Opposite one of the main railway stations in the Midlands stands an hotel which has been there since the mid-19th century. Built to resemble an Elizabethan manor house, there is a certain sense of elegance about the structure, which is probably what makes it an attractive option when considering where to book a room for the night. It’s also incredibly affordable, particularly at a time when even the most basic accommodation can usually set you back about £70 a night, if you’re lucky!
There’s a saying in life that you only get what you pay for, and the first time I stayed in this hotel, last year – a last minute decision to assist with the logistics of a short stay in the area – I left feeling like I shouldn’t have paid anything at all. A catalogue of perceived calamities – all occurring within the relatively short timescales of an overnight stay – meant I went away completely understanding why three quarters of its reviews are rated either average, poor, or terrible.
But, there’s also a saying in life that everybody deserves a second chance, and I pretty much believe that’s a sentiment that should be extended to services as well as people, when possible. So – with a new need to stay in the area, and an even smaller budget to play with this time round – I decided to give it another go. At £40 a night, I would have been stupid not to, and this time round, I even convinced a couple of friends to come with me.
I told them all about the aforementioned catalogue of calamities observed during the first stay, in 2017 – the uncomfortable beds, the feeble running water, the way the carpet changed to a completely different design halfway up the grand staircase, and the way the rooms were so dated, that the welcome booklets contained explanations about where to locate the nearest cigarette machines (banned from England in 2011). I also told the tale of the unenthused barmaid, who had kept finding reasons to disappear whilst on duty, and failed to answer a simple question about whether or not we could buy a bottle of wine to take away with any sense of certainty, interest or even – dare I say it – intonation:
“Ah don’t kner. Nerbody has ever assked me that”
What felt like an eternity then passed before I realised that she had no plans to elaborate on her ‘answer’.
“Well, is it something we could find out?”
“Ah’ll have to ask the manager”, she concluded, before disappearing for another fifteen minutes, whilst no doubt making great efforts to succeed at her quest for a resolution to our query. Eventually we were permitted to take the drink away, but not before noticing that the bottle was covered in dust and was probably as old as the building itself.
Regaling the stories this time round I was asked why I would choose to stay there again and – much like the barmaid I suppose – I struggled to give a clear answer. I didn’t dislike the hotel by any means, I just found the whole place incredibly bizarre, and yet so alluringly intriguing. And now I had a reason to stay there again, and I leapt upon it.
When we arrived for stay number two my friend vocalised positive first impressions as we walked in through the grand porch entrance. The receptionist – a middle aged lady with a messy bun in her hair (not that I’m judging as I often sport the same fashion myself) – was ensconced in conversation with her colleague about how much work she had done that day, and almost seemed to forget that she was still on duty. She dealt with my friends’ booking and I checked-in with her colleague.
A young girl approached the counter behind us, to ask what time last orders was that night. It turned out that she was the the current barmaid, and she clearly wasn’t enjoying her job very much, as she seemed very keen on calling them sooner rather than later.
“Make it 11pm” her colleague said, before issuing with me with my key, the flimsy, plastic sort you would normally use to lock an old filing cabinet with. It wouldn’t have surprised me if it actually did unlock a filing cabinet somewhere within building, probably the one containing all the customer booking invoices from 1973.
“You’re in Room 102”, he said, nudging the key across the reception desk, “turn left as you go up the stairs”.
My friends were staying in Room 100, and so when we saw the sign for rooms 100 – 105 we felt pretty pleased to think that – despite booking several days apart – our rooms were so close together. Not so.
After dropping my pals off in Room 100, I continued along the corridor to where Room 102 should have been, but alas, it was not there. Room 101 was. As were rooms 103, 104 and 105. But not mine.
“Great, I booked a room that doesn’t exist, no wonder it was so cheap!” I thought to myself, before turning back and double-checking to see whether I’d missed it. After a bit of wandering, and some help from my friends, we found a sign round the corner that pointed the way to Room 102 specifically, and when we finally found it, it was situated between Room 120 and Room 121.
We could only deduce that whoever designed the building had not been able to count, and then proceeded downstairs towards the bar.
The young barmaid was stood slouched with a facial expression that suggested she had recently swallowed an anchor, and was feeling compelled to call last orders seventeen minutes before the time she had been advised to by her colleague. We went up to place our orders in the nick of time. One of my friends asked for a pint of beer and got a half pint of beer and a half pint of froth. “Ah joost need to let it settle”, said the barmaid, leaping upon an excuse to not have to do anything and disappear from duty for ten minutes, to god knows where. A sense of deja vu came over me, and I immediately identified who her mentor must have been when she started employment there.
Once we got all our drinks, and questioning – but being in no mood to challenge – how much we had been charged, we took a seat and noticed a pool table next to us. We fancied a quick game, but didn’t quite have the right change.
“Excuse me, would you mind changing these coins into a fifty pence piece so that we can play pool?”, I asked Waspy at the bar, in as polite a tone as possible to avoid having a dimpled-glass beer tankard launched at my face.
“No I can’t because bar’s clerzin’ and ya need to go into the lounge now” she said, without any slight hint of regret, eye contact, or diction. In fact, if she’d had a giant broom to hand I’d have easily imagined her sweeping us along into the lounge, next door, so that she could fetch her things from the cloakroom and head out to meet her Tinder date. Or whatever important thing she had lined-up for afterwards that made her so keen to end her shift.
My friends and I went to the lounge, as instructed, and took a seat on some black leather sofas, the crevices of which you half expected to find some shriveled up peas from the two for £5 mains special, or a piece of melted chocolate Digestive. I’m sure you know the kind of sofa I mean – you normally see them against the decrepit custard yellow walls of taxi ranks, or on somebody’s front lawn awaiting collection by the rag and bone man – early ’00’s furnishings that just couldn’t stand the test of time and now feel like sitting on giant cushions of spilled cider and black, and regret. Yeah, those.
Once we’d finished up our drinks we considered heading out to explore a bit more of the town, and maybe see if there was a place for one final refreshment. We asked the chap at the Reception desk for any ideas of where we could go:
“There’s not mooch around here to be honest, flower” he said, with an unmistakable Midlands tone, “you’d be better off staying for our night bar” which – he explained – was basically when they keep the lights turned off in the bar except for when staff go in to pour drinks. We were asked to remain in the lounge area, where a couple sat with some enthusiastic young children who wanted us to join in their game of football, whilst our drinks were being poured.
A grand piano sat on tired looking carpet in the corridor just outside the room and I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the urge to stroke the keys and bust out my inner Mozart… except that this was difficult to do, as the piano was sadly broken, with the lid jammed half-shut. Without wishing for this to sound like a scene from a blue movie, but uncertain how to phrase it any other way, a wine-influenced version of myself managed to poke my fingers in and play a bum note or two in as melodic a fashion as possible. Before too long, however, a member of staff advised me that there had been complaints from the bedroom above, and asked that I desist with my musical masterpiece immediately. Alas, my modern incarnation of Symphony No. 40 was not able to reverberate around the confines of the hotel on that particular night after-all.
I’m possibly not painting the most amazing image of this hotel, but I’m being completely honest when I say I love it, and people like Paul are amongst the reasons why.
Paul – you see – was the senior staff member on duty that night, and the one who had taken to giving us botanical pet names like “flower”. A tall, silver-haired chap in his early fifties, Paul was the kind of person you’d imagine showing up to an extended family Summer barbeque with a bottle of Tia Maria and some Ferrero Rocher. He’d be the one keeping an eye on the burgers every time chef went to the loo, and geeing everyone up to have a go at the pinata. In other words, he seemed to be the sort to know how to please a large swathe of people, and that’s exactly the kind of person you want to come across when staying away from home.
After serving us drinks from the night bar, Paul explained that the hotel had been very busy hosting weddings in recent weeks, and offered to give us a sneak preview of the function room they had spent the day decorating in preparation for a Harry Potter themed service due to take place the following afternoon. “If you’d ‘ave seen this place a week ago you wouldn’t have recognised it” he started to explain, “the lasst lot that were celebrairtin’ a wedding in ‘ere completely trashed the plairce. It took us a whole dair to clear it oop”.
Paul was such a sweet, friendly chap that you couldn’t help but feel incredibly sympathetic at this point. He went on, “We’re not the most modern of places and ya see them writin’ their reviews on Trip Advisor, complairnin’ about the lack of air-con – they forget we’re over a hoondred years old, and that we’re a lot cheapuh than oother plairces they could stair”.
And you know what? He was exactly right.
As Paul continued to delve into the history of the building, he told us interesting facts and showed us interesting features that most visitors probably don’t give themselves the opportunity to see. All the whilst they’re busy complaining that the tiny television screen impedes their ability to see the weather conditions anticipated for at home in Maidenhead next Wednesday, they’re missing out on the things that make up for it.
The more Paul spoke about and showed us, the more I began to realise that I liked this hotel a whole lot more than I had initially thought. It had a character to it that I now knew to be the thing which had ultimately brought me back for a second stay, and it wasn’t letting me down.
In my last blog post, I explained how the ease with which we can ‘perfect’ images completely negates the true value of a genuinely impressive photograph. With this hotel I find myself thinking something similar. Have we become so conditioned to believe everything should be flawless, that we immediately dismiss the value of those which don’t – on the surface at least – look as great? The quirks of this hotel were the thing I loved about it the most, even being able to see the funny side of having a room that overlooked nothing but a bunch of vents and styrofoam take-out containers that no doubt once contained a portion of cheesy chips:
Room with a view
For various reasons I have needed to stay in a number of English hotels over the past couple of years. Most of them have been very nice, with crisp bed-sheets, sleek customer service and breakfast menus that would make Dr Gillian McKeith yelp with glee about the responsible amount of nutritional balance on offer. The problem is, I can’t tell you anything else about those places. They were nice enough, there was just nothing really that memorable about them.
But, I can tell you tonnes about this hotel – which I have purposely decided not to name throughout this article – but which for me represents everything that an overnight stay in a different part of the country should be all about: The clutter of Edwardian furniture that’s seen better days. The sachets of freeze-dried coffee you enjoy with your 2am bath. The variety of staff attitudes on display. The trouser press affixed to the wall, the purpose of which you’re unable to explain to a Brazilian friend…
Anyone ever actually made use of these since 1989?
…You don’t stay here because you’re looking for a luxurious base from which to send a postcard, you stay here for the experience, and because you know that the money you’ve saved by compromising a bit of comfort can be better spent on a nice lunch out the following day, or a new colander.
One of my favourite contemporary creatives – a lady called Mari Andrew, famed for her Instagram depictions of modern day life – once wrote that if you’re going to be an artist, or anything else where you seek to provide things others can enjoy, you should strive to be more like whisky than water. Everybody likes water whereas far fewer people like whisky, she reasons, but there are far more die-hard fans of whisky than there are of water. Nobody treks hundreds of miles to remote Scottish distilleries for a bottle of Evian, but they would for whisky, because it’s different.
This hotel is definitely whisky, and it has me ordering it by the gallon… well I would be, if the barmaid hadn’t disappeared for the fifth time this evening…
Song of the Day: Alligatoah – Es Ist Noch Suppe Da (There is still some soup left)
Listening is believing when it comes to this one – German hip-hop which samples a song from some kids tv show in the ’60’s.
I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but Spotify recently seemed to think I’d like it, and it was bloody well right.