Published 8 February 1998 Style Magazine 239th article
Irish luck: Michael Winner, Niall Rochford and Anthony Buckingham at Dromoland Castle, Co Clare
The Concorde was late. Seventeen hours late, to be exact. We were half an hour from Heathrow at 9 o'clock when the I dreaded announcement came. You could tell from the tone of the captain's voice, the second he started, that it was a downer. Apparently there were storms and landing in London was too dangerous. These storms were widespread and affected every airport in southern England. We would divert to Shannon.
In the lounge I was given a pint of draught Guinness by Michael Pemberton, who owns luxury hotels in Barbados. Our chauffeurs in London were being told the plane had landed because it had a faulty tyre. My Mr Fraser confirmed the wind had long died down and there were no storms. Someone else phoned and found London airport fully operational. Why, then, were a lot of very posh people in an airport lounge in Ireland?
Being highly sophisticated, I knew the answer. The storm had caused a backlog. Planes were having to circle Heathrow for an indefinite time. The Concorde had little fuel left after its trip from Barbados, so it would take on more. We were herded back to the plane and told we would leave at 10.30pm. Then the pilot returned with that disaster tone in his voice. The noise restriction at Heathrow came on at 11.30 and we weren't going to make it. "British Airways representatives got the head of the British Airports Authority out of bed, but he still refused to lift the noise restriction." Colourful, I thought, but unlikely. I couldn't imagine some lower echelon executive dragging Sir John Egan from his rest to say: "Winner's on the plane. For heaven's sake let it land!"
We were to spend the night in Ireland. A very bright man called Anthony Buckingham was madly working his cellular phone. Mr B is in fascinating things such as oil and diamonds. He travels widely to strange African countries. He is a man of the world. Like me, he has the sense to travel only with carry-on luggage, so he was ready to disembark pronto. First, we tried for private jets to rescue us. "Count me in!" I said eagerly. But no, they could not guarantee getting back. Mr B's man in London then informed us that Dromoland Castle was the only place to stay. "I'll book us in," he said. "They're asking is it Michael Winner as in Michael Winner," he added.
Then he was besieged. "Book for me, please," said Lady Annabel Goldsmith in row 2 behind me. "And for us," said Lady Rayne from across the aisle. "Us, too!" called Lord Feldman from further back. Mr Buckingham obliged, and by the time he and I were hotfooting through the airport, all had been done.
If you have to be stuck somewhere, Ireland is the best place. The people seemed to know every word I'd ever written. A highly intelligent race. Pat Keogh, a wonderfully ruddy-faced taxi driver, took us to Dromoland Castle, an impressive historic building facing a large lake. There, the senior assistant manager, Niall Rochford, was all charm and efficiency. I was led up a grand staircase past enormous portraits, including William, 4th Earl of Inchquin in the robes of the Order of the Bath by Sir Godfrey Kneller. There was a distinct smell of smoke; I later learnt they'd had a fire. Luckily, my room was smell-free and very clean, with nice Tudor-style wall hangings and an old-fashioned bathroom that worked perfectly. My hot chocolate and biscuits arrived quickly and with lovely crockery, cutlery and terrific napkins.
The next morning, breakfast was superb. Quite the best kipper I've ever eaten. "Is it local?" I asked. "From Donegal," said the waiter. "Is that local?" I continued. "Quite local," he said. The dining room was very grand: four marvellous chandeliers, more oil paintings, a sensational view of the lake and the lovely Irish countryside beyond. This hotel I can recommend to anyone. I found no failings at all.
Aha, but when I arrived Niall told me all the suites were occupied. Was he speaking with forked tongue? "Did you have a suite?" I asked Lady Rayne, opposite me on the plane. She dipped into her bag and gave me four Opal Fruits. "I didn't say sweets, I asked if you had a suite at the hotel," I said. "No," said Lady Rayne. I therefore confirm Dromoland Castle is a sensational place. I didn't mind the delay at all. The next day Captain Jock Lowe, commercial manager of Concorde, phoned to apologise and explain this and that. "I flew you out personally," he said. "I was going to introduce myself, but you were rather busy." "Indeed, I was," I replied. "I was dictating my notes on your catering."
I am tired of pubs charging restaurant prices for unimaginative meals, self-service and dingy rooms known inappropriately as "the restaurant". I have always understood a restaurant to have waiting staff, good service, laid tables, a pleasant atmosphere and a warm welcome that all go to justify the cost of the meal. But the trend now seems to involve queuing at the bar, grabbing your own cutlery and searching for a table that is likely to be filled with dirty glass and the previous diners' plates. Given these conditions, why should we pay £5 for something you can cook in the comfort of your own home for about 50p? I can only put it down to sheer greed.
Tim Norris, Arundel, West Sussex
I hate to be the bearer of what will undoubtedly be upsetting news for you, but I must report the existence of a Michael Winner doppelganger. And what's worse, I spotted his double not 20ft from myself in the Ritz-Carlton's Grill Room restaurant in Miami Beach. Suspicious that he might be intent on stealing not only Mr Winner's identity, but also his job, I have reviewed the food for him. The carpaccio was delicious and the roast lobster simply stunning. I'm only sorry I am not able to provide the usual postprandial Cheshire-cat photograph.
Robin White, Reigate, Surrey