The Weasel: A railway with the right kind of oyster

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For the best part of 30 years, I've lived within five miles of a royal palace, but I only learned about it a month ago. Following a glossy refurbishment by English Heritage, Eltham Palace in south-east London has reopened its doors to the public. Though dating from the 1470s, it was reborn in the Thirties when Stephen Courtauld, a scion of the textile dynasty, and his exotic wife Ginie, knocked down a 19th-century addition to make way for a modern mansion. Traditional on the outside, the interior is eclectic Art Deco. Though Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall antedates this transformation by a decade, it is a little like Margot Best-Chetwynde demolishing her Tudor stately home for "something clean and square".

After crossing an impressively murky moat, the first sight of the house is a trifle disappointing. A two-storey brick structure with green metal window frames, it might have been a municipal public library. A contemporary critic compared it to a cigarette factory. This turned out to be the servant's quarters. Round the corner, however, wonders lie in wait. Through a colonnaded entrance, you enter a huge circular lounge illuminated by a dome glazed with hundreds of pavement lights. It put me in mind of Dr No's lair. Cinematic analogies continue throughout the house. The medieval hall (third-largest hammer-beam roof in the country), where Henry VIII met Erasmus, is just crying out for some Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling. The flowing silk sun-curtains in Ginie's boudoir reminds you of Rebecca, while her glamorous bedroom with circular walls and opulent bathroom is straight out of Busby Berkeley.

English Heritage's immaculate recreation of the Art Deco interiors has been lavishly praised. Project curator Treve Rosoman admits he got "some good buys" for his pounds 250,000 fixture and fittings budget. But I found myself more preoccupied by the persuasive period detail than the specially woven rugs and the painstakingly reconstructed furniture. For example, the fags in Courtauld's glass cigarette cases are oval and Turkish. "I bought 40 cigarettes and got about 5p change from pounds 18," said Mr Rosoman. He loaned the palace that most characteristic symbol of Thirties high society - a gleaming cocktail shaker, still retaining its cork-lined stopper, which belonged to his parents.

Mr Rosoman wants to get Ginie's favourite fragrance, Chanel's Gardenia, for her bathroom, but Floris Gardenia soap has to suffice for the present. However, I caught out English Heritage in one detail. Intrigued by a feature entitled "By Motor Train Across French Indo-China", I opened the May 1937 issue of National Geographic magazine, only to find all the illustrations were in glowing colour. It turned out to be the June 1999 edition inside an antique cover.

Eltham Palace is a glorious treat - don't miss it. But I wonder about the wisdom of English Heritage's decision to keep it shut on Saturdays. Apparently, this is to enable this remarkable property to be used for wedding receptions. The cost of hiring the building is pounds 4,000 (plus VAT) and another pounds 500 if you want to have the ceremony there. The hirer has to use caterers, marquees, florists and so on from an approved list. But I'm sure the pauperised parents can have free use of Mr Rosoman's shaker if they fancy a reviving gin & it.

When I received my copy of Charles Jennings's new book Fathers' Race (Little Brown, pounds 16.99), a brief note from his publisher's publicity person fluttered out: "I hope you can find something suitable to say in your column." Well, I can, and it is this: "Phooey!" I should explain that this sentiment applies to only one of the book's 249 pages. In every other respect, this study of the trials and rewards of paternity is perceptive, droll, intelligent and every other gushing adjective commonly used (at least in public) to describe a book by a friend, for this Jennings is a crony of mine.

But that won't stop me pointing out the egregious calumny suffered by the Weasel on page 44. It occurs during a description of the christening party for the author's youngest son. Surprisingly, perhaps, his account is endowed with the ripest sort of barrack-room language. These salty epithets are addressed by Mr Jennings to two of the godparents who arrived somewhat late for the post-church festivities.

"Where the -- have you been, you -- --?"

"We went to get some ice-cream. There's some really good stuff..."

"You -- --! You're three-quarters of an hour late!"

Since I happened to be one of the godparents, I can confirm the accuracy of this charming little cameo. Mr Jennings explains his explosion was "some deep inner reaction to the teetering hypocrisy of the christening charade". He rounds off his vignette two pages further on: "Still mad, two days later, I rang up the chief perpetrator of the ice-cream outrage, shouted at him some more down the phone and then hung up on him."

I'm sorry to report that this fusillade was aimed in my direction (I rang back shortly afterwards in order to put the phone down on him) and here lies my grievance. For I was not the CP of the ice-cream outrage, but an unwilling accomplice. The events described took place eight years ago and during that period I've repeatedly informed Mr Jennings (our coolness was only of brief duration) that I was not to blame. The CP was, in fact, my fellow godparent, who, possibly prompted by his love of frozen confection, has decamped to New York. Since you ask, I had a mango-flavoured cornet. Not bad at all. Certainly merited a detour.

Just about my favourite spot in the world is the cellar of a railway station - New York's Grand Central Station to be precise. Located in the bowels of this terminus, the Grand Central Oyster Bar is a temple to fruits de mer. Under its cream-tiled vaults, you can slurp your way through 30 varieties of oyster. The most popular are Bluepoints, a generic for all oysters from the Eastern seaboard. Despite their evocative name, they are about as flavoursome as Volvic. However, you can also get piquant Wellfleets from Massachusetts, sweet Prudences from Rhode Island, tangy Malepegues from Prince Edward Island, coppery Skookums from Washington state, succulent Fanny Bays from British Columbia, inky Coromandels from New Zealand... The one place that you can't get oysters from is New York.

In the 19th century, the shallow waters south of Manhattan were one of the world's greatest oyster grounds. Pollution put paid to this maritime harvest early years this century. Thanks, however, to the increased cleanliness of the Hudson River, the New York bivalve is about to stage a comeback. Last week, several tons of oysters from Chesapeake Bay were deposited around the Statue of Liberty.

By a strange coincidence, at the very moment I heard this news, I was reading an essay about the sea life of New York published in 1951 by the great New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell, who also wrote Joe Gould's Secret. In The Bottom of the Harbour, he singles out the waters around the Statue of Liberty as "grossly polluted". Despite their healthy appearance, local shellfish "contain the germs of a variety of human diseases, among them bacillary and protozoal dysentery and typhoid fever".

That was 40 years ago, but it slightly took the edge off my appetite for Liberty Island oysters. Inspired by the same topic, The Times's medical man, Dr Thomas Stuttaford, informed readers that "shellfish enthusiasts can now have the protection of a combined anti-typhoid and hepatitis A injection". Cheery news indeed for we bivalve fans. But for once, I can't help agreeing with Dr Johnson's celebrated view: "He was a brave man that first ate an oyster."

Ever since hoicking out a rare geranium which I mistook for chickweed, I am not allowed to touch Mrs Weasel's garden but I still observe the botanicals in their mid-summer orgy. Lavender spikes endow the air with sensuous perfume. A patch of chamomile sprouts with unexpected virility. Honeysuckle buds wait for their moment, pregnant with fragrance. Campanula flowers wave coyly in the breeze. Above this sexy scene protrude the chives, their flowers like miniature purple street lights. It would be horticultural perfection, if only the small forest of 40-odd plants were not located in steadily decaying cardboard boxes, having not quite made the transition from garden centre to garden. Inexplicably, Mrs W is far from grateful when I draw her attention to the battalion of plant pots. She does not reply: "Thank you for pointing it out. Where's that trowel?" She doesn't say anything remotely like that. Instead, steam toots from her ears. Her eyes, normally a warm brown, acquire a fiery-red hue. In short, she gives a passable impression of Krakatoa. "I would plant them," she erupts, "if I hadn't been laying new lino in the kitchen, ironing your shirts, giving lunch to your bloody friends, marking exam papers..." It's strange, you know, she doesn't mind at all when Alan Titchmarsh tells her to do things.