Gentlemen, to bed... then back to the gastropub. Andrew Dickens enlists his dad to help him trace the steps of Brydon and Coogan, one menu at a time
There was the chorus girl, Bernadette. I met a lot of stars through her, like Frank Ifield and Russ Conway. Beryl Reid gave me a lift back to London from Bristol. She invited me to stay, but she wasn’t very attractive.”
It’s late. My dad and I are in the bar at The Inn At Whitewell, a lovely bolthole in Lancashire. He’s telling me about his past girlfriends. I’m listening. We’re both quite drunk. “I danced with Petula Clark, had a little ‘moment’ with Sandie Shaw. I also dated what you’d call, back then, a coloured girl. Your mother doesn’t know about her. Then there was Sandra. She’s the one who threw the knife into my arm. I often wondered what happened to her.”
I’m experiencing all kinds of emotions. There’s surprise that a man who reads the Daily Mail dated a black girl. There’s respect that he did so in early-Sixties east London. There’s admiration for his ability to forgive Sandra. There’s pride that he didn’t sleep with Beryl Reid. Most of all, though, there’s a huge glow of happiness that he’s telling me all this.
My dad – an Essex man known to the rest of the world as Eddie – and I talk, but we don’t often talk, and those italics make all the difference. We’ll chat about football and beer, I’ll marvel at his ridiculous DIY skills, and we’ll argue politics like two mules fighting over a carrot (see Daily Mail comment), but anything more personal is left assumed or unsaid. This man has been my hero my whole life, but I don’t know him well enough. And when, in my dad’s own words, “mortality is becoming a serious consideration”, (it’s impressive that his joie de vivre has allowed him to near the age of 70 before getting concerned), these things matter more.
So we need ‘us’ time, and what better way to get it than a road trip or, more precisely, a condensed version of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s gastronomic gallop across the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District in The Trip. We both have a fondness for cars (we’ve borrowed a Jaguar XK coupe that we now love more than some of our relatives), food and booze, so even if the heart-to-hearts don’t occur, at least we can talk about dessert.
Two days earlier and our first meal, at the beautiful Michelin-starred Yorke Arms in the Dales, teaches us that posh lunches are not the place to get deep and meaningful. This is because posh lunches don’t have muzak to drown out the awkwardness. Instead, we emulate Coogan and Brydon’s running theme in The Trip: impressions.
“Not a lot of people know that.”Michael Caine. Next.
“I wanna tell you a story.”Caine doing Max Bygraves. Next.
“Just like that!”Caine doing Tommy Cooper. Dad, can you do anyone without the same accent as you?
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Clearly not.
Impressions are taken off the menu, but we still feel the need to somehow pay homage to the show. We buy a postcard of Malham Cove, where Coogan gets competitive about limestone knowledge (we couldn’t be bothered to walk there ourselves); I recite poetry, in the form of a filthy Oliver Reed limerick, at Bolton Abbey. After that I have a staring contest with a cow quite possibly related to one I’ll later be consuming; and finally we attempt to hurdle a fence, scoring high for technical merit, but low on artistic impression and sheepsh*t-avoidance.
We give up on anything other than discussing the food when it comes to the lunches. These include another posh Sunday one at L’Enclume in Cartmel – which comprises seven taster courses – and a more down-to-earth affair at the Angel Inn in Hetton (the original gastropub), where we take advantage of its seafood festival.
Evenings are different. Comforted by ambient sound and alcohol, like newborn foals on roller-skates, we take tentative steps towards getting to know each other. Armathwaite Hall near Keswick brings us seabass, crisp belly pork and my dad’s bucket list, which includes owning an Austin Healey 3000 again, slowly driving across the US, skydiving and seeing the Northern Lights. Cocktails, dinner and cognac at the luxurious Holbeck Ghyll hotel by Lake Windermere is where I learn about my grandad – a market trader and casual dockworker in the East End who was crippled by an artillery cannon in the Second World War – and how my dad turned down a dream placement at Ford’s design school because he felt honour-bound to do a job he’d accepted two weeks earlier.
Back in Whitewell and we’re still on relationships. If my dad and I are like Brydon and Coogan in any way, it’s when it comes to women. My dad has been (mostly) happily married to my mum for 46 years. My love life is a sorrowful tale of, well, it’s just a sorrowful tale. One that I’ve always thought disappointed my dad. Fresh from yet another failure, I tell him that I’ve come to terms with the fact that I might never get married and have children. “I still feel the same way about your mother as I did when I was 20,” he says, giving me a little lump in my throat. “But passion’s a fleeting thing.
I think you get caught up in that bit and gloss over fundamental differences. But as long as you’re happy, I’m happy. And kids are a drain anyway.”
He then chats up the waitress on my behalf (Coogan sleeps with a Polish receptionist at Whitewell, so perhaps he thinks it’s the done thing). He’s unsuccessful, but it’s the thought that counts. I contemplate what I’ve learned over the past three days: there should be no compromise when it comes to food – coffee should have sugar in it, bread should have butter on it and if you can’t look a cow in the eye, you shouldn’t be eating it. I’ve learned that you should never annoy a woman standing near the knife drawer.
And I’ve learned – after 250 miles, 16 types of meat and the worst impressions since Hitler did his Charlie Chaplin at the Bürgerbräukeller open mic night – that despite the adage, you should meet your heroes.
Take the trip
Get there: We travelled in a 5-litre, 155mph Jaguar XK coupe (Jaguar.com) – well worth hiring one if you can.
Where to eat and sleep: Bask in the tranquillity of the Yorke Arms (Yorke-arms.co.uk) before heading to the grand Armathwaite Hall (Armathwaite-hall.com) for dinner and digs. Next, try the taster menus at L’Enclume (Lenclume.co.uk), then wine, dine and doze at the Holbeck Ghyll (Holbeckghyll.com). The Angel Inn at Hetton’s (Angelhetton.co.uk) gastropub credentials are topped up in the equally perfect Inn At Whitewell (Innatwhitewell.com) that night.