So today I have tucked into haddock and chips, not once, but twice, served with a side of mushy peas, white bread and a cup of tea at two well renowned fish and chip restaurants local to me. One of which was possibly once the most famous fish and chip shop on the planet; the acclaimed Harry Ramsdens, which is now The Wetherby Whaler. I have fond childhood memories of family outings to Harry Ramsdens in Guiseley, six miles north-east of Leeds. Long before the establishment became another dreaded fast-food chain, Harry Ramsdens was the jewel in the fish-and-chip-shop-crown and people would come from far and wide for a portion of their haddock and chips, a side order of mushy peas and tea served in china. Back in the day Harry Ramsdens was a legendary celeb-spotting haven. Famous faces performing at Batley Variety Club would pay a visit and sporting heroes spanning premiership footballers, rugby players and cricketers and even TV celebrities would be seen in Harry Ramsdens on a regular basis. The only fish and chip shop in the world to have a helter-skelter in the car park, a grand piano regularly tinkered by the resident pianist and giant crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
I’m sure I speak on behalf of many of you of a similar age to me who were raised in the Leeds and Bradford area when I say that the nostalgia of a childhood visit to Harry Ramsdens was on par with memories of seeing a half-eaten mince pie and an empty whiskey glass on Christmas morning; nothing short of magical. It was a Yorkshire institution and a tradition to be proud of… ‘The spiritual home of fish and chips.’ But, as with all great things, Harry Ramsdens long reign of glory had to end… and after a whopping eight decades of coach-loads of folk travelling for miles and queuing round the block to sample a serving of Harry’s fish and chips, in 2011 the restaurant served its last haddock and shut its doors. In May 2012 after an extensive refurb, The Wetherby Whaler opened those very same doors.
Now whilst all this was going on I was living in London where the fish and chip culture is a very different story. Firstly, one cannot just walk into the local chippy and order ‘fish and chips’ down south. It goes without saying that those of you born on northern soil will expect haddock to feature in your fish supper. Not cod, not rock salmon, not pollock, not plaice – haddock. And certainly not with the skin left on. Fish is fried in ground nut oil in London as it’s a healthier option. Who has ever opted for a portion of fish and chips for their health benefits? I want my fish to swim in a boiling trough of beef dripping before it lands on my plate. I don’t want it coated in matzo meal and fried lightly in nut oil! A scallop to a southerner is a posh shellfish one cooks with pancetta and serves with pea puree, not a batter covered potato slice. Noses are turned up at the thought of mushy peas; garden peas are the pea of choice, and ketchup is replaced with mayo. You want scraps? No chance. And expect your fish and chip takeaway to be served up in a ponsy cardboard box and cost you just shy of £15 for a (small) portion.
My husband and I lived in London for 15 years and we would regularly travel back up the M1 to visit the family. When my wonderful Grandparents were alive; they enjoyed nothing more than treating everyone to fish and chips on the weekends we visited. I can’t pinpoint when Murgatroyds became the favoured fish and chip restaurant of choice for my late grandparents; but I expect it was something to do with the great OAP offers as my Gran always seemed to have a purse full of BOGOFs, which meant she could treat her family of 16 for less than a ton (£100).
(Image below: at Murgatroyds – Gran and Grandad – Ronald and Eileen. RIP)
My fondest memory of a family trip to Murgy’s (as we affectionately call it) was not long after Iain and I started dating; it would have been his inaugural trip (and one of many) to the restaurant. 15 of the 16 of us round the table would inevitably order exactly the same; fish and chips and mushy peas with a side order of white bread and a pot of tea. Iain, who is a Southerner, ordered fish and chips with a side order of garden peas, brown bread and a pint of lager. It still is a topic of much amusement to my family who were absolutely horrified when Iain ordered garden peas, brown bread and a pint of lager.
(Image below: Iain at Murgatroyds with those garden peas!)
My granddad in his thick Yorkshire accent loudly questioning Iain’s choice of sides…”Garden peas? Did you just order garden peas lad? I’ll go to the foot of our stairs – Lyndsey, I hope you don’t think your marrying someone who eats garden peas with their fish and chips?”
Gran would chip in; “Ohhh Ronald – leave poor lad alone; you’ll scare him off! – he’s a southerner they do things differently down there.”
And my aunty Sue and Uncle Glyn, sister and cousins were all staring at poor Iain like he had just stepped out of a UFO. Whispering to one another “garden peas; well I never…”
We relocated back to Yorkshire 18 months ago and moved into a lovely house in Menston less than half a mile from The Wetherby Whaler. Today, on National Fish and Chip Day, I have polished off fish and chips twice. It was Murgy’s for lunch (or dinner depending on where you are from) and The Weatherly Whaler for dinner (tea). Fish and chips in two establishments that are, in my opinion, the very best of fish and chip restaurants and also hold very fond childhood memories. If there was any way at all I could of stomached a 3rd portion; I would almost certainly have headed to Mother Hubbard’s in Bradford. Is Fryer Tucks still going strong on Manchester Road in Bradford? That would be number four.
Murgatroyds claims to be ‘Britain’s Finest Fish and Chip Emporium’ – a big statement for a chippy that is less than four miles from what once was the finest of chip shops. Located right next to Leeds Bradford Airport; it’s perfectly positioned for pre or post holiday fish and chips. The exterior always reminds me of an American Diner; Billy Murgatroyd himself was a Yorkshireman through and through so I’ve no idea why the place looks like something off the set of a Wild West film.
They say ‘red and green should never be seen’ – well it can certainly be seen in Murgy’s; the decor is a bold combination of red brick walls, pea green carpets and claret red faux leather seat coverings. Art deco lights hang from the ceiling and tables are located in booths trimmed with plastic plant; it’s all very confused but somehow it works. At 1.30pm it was absolutely heaving and I had to queue with a dozen pensioners to get a table. Today’s senior citizen menu special featured sherry trifle for a £1 and the oldies were giddy for it. The atmosphere is energetic with all sorts of age groups dining and although the waitresses were rushed off their feet, it doesn’t take long for one of them to pop over and take my order of fish and chips, mushy peas, white bread and butter and a pot of tea.
For those with a large appetite there is the ‘Billy Murg Special’ and if that’s still not big enough, ‘The Big ‘Un’ at £16.50 will most definitely fill the hungriest of men and would probably feed an average family of four with some left over.
It doesn’t take long for my fish, chips and peas to arrive. Piping hot, wonderfully crispy batter, a good size portion of well cooked chips all topped off with a sprig of parsley for effect. My tea was well brewed and of good colour, and the bread was fresh and soft with just the right amount of butter on it. The fish itself was ever so slightly over-cooked, but this was only noticeable when eaten without the delicious batter fried in that all important beef dripping.
I’ve never been to the Wetherby Whaler; this was my first visit. It was pretty busy when we arrived at 6pm and I was pleasantly surprised to open the double doors to the sound of the pianist tinkering away on the grand piano. You have to give the Wetherby Whaler it’s due; it’s really trying to cling on to everything that was so wonderful about Harry Ramsdens. But, sadly, it’s not quite working. Opulent chandeliers, high ceilings, panelled walls and a grand piano certainly offer an air of elegance and nostalgia, but combined with the colour scheme, the sound of the piano, bare tables with no crisp white linen and a bar at the entrance that looks more like a hotel reception desk, it’s all a bit, dare I say it… old people’s home. In my opinion, The Wetherby Whaler needs to find its own personality and stop trying so hard to recreate what Harry Ramsdens did so well in an era gone by.
Once again I ordered regular fish and chips, bread and butter, a pot of tea and mushy peas and everything was faultless. The fish was delicious, as what the batter; fried in beef dripping. Chips were chunky and well cooked, and the mushy peas were possibly the best I have ever tasted. All in all the grub was on point.
To conclude; I’m not sure there is a winner; certainly not on the food front anyway. Both were a 10 out of 10. Murgatroyds is slightly more expensive (but then you do get a sprig of parsley), and the atmosphere, certainly for me was more enjoyable and that’s probably because of my age. However, for a restaurant that quite obviously caters largely for the more mature market; maybe The Wetherby Whaler experience is exactly what their customers expect and return for. Clever really, that two very similar establishments, so close to one another, offering a very comparable menu have managed to carve out their niche though the experience that they offer and in turn are always packed out.
A regular portion of fish and chips at Murgys is £9.95, which includes bread and butter. a pot of tea is £1.50 and a side order of mushy peas is £1.20.
A regular portion of fish and chips at The Wetherby Whaler is £9.00 and includes bread and butter and a pot of tea. Mushy peas are extra at £1.65.