On sunny summer weekends the A66 is a noisy jumble of nose-totail caravans, but you only need veer off the dual carriageway for a few hundred yards to find tranquility – and The Morritt Arms, a grand old ivy-clad reminder of the days when a horse-drawn carriage was the fastest transport most people could aspire to.
Coaching inns, the Travelodges of their time, catered for vital overnight stops on lengthy journeys, and the hamlet of Greta Bridge once boasted three of them. Now only The Morritt Arms remains – though recently it has started styling itself as simply ‘The Morritt’, presumably in an attempt to present a more 21st century face to travellers queuing to get from the Dales to the Lakes and vice versa.
This rebranding exercise has left the cosy lounge, with its maroon leather sofas, largely untouched. But the oak-clad dining room, Gilroy’s Restaurant, has now been decked out with assorted drapes and fabric panels in vibrant blues and shocking reds. Some of these panels look disconcertingly like magnified sections of the flock wallpaper favoured by Indian restaurants, and – slightly surreally – two of them have even been tacked to the ceiling. To my eye this does an atmospheric old room no favours, and the stuff on the ceiling simply draws attention to the smoke alarms and sprinklers.
According to The Morritt’s website, “prices [on the menu] are very competitive, we have adopted a straightforward approach with single-digit prices throughout”. Someone seems to have misunderstood the notion of a single digit, because if this were true then nothing would cost more than £9. In reality, the menu (which obstinately refuses to use pound signs) was full of double-digit prices such as ‘18’ (i.e. £18) – and, worse still, fractions. Why writing ‘7½’ is supposed to be more ‘straightforward’ than writing ‘£7.50’ is a mystery to me.
The wine list operated on the same eccentric pricing system as the menu, but fortunately it was a thoughtful and wide-ranging selection, from which we chose a bottle of sprightly, gooseberry-sharp Cloudy Bay, one of my favourite Sauvignon Blancs.
I wasn’t impressed by the fusion of traditional and modern in the décor, but Chef had definitely pulled off this clever trick with the food. Piers’ Yorkshire ham, black pudding and rabbit terrine looked like an elegant hunk of polished marble, and it arrived on a plate accompanied by three curled slices of carrot filled with carrot foam. Looks aren’t everything, of course, but the smoky tang of the black pudding and the contrasting textures of the ham and the rabbit gave the terrine a delightfully meaty punch.
My starter, a pea and mint pannacotta, came in a shot glass on a plate decorated with pea shoots and a citrussy dressing. To be honest the texture was less that of a pannacotta and more that of a mousse or purée. But no matter, it made a suitably light and appealing summer evening starter – even if the dressing was arguably a touch too muscular for the delicate pea shoots.
My main was a ‘deconstructed salad Niçoise’, which I ordered largely because I was intrigued by the description. The deconstruction consisted in artfully scattering the principal ingredients, variously treated, loosely across the plate, with a nicely grilled slab of tuna as the centrepiece. The anchovies put in an appearance as tempura fillets, and the olives as an olive pâté. Along with them came cherry tomatoes, quail eggs and some little coins of fried new potato. The potatoes were a touch overdone, and a general shortage of deconstructed salad dressing left the dish as a whole seeming a touch dry. It was, nonetheless, an enjoyable – and amusing – plateful.
Piers’ main involved three takes on lamb: loin, shoulder and sweetbread. All nicely done and, again, presented with flair, with a rosemary jelly, a pea and broad bean purée, a gravy and some potato dauphinoise all bringing little extra touches of jollity to the party.
Desserts were a slightly mixed story. The lavender-infused crème brûlée left me slightly underwhelmed – the texture didn’t seem quite right, and it had an oddly savoury tang to it. It did, however, arrive with some excellent shortbread biscuits. Full marks, though, for the bitter chocolate fondant with espresso sauce, strawberries and malted milk ice cream. It had bags of rich, dark, deep flavours, but was still light enough not to floor you at the end of the meal.
Service was friendly and efficient without being particularly formal, and we left feeling both well-fed and well-treated. Back in 1838 Charles Dickens stayed at The Morritt Arms and reported being given “a piece of beef about the size and much the shape of my portmanteau”. Portion sizes have clearly been refined a little since then, but echoes of the warmth and bonhomie of the coaching era still remain.