Dr Weasel and I spent this week’s Bank Holiday Monday in Stamford, where we had our wedding reception in 2004. The George Hotel is one of my favourite places in the country: it’s a coaching inn that’s been active since around 947 AD, with a gorgeously planted garden, quiet lounges with inglenook fireplaces, comfortable rooms and two very good restaurants. It’s in Stamford, a beautiful market town built out of creamy Barnack stone, a few minutes from Burghley House, the palace built by Elizabeth I’s treasurer, William Cecil. We spent the morning at Burghley, then stopped at the George for the afternoon to have tea and scones by the fireplace, and read our books.
The hotel is probably the oldest still functioning in the UK. The original coaching inn forms the heart of the building, with the two religious buildings on either side incorporated into the inn about 500 years ago. One side used to be the Holy Sepulchre, a hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. The George’s historical success came from its position at the side of the old Great North Road, and pilgrims and knights of the Holy Sepulchre stopped here as they travelled from the north down this main conduit on their journey to Jerusalem. There is a crypt beneath the cocktail bar where you can see part of the old hospital, and little architectural details pop out all over the building; trefoils carved in the stone, medieval gateways and the thick walls which once formed the outside of the building, now inside the hotel.
There are two restaurants at The George – the Garden Lounge is smart, but less formal than the Oak Panelled Dining Room, where men are asked to wear a tie. (Dr Weasel had left his in Cambridge when we visited a few years ago, and was given one by the head waiter.) Try the Oak Panelled Dining Room if you get the opportunity; it’s an experience simply to sit in the beautiful room, lit only by candlelight. The wine list is fascinating and meticulous, and the food, traditional English dishes like Woodbridge duck, suckling pig and a wonderful sirloin of beef, is always hearty and delicious. (We’ve looked up from our plates to see Judi Dench eating in the restaurant twice in the last few years – stalkers take note.)
We ate yesterday’s meal in the Garden Lounge, where the menu is a bit lighter. The menu changes seasonally, but there are a few constants – the gruyere fritters with a Thai chilli jam have been on the menu since I can remember. I had this gorgeous Brittany Platter – a dressed crab, a langoustine, an oyster (only one, sadly), a clutch of whelks, little palourde clams, cockles, mussels, tiny pink prawns and a huge king prawn. The enormous platter was served with a green salad spiked with celery, home-baked bread, and three home-made mayonnaise sauces; a Marie Rose, a mayonnaise tout simple and an astonishingly good tartare sauce.
The seafood here is always good; this was gloriously fresh. The shellfish, steamed gently, tasted of the sea, and the prawns were sweet and tender. It’s always good to find a whelk that’s not gritty or slimy, and these whelks accomplished that with aplomb. Grated egg yolk and white garnished the crab, and my, those little clams were a thing of beauty. Remarkably, I nearly managed to finish this; I left about five prawns, a couple of mussels, a whelk and some of the crab’s brown meat. Nearly 24 hours have passed, and I’m still full.
If you’re in the UK and looking for a weekend away, or if you’re visiting England from abroad, do think about spending a couple of days at the George. There’s nowhere I know that serves up that mixture of tradition, service and comfort quite as well. Ask for the kippers as part of your enormous breakfast, and tell them I sent you.