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I wondered whether the time it was written influenced the elements of charm which could be considered outdated today; the interactions, the manners, the simple afternoon teas (rather than the lavish contemporary affairs awash with champagne).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

Last Sunday I was enjoying a lovely cup of Assam in bed perusing the weather predictions for the next few days, and of course in true UK style it said ‘unsettled’. I had a few days off work and planned to travel to Essex and then the South Coast. I pulled my black leather holdall from atop the wardrobe and went to shower. As Arrow’s Hot Hot Hot blasted from my docking station, I realised that whilst only a few days away, I would need a suitcase and a multitude of outfits, due to the weather. See previous blog regarding packing to understand my thought process here…

With a rather heavy suitcase packed I drove to Sible Hedingham, where I spend a beautiful afternoon and evening with great friends. We caught up over several Tanqueray and tonics and a couple of bottles of wine. The weather was stunning and we sat in the garden right through into the evening.

I had arranged bed and breakfast at a local farm, and walked back there at midnight. Unfortunately a Boulevardier sometimes forgets that outside of London, and particularly in the country, streetlamps don’t light your every step. The vague light of occasional yellow streetlamps provided little assistance along the unknown path.

I made it back unscathed and heard conversation in the lounge, but went straight up the stairs to a beautiful twin room and to bed.

I woke to the sound of cocks crowing. At 5am! I managed to get back to sleep and had planned breakfast at 8.30. The hostess had asked the previous day when I wanted breakfast and I therefore came down as planned. She informed me it would now likely be 8.45am, to coincide with the other residents, as bacon tasted so much better when freshly cooked. I took a turn around the lounge, and was thankful that there was a nip in the air and we were not having breakfast outside, as there was a horrid chicken and three chicks parading in the back garden. This Boulevardier has an absolute and irrational fear of all feathered creatures. And I am not sure why anyone would want them in the back garden in any event!

At 8.45 on the dot breakfast was announced, and I was guided into the kitchen diner and welcomed to the head of the long heavy oak table. There were to be four other guests and we were to have breakfast at the same table. I braced myself for morning conversation with strangers.To the garden side there was not a wall but heavy concertinaed double-glazed glass doors, which were open, and therefore only a few feet between me and the bloody chickens. I tried to not raise too much panic in my voice but left the hostess in no doubt that the doors needed to be closed urgently! She left the bacon and hurriedly sealed my safety while giving me an odd side look. She did not share my fear of would be killers!

I sat and braced myself for the arrival of fellow diners, and first through the door were two teenagers, who from their dishevelled appearance had literally fallen from bed to the table. This did not stop their polite chatter. They were followed by two men. We all introduced ourselves and set out reasons for our trips. The two boys were not brothers but travelling with their respective fathers who were both previously married, divorced and now married to each other. I was pleased to see the ‘New Normal’ family unit so comfortably shared outside the acceptance of the Metropolis.

With a full stomach and some great tunes I donned my Ray Bans and travelled the short distance to Bury St Edmunds to have a lovely long lunch catch up with an old school friend. We had not seen each other for over 20 years, but the years melted away. There was no awkwardness which time apart can sometimes create. We chatted and the hours elapsed all too quickly. With promises of meeting up again soon, I was back in the car and on the longer journey to Hastings.

My hotel choice was somewhere between 2 and 3 star, so I was not expecting luxury. The reception area was pleasant enough, and after checking in and being shown to my room I realised there were no towels! This was quickly remedied after a trip to reception, but really no towels! Pretty fundamental I thought, and hoped this was not a harbinger for my stay.

To assist with recovery I needed some liquid refreshment, and fortune shined upon me as I had arranged to meet the author VG Lee for a rather large gin and tonic on the lovely hotel terrace. There was no Tanqueray but Bombay Sapphire sufficed.

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We then promenaded along the promenade enjoying the evening sun. In fact the unsettled weather wasn’t really unsettled at all. Indeed it had been rather pleasant.

VG recommended a fish restaurant, Webbes. After perusing a vast menu we made our choices, accompanied, obviously, by a good bottle of wine. We both decided on fresh battered haddock and chips. This was served with mushy peas which VG did not want. It was a rather entertaining conversation which ensued with the student waiter.

‘Is there an alternative to mushy peas by any chance?’

‘They only come in a small ceramic pot on the side of the plate.’

‘That’s fine, but I don’t want them. I wondered if there is an alternative.’

Blank look from waiter. I looked at the menu and suggested that there were green beans as a side dish.

‘Yes,’ said VG ‘Could I please have a few green beans in place of the mushy peas?’

‘Green beans are a side dish.’

‘Yes I know. I wondered if I could substitute the mushy peas for a few green beans.’

‘They are a side dish and come in a separate dish, so you would need to order them in addition.’

VG ordered her side dish and the waiter left the table. We both joked at the service, which wasn’t bad, but VG wasn’t asking for gold plate, but a few cheap, regular green beans. Our evening continued in a jolly fashion and we shared many laughs, complemented by delicious fresh food, and a second bottle of wine. I was led astray by VG.

We watched the sun set, and with it the other patrons and tables gradually disappear. Apparently life in Hastings stops at 10pm on a Monday. How quaint I thought while mentally noting that this would not suit a Boulevardier on a regular basis.

We walked back a little tipsy. We passed the ironically named New Town. Ironic as it’s Victorian!

The next morning I went down to breakfast, which was not included in the room rate. There is a 20% breakfast discount to residents which I thought strange as the hotel restaurant and bar is advertised as only being open to residents between 11pm and 12pm. I decided to investigate with the reception.

‘Good morning. Why is there an advertised 20% discount to residents for breakfast?’

‘Good morning. We like to give a special deal to all our guests.’

‘Is breakfast available all day then?’

‘No, only until 11am.’

‘But your sign indicates that only residents are allowed in the restaurant until 12pm’

‘Yes.’

‘Midday?’

‘No, midnight.’

‘But midnight is 12am!’ I did enjoy pointing out in a lovely humble manner.

‘Oh no,’ she laughed ‘we’ve been using that sign for months, and were wondering why the morning trade had fallen off! Thank you so much for pointing it out.’

With a good deed completed before 9am and the sunshine and only a gentle sea breeze I walked out onto the front terrace and ordered a tea (no Assam) and a vegetarian breakfast. I looked out to sea and watched a distant tanker far out at sea and a solitary closer sail boat drift by.

Two other older couples joined me on the terrace. The ones closest to me talked rather loudly, and as I speared a grilled tomato revealed to his companion the level to which his wound was oozing that morning… I do think a Boulevardier should be entitled to his own terrace, so as not to suffer such ear violence.

Before heading back to the sanctity of Crouch End I had one final day catching up with a lovely friend in Goring. The unsettled weather stayed away and we enjoyed a lovely beach walk and afternoon tea with massive cream cakes. I am partial to a cream slice.

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We were Weight Watching, or rather watching our weight increase! Next week I will definitely be enjoying, or enduring, depending on your perspective – lettuce leaves only…

TNW

The Paris Hilton of Berkeley Square or not…

I do honestly believe that being a Boulevardier was in my blood. And it’s about time I told you all why.

My extended family on my mother’s side were once the proud owners of several central London hotels. I say proud as I can not imagine having such a legacy and not feeling a sense of accomplishment.

I do not know which hotels exactly but the word ‘Berkeley’ is often bandied around. Whether this relates to the Berkeley Hotel, a hotel in Berkeley Square or both I do not know but I am not sure this finer detail is important at this stage. My grandfather was born in one of these hotels.

Unfortunately, or so the story goes, they were all lost as a result of gambling…

How unfortunate! I should be a hotel heir, but instead have to make do with the middle name Berkeley. Don’t get me wrong it’s not something that bothers me daily, or that I have undergone extensive therapy for but crops up sometimes in my dreams both conscious and unconscious.

I love having the middle name Berkeley. It wasn’t always that way though. As a child my uncles, on my father’s side, always made fun of it. I was called ‘Barkers Sausages’, usually accompanied by a lot of sniggering, which my cousins readily joined in with. And our family is large in number. I don’t even know if there was ever a company named thus, but I hated it as a boy. I really only started to appreciate it once I was a young adult, and then it gave me a sense of unique, and class. I also only understood the relevance when grown up. Prior to that I understood only that the eldest male in each family was given the middle name Berkeley.

I developed such a love for the name I wished it was my Christian name or even double barrelled surname. Does that make me slightly pretentious!

As a child though I lived the life of a hotel heir, which was fabulous. Not in the sense of living in palaces and having maids and butlers to attend to my every need, but with doting and generous parents who didn’t allow me to lift a finger or want for anything.

Gifts were constant, despite the fact they had little money. This was the 1970s after all. Each morning I was woken with a cup of tea in bed (this actually continued until I moved out in my 20s), and after leaving the warm of my covers and headed for the bathroom, my bed would be made. When I went downstairs breakfast was waiting, and my shoes were polished daily. I never ironed, cleaned, washed (other than myself) or made any meals expect the odd sandwich.

When I wanted to be in a school play, I was ferried to and from rehearsals. When I wanted to learn piano I had the best teacher in the locale (this is a story in itself which will appear here at some point in the future), and when I got a car it was regularly cleaned both inside and out. Some might say spoiled, but I prefer to say loved…

The downside however, is when you do head into the big bad world its rather a shock to the system. I remember ironing several shirts and a friend called in to ask if I was about to start ironing looking at the various hangers around the room exhibiting my handiwork. I confirmed that I was just finished. She roared with laughter and told me that you had to let the iron know who was boss. My first and only ever lesson in ironing ensued.

Repeat this for all other daily tasks as I gradually learned. I still to this day hate cleaning, ironing, and am incapable of fixing anything! Don’t you just throw clothes away when a button falls off!

I actually think it’s in my blood. Other memories flood back as when I was offered seafood as a child I didn’t want cockles or whelks, I only had the taste for prawns. I didn’t really take to cod but loved plaice! If it was more expensive I loved it, even before I knew or understood the differing costs. I just knew my taste buds.

I have bewailed the lack of ‘trust fund’, rather tongue in cheek, but have to confess to also being guilty of many a true word spoken in jest.

Would it be so wrong to seek out which hotels were part of my legacy, and go see if they are waiting for me to arrive? Surely a Boulevardier however displaced with a love of sherry, snowballs, Battenberg and French Fancies would be an asset to any such establishment!

And so I drift back into my dream world yet again!

TNW