It was not the weekend it should have been. Twelve months ago I had chiselled it firmly into my diary: the Upton Cressett Literary and History Festival. I had attended the inaugural event in 2019 and never wanted to miss another. And with my book (which charts the history of eating out) published in 2020, this was one gig I intended to do.
This collision of authors and the general public takes place at the end of a long, steep and narrow road in Shropshire, at a medieval pile owned by a family called Cash. There are talks in the Norman church and dinners in the Great Hall dining room. Elderly dancers in Elizabethan dress mince in the rose garden, Shropshire’s answer to Frank Sinatra croons on the south lawn, and the event is presided over by the house’s current owner, the writer William Cash.
It’s Brideshead Revisited meets Fawlty Towers and it’s unmissable. But Covid-19 wrecked this year’s plans, so I arranged a lunch with Cash instead, adhering to the Government restrictions at the time, of course, and booking a large table so we could bark at each other from a distance – which would feel sort of medieval, I reasoned.
The Halfway House used to be called the Old Red Lion Inn (licenced in 1620), but that was before Princess Victoria popped in in the 1820s. She was travelling from Pitchford Hall near Shrewsbury to Great Witley Court near Worcester and the horses needed changing so the entourage stopped at this inn.
‘Where are we?’ asked the young woman destined to reign as Queen for 63 years. ‘We’re halfway there, ma’am,’ came the answer. And how charming it is that the establishment took its name from this comment, rather than employing the more showy ‘Princess Victoria’.
Within this wooden-beamed, cosy little bolthole that boasts ancient murals, you’ll get a very solid, well-cooked lunch. History does not record what Victoria ordered, so, as a consolation, here’s what I ate.
I started with a scrumptious mushroom soup that was simple, rich and full of fresh flavour, while Cash had the chicken-liver parfait. This was more firm than the fluffy, whisked versions you get in posher places, but was respectable and suited to its surroundings. Although I reckon the chef should relent on the garnish. There was gherkin and chutney and yellow peppers, cucumber, shallots, tomato, lettuce, onion and coleslaw. Needless to say Cash just ate the parfait and the toast as most normal humans would.
The main course was the key triumph. A beef, Guinness and ale pie that came not as a pie but as stew with a would-be pastry top served beside it. It’s the wisest deconstruction I can imagine. It means the pastry remains crisp; un-sogged by the steam from the filling, which was soft and beautifully rich. The pie came with a mountain of sides that were served on school-dinner-type metal platters. The sight of them chilled me to my bones, but thankfully their contents were sublime: creamy leeks, a sort of ratatouille of mixed veg, mashed swede and new potatoes.
We finished with puddings bathing in cream; bread-and-butter for Cash and sticky toffee for me. They were delicious but (another note to chef): give them a longer blast in the microwave, mine wasn’t quite hot through.
The Halfway House is a fine pub, with long-standing owners Peter and Cecile, and, with fresh horses, you’ll be in good fettle for the second half of your journey.
As we left I recalled an unintended highlight of the 2019 literary fest when one of the female Elizabethan dancers collapsed with heat exhaustion into the rose bushes. She was brought round by a Henry VIII figure as he ripped off her layers of bodice to cool her down. Oh, for normality with all her glorious mishaps…