Many years ago when I first became serious about writing I attended many literary lunches in one of our top Bristol hotels, hosted by our local newspaper. It invariably necessitated my having to take a half-day’s holiday from work, but I thought it worth it as there were always well known authors speaking from all walks of life, from war correspondents to TV personalities. Although, at first, I knew no one, over time I became friendly with others that regularly attended. In due course, I went along to support authors speaking whom I had come to know well through the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and latterly, several top writers who were in the Bristol Chapter of the RNA that I used to organise. When the editor who arranged the lunches left the newspaper, these literary lunches stopped.
So I was delighted recently to be invited along by the Wiltshire RNA chapter to attend a literary lunch where the guest speaker was one of the UK’s top Rom Com authors, Jill Mansell. I knew Jill well as she was a member of my RNA chapter, and when that folded she would frequently come along to “Writers Who Lunch” gatherings I arranged. Jill’s lunch was being held at the Manor House Hotel in Castle Combe, a venue Jill knew from childhood and which was the setting for one of her novels. I’d been to the hotel on several occasions and knew we would thus be in for a treat.
Castle Combe, about half-an-hour’s drive away from me, is the quintessential English Cotswold village that has been preserved by the National Trust and probably one of the most visited, most photographed and most recognisable villages in Britain. No visible TV or satellite dishes or washing lines are allowed, no modern-day street lighting, no signs at all of anything modern day, in fact. Consequently, it’s been used as a backdrop for many films including most recently as the home village in The War Horse, in Stardust, and many years ago as the “port” in Doctor Dolittle with Rex Harrison, cleverly done as Castle Combe is nowhere near the sea!
The Manor House itself is delightful. As you drive through the automatic gates you are swept along a curving drive through the grounds, over a small bridge spanning the brook that runs through the village, and greeted with the façade of this beautiful building in its glorious setting.
Most literary lunches I’d been to had always had the guest speaking between each course served, but Jill’s was different. After coffee on arrival we were ushered into a room used for wedding ceremonies, whereupon instead of Jill standing and talking for an hour, she and her agent chatted openly in a question and answer type conversation with the audience, about seventy of us, interacting as we went along. All very relaxed and easy. She chatted about why she chose the Manor House as a location in one of her books, what inspired her to start writing, along with many amusing anecdotes from her writing career.
Afterwards, we were escorted through to the dining room, where large round tables had been set out for lunch. Much to the Wiltshire chapter’s disappointment, I and another chapter member had been placed on another table, but I wasn’t complaining as I found myself seated on the guest speaker’s table, next to Jill herself. This was lovely as it meant Jill and I could catch up with each other as well as involve the rest of the ladies at the table in our conversations.
Now, I have fine-dined in many locations but I have to say the Manor House did itself proud. The food was absolutely stunning to look at and a pleasure to eat. It was what my husband calls “sod all on a big plate”, but so beautifully presented and tasted equally delicious. Four courses were served, the first a warm mousse of celeriac, something I’d never tried before, followed by warming, thick pea and ham soup, made with fresh peas. It was the best pea and ham soup I’ve tasted. The main course was lamb on a bed of mashed potato with vegetables – excellent. Next came an equally divine dessert, all served with wine, followed by coffee and petit fours. There was a vegetarian choice available although I have no idea what that was as no one on my table was vegetarian. The whole day cost less than what I’ve spent on a bottle of wine before now. Had the weather not been so damp, I would have taken a stroll around the grounds before I left in order to walk off such a surprisingly filling meal.
A most pleasant day indeed. So, would I go there again for another literary lunch? You bet. But next time I must remember to take my camera!