Bees & Bluebells – Willington Hall Gardens

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A  visit to Willington Hall is not complete without a gentle wander around the ever changing gardens. As you read this the rhododendrons will be in full flower, the poppies will be swaying in the breeze, and the squirrels will be hanging about on the long driveway, waiting to welcome you in!

I’ve said enough about my love for Willington Hall, so I’ll just leave these pictures here, for you to look at, if you feel so inclined.

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P.S. The gardens are open daily, you’re welcome to wander round and enjoy them, and it’s free to do so… because Willington Hall is such a lovely place!

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Dining A la Carte at The Gainsborough Restaurant, Willington Hall

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Rain and hail tappeted against the dining room window. We sat cosily, looking out. Last night we dined from the bar menu, tonight we were to be treated to the a la carte.

And for the first treat – Pigeon pastrami. Sounds a bit weird, but this is the amazing thing, just a tiny taste and I felt like I knew the bird personally! It tasted of fruit, foraged juniper berries. The walnut bread gave a heady depth to the dish, a crispy thin crouton. Subtle walnut oil, rocket, cresses – it was as if I was tasting the pigeons whole life story!

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Soft egg in crispy batter, Sorrel pesto, seasoned rocket, and blanched asparagus. Very green tasting. You can’t go wrong with egg and asparagus. I wasn’t sure about the sorrel pesto, but it worked.

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Pan fried beef, rich in flavour, butter cooked with crisp edges and a soft centre. Sweet, sticky onion tart with a rich shallot flavour. Huge heritage tomato stuffed with heritage tomato mousse for enhanced heritage tomatoey flavour. Green beans, fondant potato, thyme gel. I don’t like it being called gel, it sounds unnatural, unfood-like – didn’t stop me eating it though.

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A crispy little ball of lamb belly balanced on top of the ‘terrine of potato’ – creamy and rich Dauphinoise, with rosemary. Petit pois a la francaise with shallots, little gem, butter. Perfectly cooked lamb, I mean it, gently salted crust and succulent meat. And a faggot. All the lamb.

I couldn’t try the fish, but I just wanted to show you it because it looked so pretty!

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Plaice. Cornish crab cake ball. Tiny red King Edward potatoes crushed into a little gathering under the fish. The colours – so beautiful, so in-keeping with the decor of the house, so not intentional, but nice.

The hours passed, really they did, the sunlight dimmed and it was pudding time. Excellent.

Lemon Meringue. Tart – soft pastry case with creamy thick lemon filling, topped with cream and lemon zest. Lemon curd, crumbly biscuit crumb, sorbet like a refreshing summer lemonade, and cheeky chewy little meringue kisses. Not a true ‘LMP’, all the components, not really a ‘deconstruction’ but still a lovely pud. And of course, Manchester Tart – too fabulous not to have again!

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I’m excited for Willington Hall.

Things are happening in the kitchen and they’re good. Chef Paul-Anthony Smith enthuses and talks quickly, hands moving around, eyes thoughtful. He’s bringing old recipes back, reworking them into Willington classics, creating new traditions and bringing the history of the hall to life.

Willington Hall is such a special place to me, and I’m sure if you went there you’d feel the same. You’d be welcomed, you’d be made comfortable and at home, and you’d become part of the family.

They Don’t Call Me Jodrell Bank Ears For Nothing, You Know!

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The first nights sleep in a different place is normally interrupted and not particularly easy or enjoyable. Every sound wakes me, nothing feels right. Not at Willington Hall. I sunk like a heavy weight (true, and full of food!) into the giant, welcoming bed, and fell into a comfortable and deep sleep. I woke naturally, with the soft sound of rain falling outside, the occasional bird song, and otherwise, silence. I have never stayed anywhere more quiet.

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You know how sometimes you wake up singing a random song? This morning mine was, ’N n no, no, no, no place I’d rather be!’ (Clean Bandit, innit?) I laughed at myself and my appropriate morning theme tune.

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We rolled down the stairs to breakfast. Full English for Adam (no beans, no tomatoes), and Eggs Benedict for me. This is where I realised that I am a terrible creature of habit. The Eggs Benedict had changed! Perhaps if I’d not slept like a baby I’d not feel like a baby when I looked on at my delicious, but ‘wrong’, breakfast. The ham was wrong, where was my ham? What have you done with my muffin? Adam had no answers.

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It was a good Eggs Benedict – thin circles of white toast, waves of parma ham, fresh runny egg, and tangy hollandaise sauce. Had I known nothing else, this would have been most excellent, eggcellent. But I’d expected something different, and I couldn’t be consoled. I’ll liken it to the time Adam thought someone had put black grapes on his pizza (he was a child) but when he bit into the sweet grape it had the taste of a thousand chlorinated swimming pools, it was an olive! Now, an olive is a delicious thing, but not when you think it’s a grape.

Anyway! With our breakfasts eaten, and the rain falling, we ventured out into the world, and off to Jodrell Bank.

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My mum used to call me Jodrell-Bank-ears when I was a kid. It wasn’t an aesthetic thing, more of a range and audible scale thing. I heard everything. I also kept notes of what I heard in my Keep Out! notebook with the pop-up spider in the front.

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The Lovell Telescope is an incredible piece of engineering, and is Grade 1 listed. It’s pretty impressive to think it was built in the 1950’s and is still working and making new discoveries, it tracked the space race (including space dogs!), it’s the third largest steerable radio dish telescope in the world, and is the centre for MERLIN, the Multi Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network.

Interferometer, what a marvellous word!

I learnt lots of wonderful things, but I’m not going to tell you them here, just incase we are on opposite teams in a pub quiz one day and I need an advantage.

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The beautifully named Whispering Dishes. So cleverly simple. Two mini parabolas facing each other – you whisper into the centre of one, the shape focuses the waves and sends them in a direct line to the opposite dish, where the other person is ready to receive your insults/profound statements and hears you perfectly clearly, as if you were stood right in front of them. That’s how the Lovell Telescope works.  Bloody amazing.

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As the rain stopped, the sun came out. We headed back to Willington Hall, and spotted this marvellous bread conveyor belt on the way…

One Week On – The Little Marsh Daisy Chick

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Baby chick Ruth turned one week old yesterday. Yes, we called the chick Ruth, we don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl yet, but it’s staying. It’s a lovely little thing. We’ve enjoyed watching it learn from Margaret, it’s all very simple but wonderful.

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The other eggs didn’t hatch.  I don’t know why, but that’s nature.

We can’t let baby Ruth out in the garden yet because he/she is too small and might get carried off by a hawk or something. It’s true, Adam once saw a Sparrowhawk loitering near the cars.

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Margaret has been cooped up (literally) for well over a week now, so I thought, if she wanted to she could pop out for a bit, and I could chick-sit.

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She grabbed a mouthful of grass and, keeping one eye keenly trained on baby Ruth, she wandered along. Unfortunately the eye that wasn’t on baby Ruth was prime target for a fearsome pecking from her ginger twin, Belinda. I don’t know why she attacked, but she did, and there was a full-on big ol’ clash of the gingers.

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The other chickens were shocked, April went to hide, I shouted ‘Stop it!’ and Sasha, seeing her chance, ran in and pecked Belinda right on the head. Ha!

I shooed Belinda away and scooped Margaret up, putting her back in the run. I felt sorry for her with her bleeding eyelid, being broody has made her weak, she sat down and tucked baby Ruth under her wing.

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I made her some oats with honey and seeds, dug her some worms, and gave Belinda a fierce glare.

Maybe we should have a sweepstake? Do you think Ruth looks like a boy or a girl?

Home from Home – Willington Hall, Cheshire

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When I heard that Willington Hall had a new chef, I couldn’t wait to get there and tell him how lucky he was!

It’s rare these days for somewhere to be a well kept secret,  but Willington Hall, albeit a beautiful country house hotel in Cheshire, has remained a hidden gem.  I think it’s a wonderful place for any chef with aspirations to be able to really make their mark.

We arrived late in the afternoon, checked into our lovely room with views across the countryside and helipad (I sooooo need a helicopter!) and waited patiently for dinner time.

This is not the first time we’ve stayed at Willington Hall*, (it was Adam’s third visit and my fourth), and it certainly won’t be the last because we both absolutely love it there. It’s hard to explain how I feel about the place without sounding all gushy and overzealous, but for me it’s just the most lovely, friendly, comfortable, homely, welcoming and delightful place to be. Home from home, properly.

We sat in the bar and ogled the menu. Soft light fell through the windows. It felt like a Sunday. It was a Sunday, but you know, it felt like one too. We ordered from the bar menu.

There are two sides to the menu at Willington Hall – the regular bar food of great quality and firm favourites, and the a la carte menu which exceptionally showcases the seasons with it’s more inspired dishes.

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The ham hock terrine was pleasant, mild in flavour, with a good consistency, and nicely textured with mustard seeds and chives. The picalilli was tasty but not hot, the vegetables could still be recognised by flavour, and it was easy to eat, working well with the crispy rye toast and lightly dressed salad.

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The smoked duck hash was a rather rugged dish, with hunks of bread and a portion size to match. Not the kind of ‘hash’ that we’d imagined. Chunks of duck, potato and carrot in a rich sauce, like a country stew, with a soft fried duck egg sitting on top.

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The new chef, Paul-Anthony Smith, has a vision shared by Willington Hall – to bring the countryside to the table in style, by using local, seasonal produce to create honest but beautiful dishes.

Last time I sat in the bar at Willington Hall I held my onion ring high, towards the chandelier, and rejoiced in its beauty (I was tired, hungry, and I knew I was about to enjoy a great onion ring!) This time I didn’t have time for that, I just had to eat it and discover that they are still just as good… even better! Soft sweet onion in a crispy salted batter – it’s the simple things!

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As I arranged my burger, ready for eating, I looked up, Adam was staring at me with bulging eyes, ‘This is a good burger!’ he exclaimed. He was right. Beefy burger, good texture, nicely seasoned with fine chopped  white onion, and not too chunky (it’s got to be able to fit in your mouth, right?) The perfect pile of soft brioche bun, juicy red tomato, crisp fresh little gem lettuce, fine sliced red onion, chunky gherkins slices and rich melted cheddar with an excellent meaty burger. The relish was sweet and tangy, and the chips were good, although I only had room for two of them!

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I know I said I only had room for two chips, and this is true, but my pudding stomach was completely empty and willing to receive the Manchester Tart, so I gave in to it immediately.

We moved through to the Study Bar, because we could.

Chef Paul had already described the Manchester Tart to me earlier in the day, based on a recipe his grandmother made him, it sounded sturdy, and nostalgic, and I’m both of those things, so it seemed fitting.

Adam opted for the Chocolate and Pineapple, with no idea what to expect, it was prettily presented, rich and clean in flavour, and light enough not to make him pop!

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The tart itself was less decadent in appearance, but still bloody lovely! A cakey base, hard to describe, somewhere between a sponge, a steamed pudding and a shortcrust pastry, with a layer of homemade jam, a layer of sliced banana, topped with cold set custard, and sprinkled with shredded coconut.

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The cakey base gave a good weight to the pudding, not heavy, but traditional. Delicious brown sugar parfait, creamy, light and smooth, like butterscotch. Amazing honeycomb pieces that were chewy, crispy, light and with the delicious after taste of really honey. The piece of fresh banana, under it’s caramel shroud. The thick caramel sauce. All very lovely.

This is the kind of food to make or evoke memories with. This is a story shared without words. Good and honest (and very filling!)

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* Just in case you want to read some past posts about Willington Hall (and see stacks more photos) here are some links:

Our first stay and our first meal at Willington Hall (things have definitely improved!)

Return to Willington Hall (more background on the house and history, and lots of pretty pictures!)

The last time I was at Willington Hall (I visited the University of Chester and stayed in an awful hotel nearby too.)

Oh, go on then, another one? How about these lovely cocktails?