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On the Road to the Waterside in an XJ Jaguar
Half a century ago, when a mere strap of a lad, I fell out of my grandfather’s Jaguar. The passenger door swung open as we took a bend a little too fast and I can still remember my fingers scraping along the rough road until I was hauled back inside. Despite that very hairy experience I have fond memories of our gleaming white Jag that took us on picnics to the seaside.
The news that Jaguar, along with Land Rover, has been sold off by cash-strapped Ford to Tata, a no frills, cash-rich, Indian maker of cheap cars, leaves many of us a little dumb struck.
But should it? Over the past couple of decades Ford has pumped billions of dollars into Jaguar and despite their best efforts to bring new models to the market place, and take on the likes of BMW and Mercedes, they did not succeed in the way they would have liked. The selling off of Jaguar seemed inevitable and we should be grateful that Ford has passed it on to a bona fide car manufacturer rather than a bunch of asset strippers.
All of which brings me to the XJ. My wife Lynne and I have just driven the 4.2 V8 LWB Sovereign some 900 miles of mostly motorway driving with a smattering of country roads thrown in and we can honestly say that there are very few cars we would rather have been in. This big cat ravenously gobbled up the miles and cradled us safely (it has all round airbags) from the Scottish Borders to Berkshire with never a moment of boredom and returning a very respectable 28 miles to the gallon, thanks to its light, aluminium body.
The rear cabin of the XJ long wheelbase offers more than a metre of legroom with lamb’s wool rugs throughout. The rear and side windows have sun blinds while the rear seats are electronically adjustable with handy business trays on the backs of each of the front seats. Ideal for paperwork and laptops; together with a rear multimedia system and twin screens that play TV and DVDs the only thing missing is a shower. Pity, we could have sold the house and moved in!
I’ve heard it said that the XJ is an old man’s car. Not quite. This big beauty has a V8 engine delivering 400 bhp. Flick it into sport mode and you’ll leave your tonsils behind as you accelerate from 0-60mph in around five seconds. We certainly turned a few heads as we drove along the leafy lanes of Bray in Berkshire to visit Michel Roux at his famous Waterside Inn where he has retained three Michelin stars for over twenty years. The long drive was worth every mile to experience the magical Roux touch. Sublime food, sublime everything in a perfect location right on the River Thames.
Even so we decided not to do the 350 mile journey in one go. Instead we opted for the gently does it approach, enjoying the scenery as we go, peeling off from the fast roads now and again to savour a hidden inn or small hotel. In the Yorkshire dales the roads climb and dip past old stone farmhouses and cottages, through rolling moors and meadows full of curlews and lapwings, not to mention the sheep which dot the landscape and play such an important part in farming life. In the picturesque village of Hetton near Skipton we stopped at the Angel Inn. This is where Dennis and Juliet Watkins came in 1983 and banished chicken in a basket, chicken and chips and scampi and chips.
Pascal, Dennis’s son, remembers it well. “It caused a cultural revolution in the dales when my father banned chips from the menu. ‘What no chips!’ they would call out when they gave us their order.”
Undaunted the Watkins’ pressed on with a bar brasserie operation and became known for good value food with wonderful fish dishes on Fridays. They went on to win an award for the best pub operator in the country.
Since his father’s death in 2004 Pascal and his mother have been following the same outstanding approach to their food, determined to offer tip top service and value for money. We put it to the test with a bar supper sampling such delights as a Little Moneybag, a delicate mix of seafood baked in crispy pastry and served with a lobster sauce; the Bolton Abbey mutton was outstanding as was a roast pheasant with all the trimmings. What more could you want from a roadside inn deep in the heart of Yorkshire?
The next morning we set off on the 180 miles or so to Cambridge, a university city we had never visited. On a perfect sunny day we strolled down to the River Cam past the incredible King’s College Chapel named after King Henry V1. Looking down from the Clare Bridge, one of a number spanning the river including the Bridge of Sighs built in 1831 as a copy of its namesake in Venice, a bit of lazy punting was going on. On another occasion we might have been tempted to try it! Instead we headed for the newly opened Hotel du Vin a short walk away. We are fans of this hotel chain that has gently expanded across England and has dipped its toe into Scotland with One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow. In Cambridge they have chosen a medieval building with plenty of quirky architectural features and of course the French style bistro for which the group is so well known. There is an open style kitchen so we ogle the food as it is being prepared and delivered to the other tables - much better than looking at a menu!
A comprehensive range of wines is offered by the glass so with our seared chicken livers on toasted brioche, pigeon with polenta, a sirloin steak grilled to perfection and calf’s liver with bubble and squeak and bacon we were able to sample different wines.
The last leg of our journey took us safely to Bray, a tiny village that has turned into a foodie’s paradise. We drove past the Fat Duck, another famous three Michelin star establishment and went down Ferry Road where we came to a stop at the gently flowing River Thames. The Waterside Inn is notched into the river bank. For a moment we pay homage to it, for this is where Michel and his older brother Albert brought fine dining to the English countryside in 1972 while still running the famous La Gavroche in London. Their influence on British cooking is unparalleled and to date they have trained over 800 young chefs many of whom are now famous in their own right.
Inside, the General Manager Diego Masciaga greets us. Our lovely room, a mix of country house style with a smattering of French chic, leads to an outside deck looking out over the river where skiffs go skimming by and Canada geese and swans and mallard ducks are in residence. Soon the smell of cooking is in the air. We dress and go down to the dining room which overlooks the river (in summer you can dine on the terrace with the sound of water dancing around the tables) and Diego turns on the Italian charm. He is a natural host and has been at the Waterside for two decades and is now working with Alain, Michel’s son, who is Chef Patron.
“When you know my dad you know he is unique and I am still learning a lot from him even though he has pulled out of the kitchen,” Alain says with great respect. “My dad has a lot of courage to let me take over and I try to add my own personal touch. But it has never been a one man show. We are backed up with a very good head chef and front of house with Diego.”
Back in the dining room, over a glass of pink champagne, Diego takes us through the menu, gently probing our likes and dislikes until we make a decision. It’s not easy but pan fried foie gras with caramelised slices of orange simply melts in the mouth and bursts with flavour. As for the scallops stuffed with coral mousse in a lemon scented broth they have a deep taste of the sea. Fillets of sole with a broad bean mousse, baby leeks and a champagne sauce with sorrel is also melt in the mouth gorgeous, while a young rabbit with celeriac, armagnac sauce and preserved chestnuts is so good that it has been on the Waterside menu for thirty five years!
As for the puddings just one will set the scene. A sabayon of lychees with pomelo jelly and tea sorbet served with a rose scented biscuit. If you are a visitor to England our advice is go hot foot to the Waterside. You can reach it easily from London and Heathrow is only a few miles away.
We tackled our long journey home in one leg. Cocooned in our milky smooth Jag the miles were swallowed up and we made excellent time. Now all we need is an excuse to go back and perhaps another Jaguar to do it in.
NEED TO KNOW
The Angel Inn, Hetton, Near Skipton, North Yorkshire, BD23 6LT
Telephone: 01756 730263
A double studio room with sitting area, en suite bathroom and shower from $260 per room, bed and breakfast per night. Dinner in the bar brasserie, from $40.
Hotel du Vin, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1QA
Telephone 01223 227330
Standard double room from $280, dinner from $50.
The Waterside Inn, Ferry Road, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AT
Telephone 01628 771966
Superior double room with continental breakfast around $500 per night. Dinner - tasting menu $190
Jaguar XJ Sovereign
Engine: 2.7D, 3.0, 4.2 litre
Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland on Sunday and The Herald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.