HEADING for Helmsley on the A170, beyond Sutton Bank, and enjoying the long descent into that picture-perfect market town, you know you are in a very different part of Yorkshire.

It’s sort of like the rest of North Yorkshire but with the rough edges smoothed off. There’s a manicured feel to the landscape here that you don’t find anywhere else in the county

Drive on a little further and you are into the heart of the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – gently rolling hills, broad-leaved woodland and neatly-edged and hedged fields filled with spanking-new tractors and cattle and sheep that look so well kept they could have stepped straight out of the show ring.

It reminds me of the Britains agricultural toys I played with as a kid. Then, my life’s ambition was to be a farmer – before I realised it was bloody hard work and I could make an easier living doing stuff like this.

It’s cut-above countryside littered with pretty honey-stoned villages that also remind me of the Cotswolds – and it’s almost as posh.

Picturesque villages like Gilling East, which as with the slightly more rough and ready Gilling West has a stream running through it.

The pub here is called the Fairfax Arms and we found it pretty damn spiffing.

It helped enormously that it was the most gorgeous of Spring Sundays and easily warm enough to sit out on the pub’s outside terrace with the beck trickling by just a few feet away.

After manoeuvring ourselves for maximum exposure to the sun we took in our splendid surroundings and immediately picked up the distinctive, occasionally braying, voices of the well-heeled. Perhaps we were in the Cotswolds after all?

But no. Gilling East is just a spit from Ampleforth, home to the country’s top Roman Catholic public school, and Ampleforth’s prep school St Martin’s is in the village. Parents visiting boarding pupils. That explains it.

But hey, you all know I’m a bloody southerner too so that’s enough chip-on-the-shoulder nonsense.

And we do like a bit of posh from time to time. And we also like fish which was a good thing this lunchtime because while the traditional Sunday roasts were available, the fishy options looked particularly attractive.

Like the seafood platter which we shared as a starter. It comes in two sizes (£12.50 and £17.95) and we were advised to go for the smaller option which even so was very generous. There were three or four slices of sweetly smoked salmon, four queenie scallops baked in a cheese sauce, a plumptious prawn cocktail and two handsome haddock goujons, all crisp and golden with super-white, flaking flesh. All that lot came with a good dollop of mixed leaves, hunks of brown bread and thickly-spread slightly salted butter and a chunky, and nicely sharp tartare sauce. Wow.

Having wondered if it was entirely sensible to go all fish, after that taste-tastic taster we relished afresh the prospect of our main course choices.

Sylvia had opted for jumbo scampi tails (£16.95) which is generally these days a safer bet than it once was when all sort of vaguely white fish - monkfish tail in the main - got bundled together, battered, deep fried and presented as scampi when they were nothing of the sort.

Food labelling and descriptions regs sorted that little scam out and only the Norwegian lobster can be described as such today and these not-so little beauties were so numerous that Sylvia parcelled up a handful in a paper napkin and took home. It says something that they almost tasted as delicious slowly warmed through the following day. The chunky chips that came with them were ace. There was also more dressed mixed leaves and that super tartare sauce.

My whole seabream (£19.95), served on the bone and crisply charred from the grill, was piscatorian perfection on a plate. Farmed it almost certainly was but it was fantastically meaty and moist with no hint of dryness. It came with a pesto garnish, lemon butter, a generous Mediterranean salad and sautéed potatoes. Never mind the Cotswolds, I could have been in Capri.

Mainly because we didn’t want it all to end, we went for desserts - some locally-made Ryeburn ice cream (£5.50) for Sylvia and a lemon meringue baked Alaska (£6.75) for me – a textual smorgasbord of sticky-chewy warm meringue, edgy cold ice cream and the crunchiness of granola.

The sun was still shining, all was very much right with the world and the bill with a couple of soft drinks was what seemed an eminently sensible and indeed rather reasonable £65.30.

Although we dined outside, the inside looked lovely, particularly the recently completed and very chi-chi Orangery restaurant. It wouldn’t look out of place in Chipping Norton.


The Fairfax Arms, Main Street, Gilling East, Y062 4JH

Tel: 01439-788212

Web: the fairfaxarms.co.uk

Food served: Monday-Saturday noon-2pm and 6-9pm; Sunday noon-7pm.

Disabled access. All dietary requirements met.

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 10, Service 8, Surroundings 9, Value 8