Fleshpots of Ampthill


Living as a temporary bachelor for the last week has had its good and bad points. Notably good is the freedom to have several items in the kitchen where my mother used to call ‘to hand’, rather than stowed neatly so as not to offend the eye. Not so good is the amazingly rapidity with which dinner comes around, when instead of finely cooked repast, I have to have remembered at breakfast to start to thaw items. For example, this evening is a chicken curry among many made last month in bulk, and I eschewed one plastic container of that same food, but whose date was in July last year. Surely the shelf life must have passed even in deep freeze?

It’s not that I get lonely – who would with such a voluble cat as Wilfred – but sometimes you like another human around. Accordingly I got my friend to visit. In the throes of trying to bring to a decent conclusion a complicated divorce, he resides in two houses: one the former marital 18th-century pile in Essex; the other, his own fine-looking Victorian building in New Brighton. (On first hearing about this place I thought it was a housing development on the outskirts of the southern city, but it rests in the Wirral where the River Mersey meets the Irish sea.)

Pretty much the sole idea is to tackle the fleshpots of Ampthill, the first of which after plodding through the rain, is the Queen’s Head. Anything that refers to the queen in this town is after Catherine of Aragon, for it was in the long-since demolished castle here that Henry VIII detained his wife for two years until his divorce came through. and we all know what a kafuffle that caused. On one occasion the current landlord substituted Catherine’s face on the pub sign with that of the Duchess of Cambridge and was there a to do about that! Anyway, here the landlord dispenses some of Bedfordshire’s finest (it is a Charles Wells pub) but I have a pint of Courage Director’s while my friend, not an ale-lover, goes Continental with a Peroni. For six years I lived just across the road and sure enough there is someone I know in the bar, and he comes over to chat for a while about landlords and customers past.

After a couple, we move down to the red light district that is the market square and have an agonising choice between Indian and Italian. Fratelli wins, especially as they have a pretty good table for us, and even now there is another who knows me. Luciano is one of the three brothers who own the restaurant and lives over the town butcher’s, remembers me. He becomes Latin-lavish with promises of closely attentive service, nothing too much …. The food is superb, as always, especially bolstered by a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

Homeward-bound I plan an attack on the 1950s cocktail bar that we brought from Australia, the one dubbed with a warning by a friend out there: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter’. As that became increasingly prophetic, I persuade him for us to polish off one of the bottles of Pálinka that a Hungarian friend presses on me when she visits. This one is szilva (plum) from the Körös Valley and at 40% proof soon gets that abandonment going nicely, especially knocked back in proper schnapps glasses. On and on into the night with a good old-fashioned booze, two men in their early 70s reminisce about … what do you think when you’re 70? Loves lost and found, what ifs, one or two tears, all underpinned by crying egészségedre (and that’s the correct second person singular for ‘cheers’).

A stinking hangover in the morning one of those when it feels like you are wearing a balaclava inside your head, just don’t get them like that any more. But my friend handled it all better than I, and was off in his car in the morning to the Essex fork of his yet-to-be settled life.

Back to Wilfred, my thankfully totally abstemious companionfor another three weeks.