Hexham

The drive from Windermere is, if anything, even prettier than the drive to it yesterday. Heading away from the sun allows the richness of the colours to unfold before me, and despite being on a schedule as usual, I simply have to stop the car to drink in the moment and take some photos.

The A686 past Melmerby turns a little worrying as I am told we are entering the Pennines and will climb to 1903 feet, and I fear for Tiny’s long term health even if we do make the summit. But we do, and are rewarded with astonishing vistas that must span 50 miles. Suddenly the fatigue and homesickness of the last few weeks melt away and I feel utterly privileged to be passing through terrain as achingly beautiful as this. Three months catch up with me in a flash, and I realise how lucky I have been to do this. We live on a wonderful island, and I determine to seize the opportunities these last few days bring.

I pull into the grounds of Langley Castle. Wow! This is a proper castle, handsome and chunky and imposing. I enthuse to Ben behind the desk and he gives me a potted history of the place as he leads me to my room. Built around 1350 in the reign of Edward III, those turbulent times meant it was soon burnt to the ground and remained untouched for 500 years until restoration began in the late 19th century, therefore retaining its medieval character. Ben mentions that the nearby Hadrian’s Wall was originally 15 foot tall until people started nicking the stone to make their own houses, but this place has remained unscathed, thanks in part to its walls being 7 foot thick! I’m in the converted stable block, which Ben explains is better in some ways as it means I can look at the castle rather than out of it.

I must admit this last hotel is a bit of an extravagance. Going out in style, let’s call it. You could fit several families into my suite for one, and everything is beautifully done. As Ben asks about my adventure and talks me through his CV of working at and near racecourses over the years (and it’s quite a list), a lady appears carrying fresh coffee and homemade shortbread, just to tide me over. Everyone is genuinely friendly and I make a mental note to bring the family up here some day. It is sunny and warm and I take ten minutes to wander around this oasis of a calm, examining the castle from different aspects. A peacock cries in the background and there is the distant, reassuring hum of a lawnmower.

I get a cab to the racecourse and as we arrive I sense that I have misjudged the temperature. As people scurry inside in coats and scarves I fear that my short sleeved shirt from the balmy valley will not cut it up on a windswept Northumbrian hillside, and I’m right. After four days of trying, I eventually manage to get to a racecourse early enough to put on my Placepot, and then scurry into the intimate bar to seek warmth. The sign outside proclaimed that this is Britain’s Most Scenic Racecourse, and I think they’re right – the view is stunning. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly; I like the place a lot.

They say that Hexham is "Britain's Most Scenic Racecourse!" and they're right

They say that Hexham is “Britain’s Most Scenic Racecourse!” and they’re right

I start with a winner in the first race, Tickenwolf, but I’ve become a bit of a sheep with my betting strategy and I’m not sure I like it. I’ve become obsessed with how the on-course movements at these smaller tracks have a life of their own, and I was going to back a different one until I saw the support behind Tickenwolf, taking 11/4 before he was backed into 7/4 favourite. That, at least, is one aspect I have been pleased with. If I was betting at home I wouldn’t have got the prices I have over the last eighty days, and getting 11/4 on 7/4 shots makes a difference in the long run, and may just make a difference to the balance sheet at the end. I have some frustrating placed efforts after that, horses who were hampered by some poorly judged rides, and the Placepot went down in the third race when Lucy Alexander allowed herself to be bullied out of it on the home turn.

I have to get back to the hotel where the manager has persuaded me to sample the Table d’Hote menu. Like the room, it’s towards the ‘ouch’ end of the price scale, but also brilliantly carried off. I start with a drink in the enormous drawing room and can’t resist sitting in the elevated window seat to eat my nibbles, which appear to be popcorn and quavers with a hint of umami. As this is explained to me, I know before even opening the menu that the food shall be another triumph of presentation over substance.

The canapés arrive (or are they amuse-bouches, I get confused with these matters?) on tiny pedestals; tasty. Then I’m seated in the wonderful restaurant and the bread and amuse-bouche (or is this the palate cleanser?) of a quail’s egg with pea smear are lovely. Now for the starter, I think. The manager had earlier tried to persuade me to the slow-cooked (to the extent of 5 hours!) duck egg, but I’m drawn to the mushrooms on toast. When this arrives it is heavy on the cepe parfait, which is cruelly under-seasoned and very light on the toast. There is an artichoke persillade in there somewhere, apparently, whatever that is, and the waitress then pours a pot of swirling mist over the bowl which accounts for the “mushroom aromas”.

I have to try the venison which I’ve never had before because it comes from Cartmel, as I just have, and is complimented by a chocolate sauce. I have had chocolate before, frequently, but never with a main course and I’m intrigued to see how it works. It doesn’t. They produce a palate cleanser, which is chef’s take on a gin and tonic, replete with foam and freeze dried cucumber stick. Can I just have a gin and tonic instead?

Onto dessert, and I opt for the rhubarb which comes with a parmesan crumb, little slabs of ginger sponge and an unexpected ice cream, none of which improve the dish. Give me my mother’s rhubarb crumble any day. I can’t help but think that in the theatre of the surroundings and presentation, the impeccable service, and the undoubted culinary skills on display, that the art of taste has got sidetracked along the way. Perhaps my taste buds are just a little jaded from 75 days on the road?