Country Life: A fine act to follow

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It would be stretching the point to say that all the acclaim heaped on The Merchant House, modestly rated 14th best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine, has been the making of Ludlow.

It would be stretching the point to say that all the acclaim heaped on The Merchant House, modestly rated 14th best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine, has been the making of Ludlow. The delightful market town, 15 miles from us across the Shropshire border, was quite a nice destination for 1,000 years or so before Shaun Hill first blanched a leek in Lower Corve Street.

On the other hand, Ludlow's reputation as the Santiago de Compostela of gastronomic pilgrimage owes much to Hill and The Merchant House, so it is a pity to learn that the great man, who lives upstairs, is unable to sell the place as a going concern. Having received not a single offer from anyone keen to take over the restaurant once he hangs up his apron at the end of next month, he applied last week for South Shropshire District Council's consent in returning the building to purely domestic use.

He is, he told me the other day, rather astonished not to have found anyone who fancies giving it a whirl. For £550,000 - the cost of an unremarkable terraced house in Dulwich - the buyer could own one of the most venerable properties, mostly Jacobean but with a ground floor dating from 1430, in a town of venerable properties.

Not to mention the River Corve, which flows through the garden. And they would also inherit The Merchant House's formidable reputation. Hill confided that his estate agent advised him that for goodwill alone he could stick a further £150,000 on the asking price. He has chosen not to. "I didn't want to piss about," he says, saltily.

I suggest that, in a strange way, his reputation might be the problem. Maybe nobody wants to take on The Merchant House knowing they would have such a fine act to follow. "I think people are more conceited than that," he says. "Besides, there's no doubt that they would get reviewed by every major newspaper, and for attention like that, there are public relations firms paid £4,000 a month."

He would much rather sell as a restaurant, thereby avoiding tax complications, but is resigned to turning the 14th-best restaurant in the world back into a private home.

"I do think it's a shame for the town," he says. "Once it becomes entirely residential it's deeply unlikely ever to become a restaurant again, because in changing the use a new owner would have to comply with today's regulations rather than those of 10 years ago, which were less stringent."

Whatever unfolds, Hill's intention is to sell the property and then start looking for new restaurant premises, preferably in this general area. I told him about a dilapidated barn in Docklow, just down the lane from my house, which given a few hundred grand's worth of work, could be the perfect environment in which to eat pan-fried John Dory with pureed parsnip. Unlike the John Dory, alas, he declined to take the bait.

There is nothing new under the sun. Or in the woods, come to that. In this space a few months ago, I picked up on a story I'd spotted in the Hereford Times, about a 25-year-old guy who was cycling through a Herefordshire wood enjoying the lovely autumnal colours when, to his horror, he chanced upon a couple of senior citizens very publicly in the throes of sexual congress.

In focusing on the irresistible role-reversal element of the story, I got sidetracked from its main theme, the activity known as "dogging". As I understand it, this is the name given to a kind of invited voyeurism, whereby a person gets kicks from watching a couple having sex knowing that they're getting kicks, too, from the awareness that they are providing a spectacle. Apparently, the wood where the incident took place is a popular venue for dogging, which I have always taken to be a modern phenomenon, I suppose because it sounds like a modern word.

But I was wrong. My friend John, who was a boy during the Second World War, reports that, for him and his friends John, Brian and Derek in the Worcestershire village of Ombersley, dogging was a regular Sunday afternoon pursuit. Like many other leisure activities in Britain during the war, it only really gathered pace when the Americans arrived. According to John, there was a copse at the top of Turnmill Lane, to which the young women of the village were frequently escorted by GIs from the nearby US Army base.

Then in his early teens, and with a strong Worcestershire accent of which there is no longer any trace, John used to ask his friends whether they fancied "goin' doggin'". They would then identify a likely couple, follow them to the copse and watch the proceedings.

"Always from a discreet distance," John recalls, "although I'm not sure how discreet we really were. I suspect that in many cases they were well aware they were being spied on. Afterwards, we used to collect the discarded French letter, as they were called then, as a trophy."

Another of the quartet who spent the war dogging at the top of Turnmill Lane later became a policeman, incidentally, while John has only recently retired from the clergy, after many years serving the Church of England and various communities in these parts with singular charisma and broad-mindedness - the phenomenon known here, I suppose, as Goddin'.

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