Are country house hotels U or non-U?
“I’m dancing with tears in my eyes ‘cause the girl in my arms isn’t U.” The funeral of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, née Deborah Mitford, in October stirred up the usual broil of toff-bashing, and the inevitable mention of “U and Non-U”, the essay by the duchess’s sister Nancy Mitford which must rank as one of the most misunderstood contributions to academia of all time. In the mid-1950s, Nancy was approached by one Professor Alan Ross for help with a sociological essay on linguistic differentiators of class within English speech, but her contribution snowballed into a debate which retains the power to provoke even today. Nancy and her friends Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman were encouraged to contribute to Noblesse Oblige, a bestselling volume which sent a generation of the anxious middle classes scrabbling in drawers to evict “common” fish knives, and which was referred to by its authors as “The Book of Shame”. Nancy herself conceded that the whole thing had been a tease, and that she had been obliged to go back through her own novels looking for references to non-U notepaper and mantelpieces, but she was branded ever after as an horrendous snob. Enemies of the English class system neglect the tremendous pleasure it has given over the years, as writers dissect the myriad signifiers which enable us to feel momentarily superior to our fellows. Nicky Haslam, the designer and socialite, reprised his popular column “How Common!” in the Daily Mail just last week, suggesting that the U and Non-U tussle is as smugly agreeable as ever.
For the first readers of Noblesse Oblige, the newly servantless postwar gentry, caring about food became a particular point of inverted snobbery. Luxury ingredients could seem dubiously unpatriotic in a world where rationing and the black market still obtained, while pretending not to notice the ghastly mess on one’s plate saved the hostess the humiliation of having to admit that she might have cooked it herself. In later editions of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh confessed himself ashamed by the gluttonous nostalgia which suffused the novel: gulls’ eggs and golden caviar had become embarrassing memories. Then, somehow, this laudable embrace of austerity translated into a mark of class — defiantly nasty food meant that one was smart. I once went to a very grand shooting party where Friday dinner was molar-wrenching pheasant casserole, complete with shot, and a Pearce Duff blancmange, “shape” as Nancy would have called it. Repulsive enough the first evening, by its third appearance at Sunday lunch, the shape was a thing of nightmare. Eyeing her queasy guests balefully, the hostess announced that she thought that wasting puddings was terribly middle-class.
Country house hotels are definitely common. Before he became the Downton God of Everything, Julian Fellowes wrote a very Mitfordish novel, Snobs, in which an eager nouveau-riche invites members of a titled family to dine in an hotel which was formerly the home of their neighbours, with wincingly disastrous results. Obviously, setting foot in such a place implies that one doesn’t have a country house of one’s own: instant beyond the pale status. Heating is also common, as being immune to glacial drawing rooms and Arctic treks down endless corridors to enjoy four inches of tepid water in an Edwardian bathroom shows that one has been properly brought up. Nancy Mitford, herself a cold body, wrote of the particular dilemma faced by women when dining in upper-class houses. Backless gowns and ancestral piles are an unhappy combination. It is possible, when dressing for the evening, to put comfort first, but the result is why it must always come second. Nancy frequently stayed at Amberley Castle in West Sussex, now a country house hotel, and as someone who enjoyed both delicious food and warmth, whatever the U-haters claim, she would, one feels, have entirely approved of its present incarnation.
Amberley is just gorgeous — a proper 900-year-old castle with a portcullis and a curtain wall, plushy lawns and fabulous views, soothing colours, discreet chintz and huge, blissful log fires. The chef, Robby Jenks, trained with Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park: his food is sharp, clean and classic, with an emphasis on clarity of flavour which both contrasts with and perfectly complements the soothingly baronial setting of the vaulted medieval dining room. We began with pan-fried duck foie gras on pain d’épices, lusciously well executed, with a perfect caramelised crust on the liver and just the right amount of melting quiver beneath. A woodruff sorbet between courses was not quite a success; woodruff certainly hits the wild-food-foraging vibe which is so current in London restaurants, but it is mostly used for a Georgian soft drink called Tarhun, and it might be better left in Georgia. Sea bass with langoustine cannelloni was fantastic, the discrete elements of the dish being left to speak for themselves without being smothered by sauce. This is not simple cooking, but who wants shepherd’s pie in such a grand setting? Inverted snobbery has backflipped into a laboured emphasis on casualness, fine for a pub lunch, but when I go out to dinner I want to feel like I’m going out, not eating something I could have knocked up in my own kitchen. The food at Amberley is refined enough to feel like a special treat without being overwhelming or difficult, not ostentatious or anxious, just really good. Pudding was mango savarin with a joyously-common Malibu jelly, after which the huge four-poster bed in our room was a welcome sight.
I liked Amberley so much that I took my mother back for tea. As a northerner, Mother has Views on scones; but these, along with delicate sandwiches and fragrant macaroons, definitely passed the test. Apparently afternoon tea is common too, but we were far too busy gorging on clotted cream to mind. Anyone seeking a genuine “U” experience should avoid Amberley: the food is too good, the rooms too comfortable, the hot water too efficient and the whole place just too pretty to be in any way reflective of the beleaguered lifestyles of the descendants of the Mitfords. But for the joys of country house life without the horrors, I couldn’t recommend it more.