Manager Andy turns all the radiators up, tells us to order fresh milk for the morning if we want tea or coffee in our room and closes the door behind him. It’s dark outside but beyond the Robert’s radio in the window, the wind is whipping around one of Cornwall’s most desolate westerly headlands, punctuated only by granite chunks and bent tree stumps.
Against the diluted grey, blue and greens of the landscape, the warm interior creams, reds and greens of The Gurnard’s Head give an embrace of warmth against the elements that have carved their very strength into the surrounding ancient fields. A terracotta water cooler on the bedside table becomes a Cezanne still life, the books above the paneled headboard part of a photo shoot for Country Living and the oriental rugs in the corridor reference the shabby aristo chic of a Port Eliot.
The refreshing fact about The Gurnard’s Head however, is that nothing is made to look like anything else: there is a quiet commitment to style that refuses uniformity, definition, hotel slippers and bathroom minis.
Inn, hotel, B&B? Pub, restaurant, fine dining? All and none. And this can bother some people, writers and reviewers especially, who like to box experiences up into terms, angles, accommodation categories. The welcome is so relaxed that check-in is at the end of the bar, we didn’t bother locking our room and service, rather than a painful hover, is a casual chat and friendly banter.
Too late to walk but determined to return for the sake of the Mermaid of Zennor, the coastal path from St Ives and the ale festival on the second bank holiday of May, we headed bar-wards. With a fire at either end, two tables full and three dogs (one terrier sitting up at the table), it was wonky wood, eclectic retro objects, big church candles in the windows to ward off the cold weather spirits and the sum total was inspiringly ‘unhospitality’. We were entirely at home but without the excruciating request to make ourselves feel as such. Andy offered us samples of fizz to try and talked us through the small but excellent selection of ales, including Harbour Brewing Co’s delicious India pale ale.
We settled at a table by the fire, chatted to our neighbours, met a black lab and a less well behaved but enthusiastic collie and ordered. A very generous portion of Cornish crab salad on crème fraiche with watercress and white radish made for a deliciously fresh precursor to my Cornish Duck. Deceptively summery, crab are best eaten at this time of year, the cold water temperatures hardening the shells and giving the flesh extra depth.
I rarely order duck unless I know where it has come from and the reputation of an establishment gives me the confidence to do so. Unethical rearing practices aside, it can be one of the worst types of meats to eat as a part of restaurant review. Andy had already told us that the ducks came in whole from the Cornish Duck Company at Terras Farm, known for rearing ducks so carefully that, as Andy summed it up: “They look after them so well they shouldn’t be eating them really!”
It arrived cubed, much like a piece of pork belly, topped with a satisfying crispy skin, pickled pear, parsnip, boulangère potatoes and buckwheat. Blushing enough to be succulent, it was the best piece of duck I have had in a long stint of review writing. It wasn’t a generous portion, but for me that simply meant the ability to move on to dessert without the pretense of hesitation.
My companion M bravely went mackerel with coconut, chilli, salted peanut, coriander and apple. A little sweet and complex as an interpretation of one of our tastiest fish, but M loved it. She followed with beef blade, mashed potatoes, onions, carrots and hazelnuts which was a triumph of meat-and-two-veg simplicity.
Dessert for me was a robust chocolate mousse honeycombed with air pockets served with madeleines, caramelised popcorn and ice cream – timely as I had just finished De Botton’s ‘How Proust Can Change Your Life’.
A blissful night, broken only by the sound of wind whipping the leaves of the incongruous palms that surround the pub, or gastropub or restaurant (insert own definition of Gurnard’s Head here please ________ ), we headed for breakfast at about 8, again forgetting to lock the door. M: “But I shut the door and brought the key?” She had sub-consciously embodied the ethos of the place.
A full cooked for M which included (as it should) hog’s pudding and black pudding and for myself a smoked kipper with perfectly poached egg, as far removed from the supermarket orange offerings as horse is from beef. Coffee and tea from pottery mugs, fresh raspberry compote, yogurt in little glass pots, tiny slices of sourdough and chef’s own marmalade. The sun hit the panes as it rose over the hill and I raised my coffee to my lips. I wanted to stay longer, walk in the wind, return back to the fire in the evening. We had to go.
While The Gurnard’s Head alone will not incite the “extraordinary changes” Proust speaks of after a ‘spoonful of cake’ (his famous time-stopping madeleines), a combination of the setting, food, interiors and easy service makes for an extra-ordinary getaway where time will, briefly, stop for you.
For details of excellent winter offers, such as The Winter Escape which includes dinner, bed and breakfast for £125, contact Andy and the team on 01736 796928 or go to the gurnardshead.co.uk.