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Writing this column has often involved a certain element of risk – most notably early morning meals in Asian food markets – but we recently headed off into an area that radio bulletins were regularly warning us not to visit. Our plan was to spend the night within a 10-minute drive of the Somerset Levels, scene of the worst flooding in the UK for more than 200 years, and then drive down to a Dorset coast battered by heavy rain, high tides and gale-force winds.
The second weekend in early February had been fixed months ahead as a suitable time for me to meet Roy Copeland, now 85, but who 40 years ago did business with my late father in Manchester.
For the past 25 years, Copeland has run The Lynch Country House on the edge of Somerton, ancient capital of Wessex. The relative safety of this Grade II-listed house, built in 1812, is hinted at in its name. “Lynch” means a small ridge, so these lovingly restored buildings and gardens sit well above the flood water, albeit with a clear view of the devastation.
Inside is a very English scene: in the conservatory we enjoyed an excellent breakfast of scrambled eggs, local bacon and black and white pudding, while Mike McKenzie, manager and breakfast cook, fed the three black swans that live on the pond. A hungry robin sat outside the window.
Somerton is also home to historic almshouses, St Michael and All Angels Church and the Somerset Guild of Craftsmen. After visiting these we repaired, weather-beaten, to the Buttercross Tea Rooms for coffee, home-made Welsh cakes and an insight into the adverse impact this weather is having on business.
After serving us, proprietor Helen McDonald sat down at a nearby table to interview a potential part-time waitress. She told her that, if the trial were successful, she must let her know as soon as possible whether she could work the last week of August. When I asked McDonald later why this was, she said: “The last week of August last year was so busy it made up for our losses in January. This year it is going to have to make up for our losses in January and February.”
We headed on south to Dorchester, although not as directly as we would have liked due to diversions on several flooded roads. But the detour allowed time for Twitter, of all things, to point us to a useful address.
After my wife had tweeted a request for local pub lunch recommendations, back came a tip for a Dorchester restaurant called Sienna, swiftly followed by directions from the restaurant itself. We were surprised on finding it to discover that, far from bearing any relationship to a pub, it was the proud owner of a Michelin star.
Sienna is an unusual place. It has only five tables seating a maximum of 15 customers, fuelled by three chefs, led by owner Russell Brown, working from a tiny kitchen. The £25.50 two-course lunch menu revealed considerable technical skill. Goat’s cheese “truffles” – small balls of goat’s cheese dusted in bitter chocolate – and tiny red pepper and leek tarts with good pastry were offered as amuse bouches; linguini with chicory, cubes of green apple and a caramelised shallot sauce was a surprisingly successful combination as a first course; a fillet of hake with spinach, wild mushrooms and a red-wine sauce was a fresh and lively main course – although the serving of the sauce was on the mean side.
Over dinner that night, we wondered whether, even if we managed to get to our Sunday lunch destination, the Hive Beach Café on Chesil Beach, we would find it open.
Happily it was, although it was too windy to walk on the shingle before lunch. As I paid in advance for our order and told the cashier that we were sitting at the table closest to the beach, she replied, “You’re lucky. Last Wednesday that table’s legs were under water.”
The Hive and its excellent bakery are the creation of Steve Attrill who, over the past 20 years, has expanded the business out of its original wooden shell into two large-windowed tent extensions that provide great (windblown) views of the beach. And the fish, particularly a fillet of locally smoked pollock with mashed potato and chive mayonnaise, is very good indeed.
As we scurried home to the slightly drier climes of London, I was struck by the contrast between the very English scene inside the Hive – families, dogs and plates of fish, chips and mushy peas – while outside huge rollers and debris sprawled across the beach, more redolent of the Pacific at its most dramatic than the Channel.
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The Lynch Country House
4 Behind Berry, Somerton, Somerset, TA11 7PD, 01458 272316; www.thelynchcountryhouse.co.uk
The Buttercrosss Tearooms
Market Place, Somerton, TA11 7NB, 01458 273168; www.thebuttercrosstearooms.com
36 High West Street, Dorchester, DT1 1UP, 01305 250022; www.siennarestaurant.co.uk
Hive Beach Cafe
Beach Road, Burton Bradstock, Dorset, DT6 4RF, 01308 897070; www.hivebeachcafe.co.uk