Sunday, February 13, 2005


D was due a visit from the SKY engineer on Sunday morning, a charming man that arrived in the Thames Valley from West Africa via Southampton. The lack of signposting in our bit of the countryside delayed his arrival and D was soon hyperventiliating at the thought of turning up five minutes late for lunch. He passed the phone to M in the hope that she could provide more decisive directions:

- Where are you?
- I don't know
- You could be in Australia then
- There are some trees on my left
- This being the country those aren't very good landmarks
- There's a bend in the road?
- No
- I just passed a farm
- No again...

They kindly held the table for us at The Highwayman, for the time being at least still the second best eatery in the Berkshire village of Checkenden. I started with scallops in a cauliflower cheese sauce with chopped bacon followed by some yummy crabcakes. We shared a bottle of Los Caminos 2003, a delicious blend of merlot, malbec and the Chilean carmère grape.

M kept up the low PH values of her chatter. Referring to a couple we know, the male half of which is a less than avid devotee of the social whirl she observed that "she drags him around like a dead dog on the end of a lead."

Last time round I noted how this joint welcomes a dowdier clientele than its stylish local rival The Crooked Billet; and then tends to bully them with its strident antipodean waitresses - half a world away from the eye-popping lovelies in lycra leggings usually found gracing the tables over the other side of the village. This time though, an intent to mix it up a bit was signalled by the presence of Simone, our black-clad, densely-accented, South African server, a lithe embodiment of sophisticated gastropub comeliness.

Indeed, with the bill came notification that The Highwayman, which opened around the time when Charles I first sat precariously on his throne, will close for about 12 weeks for extensive refurbishment from February 15. We all suspect that the end result will be something rather samey, reportedly with floors and walls lined with reclaimed wood. Gone will be the plush red carpet, the not quite straight landscape paintings adorning the old brick walls, the brass bugles and the ceramic beer mugs. Here's hoping that they refurbish the bossy aussies too while they're at it.

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