I'm only here for the herbaceous borders: Chris Arnot eats out at a restaurant where the setting is good enough to be part of the National Gardens Scheme

Click to follow
LINO PIRES looks surprisingly chipper for a man who went to bed after midnight and got up again at five to work on his garden. He also looks extremely dapper. The buttoned sports jacket is immaculately cut, the silk tie neatly knotted, the cavalry twill trousers carefully pressed.

There is not a speck of dirt under the fingernails. No whiff of muck. Just as well, perhaps, for a man who spends as much time in the kitchen as he does in the herbaceous borders.

It is difficult to imagine a finer restaurant garden than the one adjoining the Butcher's Arms at Priors Hardwick in south Warwickshire.

To call it a riot of colour is an understatement. There are begonias in abundance - hundreds of them. Undulating lawns are bordered by pansies and peonies, delphiniums, tiger lilies and roses galore. Tropical plants rear up from huge and handsome terracotta pots. A waterfall cascades into a lake packed with carp and spanned by a rustic bridge.

The garden takes up what was once four and a half acres of meadows. Tomorrow it is open to the public, diners or not, to raise money for the National Gardens Scheme. Last year's three open days raised pounds 4,000 for charity by charging just pounds 1 a head.

Brought up on a farm in Portugal, Mr Pires knows what it is like to cultivate less fertile land under a relentless sun. But there is no doubting the sheer backbreaking effort that he and his wife, Augusta, have bestowed on a personal paradise at the heart of their adopted country.

At the same time they have transformed what was a small 14th-century village pub into one of the most expensive restaurants in the Midlands with one of the most extensive wine lists.

They came to England 34 years ago to work in domestic service and quickly found themselves behind bars. At the Railway Hotel in Leicester they increased the weekly takings from pounds 117 to pounds 800 in eight months.

Making profits for other people offered little satisfaction for the energetic and ambitious Mr Pires, however. 'I was like a bird in a cage,' he says. 'I needed to smash my way out.'

After spells at the Three Horse Shoes Hotel in Rugby and the Westgate Arms restaurant in Warwick, they bought the Butcher's Arms for pounds 20,000 on New Year's Day, 1973.

'I was here for 12 months without seeing television or reading a paper,' says Mr Pires. Instead he worked. He still does, rising at five every morning and toiling in the garden for three or four hours. 'It's marvellous at that time of day,' he says. 'What could be better than to be in a village like this? The customers come and spend the money. I look after them and the garden.'

But unlike most early risers, he is rarely in bed before 12.30. The demands of a busy restaurant do not sit easily with such high- powered horticulture. Surely he must have some assistance out there?

'An old man from the village comes to help with the lawns, but he has trouble with his heart. I can honestly say there's not a plant here that wasn't put in by either myself or my wife.'

We stop to admire a wedding rose donated by John Profumo - 'a good friend'. Politicians past and present dine at the Butcher's Arms, among them Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson. 'They are plain eaters who like good English food,' says Mr Pires, who is an enthusiastic anglophile. 'English food is the best in the world - roast beef, roast lamb, Dover sole and salmon . . . I recommend you have the cold salmon with mayonnaise for lunch.'

He says this with a forceful courtesy that makes resistance out of the question. And when you taste the salmon, you wonder why you even contemplated anything else. The delicious food is complemented by a bottle of Portugese Borba Reserva - a modest pounds 11.75 from a list of more than 200 wines, on which 18 items run into three figures.

Signed photographs of the celebrities who could afford them adorn the walls of the conseravtory. Joan Collins is there, along with Ian Botham, Selina Scott, Jimmy Hill and many others.

The restaurant is dark and cool, with a low ceiling and much carved wood. Those who decide to sample Sunday lunch tomorrow ( pounds 18.25 including VAT) will need to adjust their eyes before stepping out into the full glare of the garden.

The Butcher's Arms restaurant, Priors Hardwick, Warwickshire (0327 60504 or 60597) is at the centre of a triangle formed by Warwick, Northampton and Banbury. The garden will be open to non-diners from 2-5.30 tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments