Wednesday 26 September 2012

Drinking wine with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace

As I was drinking wine with the Archbishop of Canterbury,…

There now, that’s got some attention. Some of you may remember my legendary piece about drinking wine with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. (If you don’t remember it, you can visit it here and now, and I’ll just pause until you get back.) Last week, I was able to climb even higher in the UK’s Order of Precedencehaving been invited to a reception at Lambeth Palace, for wine with the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Step one was to check how to address the Primate of All England. I then spent the prior evening at home practising, with a slight, deferential lowering of the head, the phrase “Good evening, Your Grace”, a phrase I am unlikely ever again to be able to utter appropriately. 

(As that evening wore on, Mrs K became increasingly irritated with my other, less appropriate variations such as “Thank you, Your Grace”, “Yes, another glass please, Your Grace”, and “Well, if there is another sausage going, Your Grace…”) 

Like most Londoners, I’m familiar only with the somewhat forbidding dark Tudor brick gatehouse of the Palace, on the bank of the Thames. But behind it, after namechecks etc, lies the path to  the Palace itself, in a rather more collegiate yellow stone.The surrounding grounds contain gardens and apple trees, of which (as you will soon see) the Palace kitchens make use. 

You pass through the Palace doorway, and realise you must be in the company of good people, because the cloakroom lacks not only an attendant, but any kind of numbering or security system. Who indeed would steal from the house of an Archbishop? (Apart from a King or two…)

Then up a grand staircase, to where the Archbishop of Canterbury himself waits in the corridor, and welcomes each of his guests personally. This is a different tactic to that employed by the Prime Minister, who ghosts into the reception room once it’s filled. I therefore got my chance to shake hands and say my cherished phrase. Sobriety at this early stage ensured that I did not say “Good Grace, your evening.”

And you pass on, along a corridor lined with portraits of his predecessors, to the Archbishop’s reception itself, held in The Guard Room, a magnificent panelled chamber with arch-braced roof. The Lambeth Palace website unfortunately refers to this as having been  “the Archbishop’s principle audience room”. I imagine they mean to say “principal”; either that, or audiences without principles are simply not entertained. 

Unlike Downing Street, we were trusted with proper wine glasses, presumably on the basis that no-one could possibly be thinking of “glassing” the host. As opposed to glassing the Host, which would be another matter entirely. And I was delighted to see that cocktail sausages were among the canapes. Perhaps, after all, I might be grateful for having rehearsed a sausage-related remark. 

The apple sauce offered alongside the sausages comes from the Palace itself, a waitress explained. What about the wine, I asked? She looked at me as if I was insane. No, she said with a patient smile, I think that comes from New Zealand.

What I meant, of course, was to ask whether it comes from the Archbishop’s own cellar, or whether a van pulls up every once in a while purely to, er, service his guests. Because the white was indeed from New Zealand; Fairleigh Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2011. It costs £8.99 from Majestic, the wine warehouse, and given that it’s produced excusively for them, I think we can assume that, barring divine intervention, from thence it actually came. I stuck to the red, a perfectly palatable Australian; Oxford Landing Estates Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz 2010. Coincidentally this is also available via Majestic, who say that it “goes well with Sunday roasts”, a relationship to the Sabbath which may or may not boost its Church credentials. 

It seemed just a little disappointing, to be in such unique circumstances, chatting with the Archbishop of Canterbury (about the poetry of TS Eliot, as you ask…) and drinking wine from somewhere as commonplace as Majestic. I mean, I shop there. CJ has shopped there. Like the venue and the meeting, I wish the wine could have been special and interesting too. When the occasion is unique, it’s a shame the wine is everyday.

What hosting tips have I gleaned from drinking wine with these two most senior figures? Well, it seems that Rule Number One of hosting a reception with wine is that…you don’t drink the wine. Neither of my hosts drank any of their wine. Now of course, they may be nervous of committing an inebriated faux pas, lunging for remaining sausages, stumbling into people and spilling wine, which would be quoted all over the newspapers next day (CRASH N’SPLASH BANGER CLASH AT ARCHBISH BASH!)

But it may be that they know how humdrum the wine actually is at such functions. Of course, you’re not supposed to notice or remember it. The exclusive surroundings, the speech, your one and only conversation with the host, all of those you are supposed to remember; the wine is simply lubrication. If the occasion, the host or the venue are once in a lifetime, it seems the wine can be everyday. Which is a shame for those of us who think the wine could easily be special, too.

The lesson of all this is simple. The more significant you are, the less significant the wine you can serve.

Which is why I must always serve my guests decent wine.



  1. Very funny article with an excellent moral; still, at least the AB didn't serve Lidl's best. On which topic, I recall a wonderful letter to the Times a few years ago. One of our higher ranking military men, disgusted at the wasteful extravagance of entertaining dignitaries, gave instructions that all food and wine for luncheon parties was to be bought at Lidl. He served their sausages and a French red to a large group of visiting European top brass and, from memory, the cost was just over £100.

  2. And that probably served 100 guests!

    But CJ would feel at home...


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