Tom Parker Bowles dines at Whatley Manor in Malmesbury

Whatley Manor

Easton Grey, Malmesbury

SN16 0RB


The British country house hotel. Five words that, not so long ago, would fill even the most forgiving soul with bleak, existential gloom. The sad, frayed carpet and grubby fire doors, the Corby trouser press, UHT milk and institutional slivers of medicated soap. Scratchy sheets, soiled bedspreads and the lingering odour of mildew-stained regret.

Dinner at seven (and last orders at eight), prised from a cracked leatherette menu, in a sorry sitting room clad in yellowing chintz, with all the atmosphere of a municipal morgue. A joyless shuffle into the dining room, while draining the last watery dregs of a warm G&T, to face a starter of tinned fruit juice. Then some form of long-frozen protein, resurrected by the power of the microwave’s ray, and drowned in a turgid sauce the colour of despair. Vegetables boiled to buggery, service with a sneer and the eternally bitter taste of the great British rip-off.

Pâté en croûte. It¿s like a pork pie that¿s trained at Le Gavroche. And is served with sharp piccalilli, a smear of mustard and a blob of proper brown sauce. Even the children approve

Pâté en croûte. It’s like a pork pie that’s trained at Le Gavroche. And is served with sharp piccalilli, a smear of mustard and a blob of proper brown sauce. Even the children approve

Yet despite this having all the appeal of amoebic dysentery, we would endure it with barely a whimper of complaint. That being the English way. Stoically suffer, then silently seethe.

And it wasn’t just the hotels. Back in the Seventies, there was no real rural restaurant tradition. With more chance of discovering the Lost City of Atlantis lurking beneath Biddestone village pond than there was finding a decent country dinner. Now hang about, I hear you cry, what about Francis Coulson at Sharrow Bay? And Joyce Molyneux at the Carved Angel? The Box Tree in Ilkley, Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire and the Hole In The Wall in Bath? Exceptions, rather than rules.

Anyway, growing up in Wiltshire in the Seventies and Eighties, you simply didn’t go out and pay for dinner. Unless it was the pub, or fish and chips.

Three decades on and it still feels rather odd, exotic, even, leaving the warm fug of my father’s kitchen and venturing out to eat. Not to someone else’s house but to a hotel, a country house hotel. OK, so Whatley Manor is only a mile or two down the road. And is a resolutely modern beast, slick, sleek and cashmere-clad. The Cotswold stone is scrupulously scrubbed, the garden well-behaved, and even the gravel is immaculately groomed.

There are two restaurants here: the Dining Room, with a Michelin star and tasting menus and wine flights. All very impressive, I’m sure, but with two children in tow, as well as a father with an avowed distrust of foams and incongruous smears, Grey’s Brasserie it is. Although tonight, the Brasserie has been temporarily rehoused in a far-off sitting room, while the original has a face-lift. ‘We seek to achieve a cool European den,’ the website declares, somewhat bafflingly. And this ‘completely new look’ will be unveiled next week.

Still, the temporary room is civilised enough, calm and softly spoken. Jazz trills, waiters glide, and old stone walls soak up any impertinent chat. We order pâté en croûte, a great fat slab of luscious meat, shot through with a thick seam of gentle black pudding, surrounded by a thick layer of wobbling jelly and cloaked in magnificent pastry. With just the right amount of lardy crumble. It’s like a pork pie that’s trained at Le Gavroche. And is served with sharp piccalilli, a smear of mustard and a blob of proper brown sauce. Even the children approve.

There’s a board with good salami, and silken ham, plus pickles and slices of pert pear. My father eats crayfish cocktail, reassuringly old-school, no ironic nudge or retro winks – just fat commas of crustacean drenched in piquant pink sauce, splayed across a bed of shredded iceberg. A hearty serving too, for just shy of a tenner.

A strong start, only let down by a sudden lull in service. As the room fills up, so things slow down. Plates take an age to be cleared, and as we await part two, the children start to wriggle and fidget and moan and groan. Moons wax and wane, seasons pass, and dynasties rise and fall. Still no sign of 

any main course. They move from mere hunger to wild-eyed starvation, and even my father starts to look perturbed. But just as they begin to fade, the cavalry arrives. At long bloody last.

Macaroni cheese, its top lavished with burnished breadcrumbs, the sauce joyously thick, lustily stringy and splendidly unfloury too. And sausage roll, more good pastry, with fistfuls of chips, a sort of baby brother to that wonderful pâté en croûte. The children descend into happy sated silence. My father eats bream, properly fresh and properly cooked. And a vast bowl of salad, well dressed and sensible. My sirloin steak has chew and iron-flecked allure, although it’s cooked medium rare rather than blue.

Long wait aside, this is exactly the sort of cooking you crave on a chilly autumnal night. A skilled and steady hand behind the stoves, at prices little more than the local pub. As for the epic wait: ‘Just a temporary hiccup,’ says my father. ‘Once they’re back near the kitchen, all will be well.’ I’m sure he’s right. We totter out into the darkness. ‘Oh, and one more thing. Be nice. This place is near home. And I wouldn’t mind coming back.’

About £35 per head 

What Tom ate this week 


Flying visit to Australia, to promote new show Family Food Fight. Sydney first. Lunch of oysters, kingfish ceviche and spanner crab pasta at the ever great North Bondi Fish. Then dinner of pipis, John Dory, and 128-day aged beef rib, all cooked over coals, at Firedoor, one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in years. 


Promote show all day then off to Melbourne, and a late (and magnificent) dinner of aged otoro sushi, uni sushi, soba noodles and ebi tempura at Kisumé. 


Lunch of beef jerky and Isarn sausages at Magic Mountain Saloon. Then more Thai for dinner with Scott Pickett at Jinda Thai. A fierce jungle curry, chicken, lamb, and papaya salad with pickled crab. 


To the Caulfield Guineas race day. Lobster rolls and pork bao sandwiches in the David Jones marquee, then back to town for prawn tacos, aguachile, esquites and posole at Mamasita.