussels, scallops, squid. And plenty of wine. I could pretend to critique the wine list, but I'd be rubbish at it. Suffice to say what we had was very drinkable. It was white.

The Executive Chef is a Californian and you can sense it in the menu and the service (and perhaps the title). She brings a cheery air of efficiency to the place. The staff are lovely - everyone anxious to please and the emphasis is on friendly rather than slick. The portions are generous. Rather too generous in fact. I had the crayfish salad and there were plenty of them, fresh and moist, piled on crispy lettuce with a lemony vinaigrette (which could have been a little more zesty). P had big pile of samphire and crab salad and by the time we had finished our starters we were both full. And that is a disappointment when you are out for a meal. If the menu is halfway good you want to have a go with three courses, and each should leave you enjoyably anticipating the next rather than shifting uneasily and hoping you will have room for it. You can always leave some of course, but having been raised to Finish What's On The Plate, I now have a knee-jerk antithesis to leaving anything. And if you do, you have the embarrassment of dealing with the concerned enquiry from the waitress about whether there was a problem with the food. "No no!" you gush but then there isn't really a good second part to the sentence. "There was too much" is another criticism of the kitchen, "I am full" suggests you don't want dessert, and "I left this because I wanted room for dessert" smacks of hideous over-consumption. There's a whole Seinfeld episode there.

I had ordered the Dover sole hoping it would be a smallish dish, but it was a big fish with too many potatoes and a heap of samphire. Samphire is an exotic treat for us townies though and great with fish: I like the squeaky crunch as you bite into it and the slow saltiness which suddenly spreads through your mouth apparently out of nowhere. The fish was cooked to creamy perfection but I wanted a bit less of it. P had ordered the bream and again it was well cooked on a huge bed of lentils, but she could only manage one of the two large fillets and really, one is enough. As we had a three course meal included in the price of the room, we felt obliged to get dessert. Well, rude not to really. I had a chocolate affogato simply because I couldn't really remember what "affogato" was. It turned out to be a solid wedge of chocolate fondant and while about two forkfuls was delicious, the rest was just too much for the end of a meal. Needless to say, with the ingrained mental image of my parents hovering over me, I finished it.

And so to bed, and I would say this to anyone planning a stay: room 4 is going to be noisy. Its right over the restaurant and the kitchen, and the braying table of five below us outstayed their welcome, and somehow forgot that there were other people staying as they laughed and shouted their way to bed.  There was also the usual stamping about above us and in the corridor which is just going to be a problem in an old building but it added up to a rather broken night and no chance of a lie-in. The next day we investigated the other rooms and realised that the three (6,7,8) on the top floor would all have been much quieter, as would room 5 at the back, so we were unlucky.

Breakfast was typically generous and as much or as little as we wanted. From boiled eggs and soldiers, porridge and honey to the Full English with sausage and treacle and ale-cured back-bacon. I have to say that good bacon in my book is just that and doesn't really need dressing up, but it looked good and although with my stomach still groaning I resisted the Full English, I still hankered for it. My croissants were buttery and flaky but had been heated in a microwave which tends to make them go hard in the middle. The coffee and orange juice - the litmus tests of any breakfast - were both excellent. P's vegetarian Full English had haloumi cheese and perfect poached eggs. The Mistley Thorn's website says "We strive for a balance in offering high quality food, excellent wine at reasonable prices and friendly service in a relaxed, fun and inviting atmosphere."

I'd say that's about right. We rolled out into the inevitable deluge knowing we would come back. Next time we will be a bit more specific about the room we want and approach the menu a little more carefully - perhaps by skipping lunch. For a couple of days. The Mistley Thorn Hotel though really is a treat with a lovely atmosphere - despite the niggles. More sunshine than showers.

*all statistics to be taken with a pinch of salt. Or a mouthful of samphire.