Old Amersham, sat on the chalk stream that is the River Misbourne, is a secret escape. The long, lingering High Street with its well-preserved medieval timbers has the Home Counties feel of a bygone, quieter age.
There’s even a mobile museum in a brown van that looks as if it’s taking a day off from filming Dad’s Army. By the way, the van’s called, Anthony, named after the founder of the mobile musuem. Currently the museum is creating a playlist of the songs that prompt people’s 20th Century memories of Amersham.
At the heart of the town is a 1682 Market Hall, where volunteers eagerly queued to enlist at the start of the First World War, on the other side of the street there are beautifully preserved Alms Houses too. Old Amersham is one of Buckinghamshire’s prettiest towns and one of Britain’s most underrated towns too.
At the end of the Metropolitan Line, this is where Betjeman’s Metroland gently meets the Chilterns. Escaping from London, cyclists and walkers find English country lanes, rural churches and welcoming pubs. When I visited the town, Orvis, purveyors of gentlemen’s fishing tackle and country clothing, were even offering free fly-fishing lessons.
Gilbey’s Restaurant has the prime address – 1 Market Square – amongst a picturesque town of pink rose-framed doorways. The thoughtful tones of Radio 4 drift across the trellis-climbing honeysuckle, over the swathes of lavender and geraniums.
Once the building of exposed brickwork was Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, way back in the 17th century. Today, vibrant artwork brings the spirit and light of the Côte d’Azur to Gilbey’s Restaurant with the primary colours of the Mediterranean, it’s people and above all its love of food. Typical of Gilbey’s family enterprise, the artwork is by Michael Gilbey’s talented niece Alexandra Haynes. In fine weather there is also a sunny terrace for al fresco dining.
To say that Gilbey’s restaurant is well-established is an under-statement. Michael Gilbey, who opened the restaurant in 1975, has some pedigree. His great, great grandfather founded Gilbey’s Gin distillers on his return from the Crimean War in 1857. Remarkably, Michael’s wife Lin, has the same heritage. Her great, great grandfather and Michael’s ancestor were brothers. They are fourth cousins as well as man and wife.
As a fluent French speaker, with experience working in France’s vineyards, Michael Gilbey has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of wine. His extensive wine list has the tone, sweep and poetic expression of a novel that tells hundreds of stories from the world’s vineyards. But for Michael Gilbey, that world-changing moment in Paris in 1976, when blind-tasting judges rated Californian wines higher than established French classics, encouraged him to look beyond France to fill his cellar.
Adding to this global vision, Adam Whitlock, the chef, largely sources his menu from closer to home. He has a small supplier of fruit and veg in Covent Garden who frequently rings with the news. Perhaps the asparagus is now ready for Whitlock to cook sous vide for just 15 minutes before cooling in an ice bath, “That cooling preserves the texture perfectly,” confides Whitlock who has been at Gilbey’s for 11 years. Or maybe there’s an exceptionally high quality batch of heritage carrots ready for salt-baking.
Although most of Gilbey’s sourcing is British, Flying Fish despatch sea food from Cornwall with express haste, there are many ideas from further afield. Duck is wrapped in a light and crispy dumpling, oriental style, that elevates the dumpling to a new culinary art form. Gnudi with sage, like gnocchi pasta but with ricotta instead of potato, complements the porchetta which has been outdoor bred in Suffolk.
Puds may seem traditionally English nursery tea-time. Malted Milk Custard Tart comes with toasted hazelnuts and Devon Clotted Cream. Then you discover a Mediterranean influence with the Bergamot Parfait and Fennel Seed Meringues arriving with delicate lemon thyme ice cream and a rich flaky olive oil shortbread.
With lunch over, its time to move on, to saunter through Old Amersham’s selection of independent shop, browsing the ladies’ wear boutiques. Perhaps calling into the grocer for a selection of cheeses, preserves and teas that you are unlikely to find in any supermarket. If, for a moment you can forget the cars, you will see a town that would make a fine location for filming a town in an episode of Downton Abbey.
Find out more
Situated in the 17th century building that was once Doctor Challinor's grammar school in the heart of the historic Chiltern’s market town, Gilbey’s Old Amersham is open every day from 12.00 noon for lunch and from 6.30pm for dinner. Closed on Sunday evenings.
1 Market Square, Old Amersham, HP7 0DF
Tel: 01494 727242 | Email: [email protected]
Last modified: June 10, 2021