An ode to Chateau Impney

I recently finished reading Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner for the first time. How it had escaped a prior read is beyond me.  It’s an elegant beautiful but gentle love story with a subtle plot marking a massive change in the main character’s life. It’s set in a Swiss hotel next to a lake, or lac, right at the end of the season. The end of the season could symbolise the changes in the main character.

I wondered whether the time it was written influenced the elements of charm which could be considered outdated today; the interactions, the manners, the simple afternoon teas (rather than the lavish contemporary affairs awash with champagne).

I knew where I was heading as I drove up the M40. My journey ended as I was swept off the A38 near Droitwich Spa and onto the long driveway of Chateau Impney. As I passed the horse paddocks to my right the Chateau with its towers came into view.

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I was transported to Hotel Du Lac.

Unfortunately I was not there to work on my novella but to attend a management meeting. Several years ago we found the hotel for meetings being equidistant from our North and South offices. The premises do not deliver a modern convenient hotel but instead ooze character and kitsch from every orifice.

I walked through the main entrance with my rucksack and overnight bag, rather weary from the journey. Something looked different. Gone was the wood-panelled semi-circular reception where the staff would complete registration cards and hand out oversized keys. In its stead was a work in progress with accompanied contractors. The much smaller marble desk looked chic but was certainly not the Chateau I had come to know.

Chateau Impney reception

The contractors pointed me further into the hotel and to the temporary home of the reception while the works were being completed. I was informed the hotel was undergoing change and I would be accommodated in one of the new, modernised rooms. On the one hand I was grateful as I needed to rest but wondered if the unique and dated charm had been removed.

I was instructed to head to the 2nd floor to my room 601; the lift was out of service.

The room was lovely and very modern with soft tones, a firm mattress and a newly fitted bathroom.

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I had to pause and remember the character of the rooms of old.

Some background information about Chateau Impney tells us it was born in 1875 as a dream of John Corbett after marrying a French woman. The property was built in the style of Louis XIII. It became a hotel in 1928. The website speaks of a major refurbishment in the 1970s. From my visits it’s clear that no major works or updating have been carried out since.

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I first visited in 2011, again for a management meeting, and had gotten rumours of the quirky set-up and rooms. I suspected that some at least of what I’d heard must be myth.

As I checked in I was informed my room had a name rather than a number. All the rooms in the main Chateau had female French names. We had lots of Carry On laughs about ‘being in Lucille’ ‘Marianne’ or countless others.

We planned to dine in the carvery. The restaurant and one of the two bars were situated in the bowels of the hotel. The bar was a mix of hot red leatherette banquette and stool seating against wood with large wooden cart wheels built into the bar. The Carvery was within a stone cave with a beamed ceiling and arches creating snugs. The food was carved and served from one corner of the cave and the meat and vegetable plates and serving dishes were in quite a small space with a self-service salad bar to the side. It was not unusual to have a chef cutting your meat (choice of two/three) and two waitresses loading your plate with vegetables, stuffing, Yorkshire puddings and gravy. You would find yourself nodding or verbally affirming every second second as your plate gained weight in your hand.

Chateau Impney dining

The rooms themselves had beds with built in bedside tables and were generally adorned with bedspreads of many colours. The carpets were pink, green or beige and the bathrooms every colour of 1970s décor: sky blue, pampas, champagne, chocolate, avocado, pink or burgundy.

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Chateau Impney

So as I lay on my new modern bed with scatter pillows, I wondered, or hoped, that the carvery was still there. It was certainly a trip into the past. I descended the grand staircase framed with beautifully wood-panelled walls and headed towards the smaller staircase which would transport me to the basement. It was closed off. Dinner was in one of the ballrooms which had been temporarily changed into the restaurant. It was lovely and the food great but it wasn’t the carvery. Would the modernisation remove the carvery? I dare not ask. At least the views were consistent.

Chateau Impney view

At our meeting the following day I was glad to see that the plate loaded with homemade shortbread biscuits was present. The shortbread is too much temptation to resist and I suspect contains a day’s calories per slice.

Other features include very pretty manicured gardens which are perfect to take a turn around, hidden meeting rooms up secret staircases and the afternoon teas which bring in all the local aging folk; the kind who take afternoon tea as a regular meal as they would breakfast, lunch or dinner rather than as an event.

I am going to miss you Chateau Impney of old. Many of your touches are displaced yet classic, and mirror my Boulevardier persona.

TNW

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Phone box of my youth

Change is always in the air, and as we mature there are more layers of transformation to observe.

When I lived in Hackney in the mid to late 1990s regeneration was in the early stages of gestation. I lived on Richmond Road, overlooking London Fields. As I walked along Richmond Road to Mare Street I would pass Flowers East Gallery, and an old factory, which became derelict while I lived there.

There was a group of shops at the Mare Street/Richmond Road junction among which was a newspaper shop, Hair By Byron (Greek barber called Vic), a rundown off licence (selling more special brew than anything), and a builders’ café.

Now the area is unrecognisable with high blocks of offices and flats with beautiful cafes and shops below. The factory and Byron are long gone.

Sometimes however, it’s not just areas that disappear and alter beyond recognition, but parts of our heritage. The change is slow and sometimes we don’t notice until something is gone. Perhaps even several years later we ponder ‘What happened to…?’

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Libraries for one are reducing in number and a recent report from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport tells us that the proportion of adults using them has fallen from 48% to 36%. How long before they become defunct, empty and destitute?

How about the humble British telephone box?

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The iconic red boxes started to disappear from our streets as far back as 1985 when BT announced modernisation and redesign. They are no longer being modernised or iconic but disappearing. The availability of mobile telephones has rendered them more redundant. Many sit derelict, vandalised and unused.

Recently while I waited for a friend outside Camden underground station I noticed two telephone boxes, side by side, keeping each other company as everyone walked by them, and didn’t even notice they were there.

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I kept focussed on the phone boxes to see if any of the multitudes of brightly coloured pedestrians even noticed or acknowledged their existence. After a few minutes a solitary, rather desperate looking, middle-aged woman went into one and attempted to make a call but was soon out to try the other. She left that swiftly too and I had to deduce that both were ‘out of service’.

These phone boxes, booths, kiosks or whatever you prefer to call them were once the centre of society. Everyone knew where their nearest was. They played a key role in social planning and events. People planned to call or to be called at a public telephone at set times so as not to miss each other. There was not the modern convenience of being able to call, and reach your friends, family and business acquaintances at will.

The mind is an odd contraption and it’s bizarre how memories are triggered. Thinking of telephone boxes in Camden took me right back to my youth…

In the Hertfordshire village, Flamstead, where I grew up there were two phone boxes. One was adjacent to the combined Post Office/grocer’s store and the second was directly outside my childhood home.

Our boundary was a privet hedge and gates across the driveway. Beyond that was a grass verge with a phone box situated on the corner. The grass verge wasn’t part of our property but Dad always mowed the grass when he cut our own. He reasoned that he didn’t want the verge to look unkempt as it affected the street side vista of our home. He would also park his van on the grass verge to keep a vehicle off the street, particularly as we lived on a sharp corner.

The phone box presented a challenge. It had been there for a significant number of years and long before the roads were so full of cars. Vehicles would frequently park directly outside the box creating a hazard, or worse, blocking our driveway. Mum acted as a great sentry and would charge out when she spotted the vehicle and demand that the vehicle be moved immediately. On a few occasions several callers actually pulled into the drive which generated a similar, if not even more, strident response.

Eventually my parents made representations to the local Council to have it removed. The response was disappointing and the letter confirmed that Trowley Hill was a public highway and unless there were yellow lines present vehicles may park at will. Our corner was not considered in need of yellow lines. Further representations concerning common courtesy and blocking points of access fell on deaf ears.

That said, Mum would also go out armed with a dustpan, brush, dishcloth (as long as it could go straight in the bin after as it wasn’t welcome back in the home after servicing the box), polish and duster to ensure that the phone box had the same level of sheen as our home.

I asked her why she would expend energy cleaning a public telephone box. She replied

‘I am not having that filthy thing outside our house!’

She would also collect stray one and two pence coins and deposit them in the charity box in the aforementioned village Post Office.

I guess it was a love-hate relationship.

Many of the village inhabitants also used the phone box and quite often there would be groups of my friends making calls to whomever. I even received a phone call once from an admirer asking if I was at home. I had no idea she was calling from the telephone box outside my house!

Do you remember your own phone box experiences? Ask anyone under 35 when they last used a phone box, and if they even know where their nearest is. I sadly now don’t know where my nearest is, or when last I used it. They are indeed confined to the past, but that doesn’t mean we should forget them and this blog shall serve as my homage to a disappearing but vital part of our social and communications past.

TNW