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Sitwell stirs it up William visits The Charlton Arms in Ludlow
William has a divine lunch by the River Teme
There was a time when my insecurities meant I was terrified to dine out alone. If I sat at a table for one in a restaurant, I knew, just knew, that people, everyone, on every other table all had their eyes on me, conspiring in the view of what a loser I was. ‘Pity that poor Billy No-mates, eating on his own,’ they were saying. Such was the cacophony of this imaginary chorus that I almost felt compelled to go around telling everyone that I was fine, that honestly, really, I had chosen to be on my own, this was my treat to myself, I’ve got plenty of friends, too many of the damn folk to be honest, ha, ha, ha.
Now things are different. I ache for the opportunity. I dream of the peace, the privilege of a table for one. Yes, of course I adore my loved ones, be it child, wife or dog, each with their affection and needs, but in a busy home, oh, the very thought of sitting somewhere on my own with no need to talk or be talked at or to, with a menu, a person there to bring me stuff to eat and drink, someone to wash up…
So off I pootled, for professional reasons and no excuses needed (God, reader, I love you) to Ludlow. Table for one, by the river of that pretty town, nestling in the pretty Shropshire countryside. And sitting on an outside terrace of The Charlton Arms, a handsome, modernised hotel and restaurant literally on the River Teme, it reminded me of so many happy holidays near Brantôme in the Dordogne.
As I started lunch I also felt deserving of it, having done my good deed for the day by rescuing a lady’s little terrier. Having nipped across the river for a quick look around the town, famed for its medieval fairs and food festivals, I passed a lady in a wheelchair at her front door. ‘Help me, please,’ she said, stopping me in my tracks. ‘Fargo has escaped.’ She pointed up the street and I went off to catch him, the fluffy, friendly little soul. ‘He’s very naughty,’ she said. ‘Always escaping. He’s called Fargo, after where I was born and bred.’
‘Ah,’ I said, returning him to her lap. At which point the postman walked by and gave me a look of: ‘She’s doing that Fargo dog trick, where she lures men into her house, then slaughters and chops them up.’ OK, maybe not the last bit, but I slipped off, sharpishly, for lunch.
I started with fish soup. It was impeccable. Glorious to savour on arrival with its bulbous bowl of reddish-brown liquid, large croutons, grated Gruyère and rouille. I mixed them all into the soup – reflecting the exact extent of how much I like to cook on the rare occasion of being alone. The soup was rich, a gorgeous stock made with skill, love and fish debris. The melting cheese added further richness; the croutons, buttery crunch.
Then heaven’s gates opened with a perfect chicken Kiev with crisp skinny fries and a dainty salad of feta and tomatoes and leaves. The breadcrumbs were fresh and crunchy, the chicken soft and the garlic within gently tangy.
I tried to find fault with a scoop of vegan chocolate ice cream but was as happy as I am when eating Boojabooja – those dairy-free chocs that are a dreamy miracle.
I lunched early in the sun for an hour, perusing the newspaper as the tables around me began to fill. ‘Look at that man on his own,’ they all murmured enviously, ‘happy, at peace with himself and the world…’
I left, once again questioning the constant, chaotic stirrings of my mind, missing the joyful, noisy chaos of home.