OUR FIRST glimpse of the River House was not propitious. We arrived at dusk after an arduous journey north, and turned off the main road on to the potholed, rutted track. The wind was sighing and rattling the masts of the boats which lay slumped on their sides in the muddy creek. We peered anxiously at each deserted building on the road. Finally, where the track petered out, a dark, square building hauled itself and its lawn up out of the mud. Craaaawwk, craaawk went the flaking sign. We peered to make it out: "The ... River ... House ..." Oh bollocks!
We dragged our bags up the path and (the door was locked) jangled on the bell. The strains of a TV set were joined by the dismal howling of a pack of dogs. Then - we cocked our ears - the sound of someone shuffling, admonishing. The door creaked open. From the darkness we could make out a tall man with curly hair and glasses, who greeted us heartily enough, but in a curiously flat voice. Four energetic dogs tumbled and milled around our feet.
Without putting the lights on, our guide manoeuvred us up the stairs, showed us into a large old-fashioned bedroom with a view over the wastes of the dreary creek. Once he'd withdrawn we flung ourselves on the bed despondently. Downstairs we could hear a faint moaning sound, and I wasn't at all sure that it wasn't man rather than dog.
The feeling that I was in a Robert Aickman short story was dispelled somewhat with the discovery of home-made sugar biscuits in a canister next to the tea and coffee: delicious, crisp, still with the decorative marks of the fork on them. After crunching them all we felt better. A kip and a bath, and we were brave enough to descend. What a transformation! The fire had been made up, a bustling woman in a pinny took orders for drinks and we settled by the hearth, whacking the crumbling logs with a variety of fire-irons and reading our future in the embers. In the sitting- room next door the greeter and the dogs were laid out on a horseshoe of battered sofas, watching Only Fools and Horses. Periodically, the greeter bawled with laughter. "He loves his telly, does Michael," said Bustling Pinny indulgently.
Friday night seemed to be the big night out, and a procession of smart cars sloshed and bumped their way up the drive to the higher ground at the side of the house, as cars left on the road tend to get caught by the rising tide. In the dining room, which but for the fan heaters couldn't have looked much different when the house was built in the 1820s, well- dressed couples sat at genteelly battered tables, eating fish fresh from Fleetwood, duck, pheasant, venison and beef. Breakfast was no less commanding; while we grappled with the pre-war toaster, the proprietor ambled off to cook platters of smoky-sweet bacon, gamey sausages and field mushrooms.
The proprietor, before dashing off to do his regular weekly broadcast for local radio, reminisced about party conferences in Blackpool when discerning politicians trek out to the River House to eat and swill and plot. It turns out that the River House, out of the way though it is, is the well-kept secret of the great and good. It is not the place for faint-hearted vegetarians, though. A dedicated meat-eater, the proprietor once ate a Chateaubriand steak for his main course, then a second for dessert. The next morning, he was really quite downcast when we forestalled him with a request for only one of everything at breakfast.
Having had chance to wander about by this time, we noticed the political memorabilia on the walls: the certificates, the framed menu of a dinner with Edward Heath, the ancient restaurant reviews from the early Seventies which could have been written about last night. But things change, even at the River House: this year there was no sign of Bustling Pinny, of Michael, or the blind cat which used to stagger gracefully across the room, crashing into the chair-legs, its gaze all the more baleful for being sightless. But the fire still roars, the river still rises, the sugar biscuits are as crisp and there are still as many dogs.
Other traditions remain the same, like that of the Wine List, where whatever you select you will be warmly praised: "Excellent choice! Unfortunately I haven't got any left. May I suggest ...?" On the first night he brings us a bumptious Australian red, the second a frail and enigmatic Crozes- Hermitage. There are only two couples on Friday and Bill treats us to his political reminiscences, of union leaders and party movers and shakers. Blair has dined there, and yes, that bright smile flickered eerily all through dinner.
A favourite customer is the corpulent feline himself, Cedric Brown. Bill and his waitress protest when we make polite retching noises into our puddings. Cedders is apparently a lovely, lovely man, not at all the arrogant grasper of public perception, though the anecdote they relate to underline this is a curious one. Apparently he once handed back the wine list with the diffident words: "You choose for me; anything as long as it won't break the bank." You'd have thought most proprietors would find this injunction rather puzzling, since Cedders could have a bottle of Penfolds Grange with each course without suffering any appreciable wallet diminution. I only hope thrift doesn't lead Cedric to take the bus; less than two miles away I asked a bus-driver if his route would go near the Creek. "Never heard of it, love," he said contemptuously. Oh well, it can be mine and Cedric's little secret.
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