The citizens of Stockbridge in Hampshire must be surprised and delighted that their high street was voted Best Foodie Street in Britain in Google’s inaugural Street View Awards. Perhaps not overly surprised, however, judging by a sheepish comment from Google’s press office to the effect that local gastro-guerrillas ‘went to a lot of effort to get interest up and increase their numbers’. As if to dispel any doubts on the matter, the chairman of Stockbridge Parish Council, in her victory address in the Andover Advertiser offered, ‘congratulations to everyone involved in raising people’s awareness of this competition’.
Still, everyone’s happy as the town gets an award, Google Maps gets a plug in SpectatorScoff and I get to spend a day in Stockbridge. Best of all, you can go there right now, even as you nibble your Kit-Kat in front of your laptop because Stockbridge high street now stars in its own version of The Truman Show. First prize in the competition was the creation of a Google Street View tour, allowing virtual visitors to move ‘Pegman’ (he looks like a clothes peg) through 360-degree street-level imagery. It lends a whole new meaning to Windows shopping. Just go to www.maps.google.co.uk, click on ‘street view’ and judge Stockbridge’s foodie credentials for yourself. It beat 19 other streets in the competition (see shortlist below for righteous indignation).
In the interests of proper journalism I journeyed through the looking glass and visited Stockbridge high street for real. I might not have seen it at its very best on a bleak, drizzly afternoon when the only sign of outdoor life was the odd duck paddling on the river Test intersecting the high street at various points. Most of the mustard cords and Hermès scarves were indoors, fighting for tables in Thyme & Tides, an ambitious new deli/bistro/fishmonger. ‘We’ve found a niche in the market,’ says Sally Hemming who owns the place with her husband Iain. ‘Not everyone wants to go to the pub for lunch. Here, you can pay under a tenner for something to eat and a glass of wine.’ Outside, a pub sign swung disconsolately, like an old slapper’s handbag looking for trade.
While taking the virtual tour on my laptop I made a discovery as jolting as the scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up where the groovy London photographer thinks he sees evidence of a murder in the background of a picture. Thyme & Tides, undoubtedly one of the high street’s foodie jewels, does not feature at all. This is because the competition results were announced in March but T&T didn’t open until July. Which means that Stockbridge was voted Best Foodie Street in Britain on the basis of a butcher, a greengrocer, a wine merchant, a bakery/tea room, a hotel, two pubs, a tandoori and a restaurant: a fairly typical market town.
It’s hard to generalise about a high street but a trawl through the local menus threw up the staple fare of Middle England: Scottish beef, Welsh and New Zealand lamb, prawn cocktail, aromatic duck and hoisin spring rolls and tandoori chicken breast salad. The Greyhound restaurant, which has lost its Michelin star but still features in the guide, offers tempting country classics for green-welly gourmets, including fashionably retro dishes like crisp pork belly and duck confit.
Other highlights include Caviste, a modern, uncluttered wine merchant that supplies Thyme & Tides with its ‘fishy’ wines. It holds regular tutored tastings and flogs ‘huge amounts of New World wine’ to the surprise of manager Rachel Gibson. It also sells lots of Riedel glassware, a little less surprising.
John Robinson High Class Family Butcher apparently enjoys national renown as one of the finest in the land, selling wild rabbit, diced venison and pork pies to grateful locals. It provides whole hog roasts and whole English lamb and its freezer, containing broccoli and stilton quiche, pear and almond flan and potted brown shrimps, is like a frozen deli in miniature.
The river Test is at the epicentre of trout tourism and Stockbridge is home to the exclusive Houghton Fishing Club, the sort of club that delights in excluding royalty. The town stages its Trout and About food festival in August but there was little evidence of this local speciality in the shops and restaurants. Admittedly, the wild trout season is over by October but a local fly-fishing shop assured me that farmed trout should be available all year round. Special mention, again, must go to John Robinson’s for stocking home-smoked trout and trout paté.
All in all, the good burghers of Stockbridge eat extremely well and can be rightly proud of their high street (if you are after good burgers, check out The Grosvenor Hotel) but I’m not convinced it’s the very best in all the land. That would be like Serbia winning the Eurovision Song Contest. Oh, hang on a minute…
Until recently Jonny thought his laptop was an alphabetti toasted-sandwich maker.