While one can find dodgy hotels all around the world, I posit that Britain is a world leader in the subset that may be characterised as betraying ‘faded elegance.’ They’re a curious bunch, however, since many decrepit and decaying hotels were clearly, at some point in their respective pasts, considered the finest in their towns. How did they slide so far, one wonders?
Take the Hotel Gleneagle in Torquay, for example. Said the clerk at reception “You’re in Idlewild, Mr. Sanderson, and your colleague is in Red.” There was a pause, which grew into a silence, then became a lengthy intermission.
“And where,” I enquired, “might they be?”
This query evidently startled the clerk, who looked mildly affronted that the reputation, history, and indeed floorplan of his establishment hadn’t somehow permeated my consciousness at an early age. Finally arriving at the curiously-named room, I found it overheated to a point where I feared for the safety of all my paper documents, spontaneous ignition being what it is. Then in the morning, having been waved nonchalantly to a table for breakfast, I witnessed the endearing performance of a member of staff staging a stand-up row and walking out of her job.
Now, the Gleneagle was, one is led to believe, the very hotel from which Eric Idle’s bag was ejected, and messrs. Cleese et al witnessed a hapless diner being instructed on his choices, in the series of events that led to Fawlty Towers. While I’m sure many hotels in Torquay claim this recognition, it certainly rings true for the Gleneagle. And on a subsequent evening, the night porter assured me it was the case. For about forty minutes, until I finally managed to interject to the effect that I’d better get to my room before I fell asleep on the stairs… which of course only served to start another story of dubious provenance.
But no, the Gleneagle played up to its image – and was genuinely OK in practice – but it was clearly never in the upper echelons of the hotel fraternity. The Royal Norfolk in Bognor Regis, however, quite possibly was. Once.
A glorious 1830s building set back from the promenade and yet with a clear view to the sea, it exudes… actually, paint fumes, mostly. It’s fascinating to speculate on just what led to the Norfolk’s fall from presumed grace. Failure to change with the times? Relentless efficiency savings? A misguided desire to stay true to its formal Victorian roots? Chronic underfunding over decades as Bognor lost its cachet and the tourists headed to Spain? Or a deliberate attempt to move down-market? Possibly a little of each.
And this is not to say that the Norfolk is a bad hotel. Far from it. It’s just… velour? Chuck in the leaking ceilings, frighteningly-unbalanced sash windows, strewn notes for the odd-job man (“Do not ask Paul to help lift the cot out of the fire stairs, he has a heart condition and is not up to heavy lifting”), and you have an hotel with… character.
The crowning glory so far, however, has to be returning to find no power to my room tonight. No sockets, no lights, nothing. I eventually managed to scare up the night porter, who wandered off to investigate. Ten minutes later he returned. The electricians were in, and while my room should have been fine, evidently it wasn’t. Sorry. Well, that’s OK – I’d be asleep in five minutes, and modern mobile phones make surprisingly effective torches for such circumstances.
Only, as I fumble my way into bed, there’s a knock at the door. Staggering back into decency, I open the latch to find the night porter’s buddy brandishing a candlestick, along with ten minutes’ patter about how it’ll at least give me something.
So now I type this – the wonders of batteries, of course – by candle light. Wondering what, exactly, happens when I blow out the candles. Should I be worried by the over-zealous multiple smoke detectors?
Ah, crummy hotels. When the alternative is Holiday Inn, there’s frankly no contest.