Vintage table setting

Vintage table setting ()

Every town in Great Britain has a few things in common. Each village, it seems, has at least one pub, a post office and several old churches. Watton in Norfolk, UK, is no different. In the late 1980s, however, Watton also had something very special.

We lived in England from 1987 until 1990 while I was stationed at RAF Lakenheath. Until we obtained on-base housing, we rented a rather large, old 18-room English manor from the Ninth Lord Walsingham. The same Lord Walsingham from whom we rented is still alive at 96 years old. The Baron and his heirs still own the Merton Hall Estate north of Thetford and his ancestors have lived there since the Norman Conquest in 1066. The closest town of any size to Merton Hall is the village of Watton, spread along the road from Brandon to Norwich in Norfolk. Watton became our town. We shopped there. We opened a Barclays Bank account in Watton. It became home.

History buffs may recognize the Watton name. There was an RAF base there during WWII which was used by both the Royal Air Force and the US 8th Air Force. A large part of this former base is now the Blenheim Grange housing area just east of town.

High Street in Watton was where the magic happened for Nancy and me as a young couple still enamored with adventure and exploring new things. We discovered a “fine dining experience” in Watton. What did that mean? There was a restaurant on High Street, in the vicinity of the current Cookies Diner, that served meals by reservation and only on certain evenings. Seating, limited to six or seven couples, was at a premium. It was exclusive.

We were about the only Americans living near Watton. It was the outer fringes of the usual Mildenhall-Lakenheath off-base housing area at the time. So, when we attended our special evening, we were indeed the only folks in the room who were not English.

There were some things we didn’t initially know. First, we had no entrée menu choices. The chef created whatever he wanted. We did not know what gastronomical delight we were going to enjoy. That, in itself, is sort of a scary surprise and yet the unknown can be exciting. Secondly, this was not a dine-and-dash multi-course meal. It was a multi-hour experience.[TM1] 

We started our five courses with an aperitif and appetizer followed by a “palate cleanser” of lemon sorbet. If fact, after every course, these cleansers were provided to us. The second course was bisque of lobster, if I recall. A salad was next.. The fourth course was gammon with vegetables and potatoes Finally, the fifth course was rolled out on traditional dessert trolleys with many choices of cakes and sweets. By this point, we had been there for two hours. This was an event, remember?

After dinner, in Victorian aristocratic English style, the men retired to an antechamber to smoke cigars, sip fine Sherry and discuss whatever Englishmen discuss. The ladies were gracefully ushered into another hall. Nancy tells me they sipped tea the proper English way with real China cups and saucers. They used silver teaspoons and added real cream and real sugar. The tea was loose-leaf, steeped the way Brits always “take their tea.” The ladies enjoyed their tea with petit fours rolled into the room on a classic trolley. It was an interesting glimpse into an old-style Victorian custom and a unique way to end our evening experience in Great Britain.

The reason I remember this evening so well is that it was almost surreal. It was as if we were in an old movie playing our roles. We interacted with people who understood what it meant to be noble gentlemen and ladies. Everyone respected each other. Conversation was authentic. Their sense of humor was second to none. Our British friends that night were not stereotypically stiff or haughty or formal. They were absolutely delightful and witty and gracious.

We shall never forget that special evening in our adopted town of Watton in Norfolk. It was an evening that transformed our perception of the British.

For your own Victorian experience, try visiting Blists Hill Victorian Town near the Ironbridge Gorge and Birmingham.  

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