An Innkeeper’s Diary

If you’re interested in travel and tourism, hotels and inns, then this is a blog for you.

Hands up all those who have heard of John Fothergill!  Or his book, first published in 1931 by Chatto and Windus: An Innkeeper’s Diary.

It’s a classic; and possibly best read while staying at The Spread Eagle in Thame, the “inn” he managed to position as one of the places in the whole of the UK to stay, or dine, during the 1920s and 30s.

In its heyday, The Spread Eagle near Oxford became a mecca for holiday makers, and the great and the good of the country.  Many people booked to stay or dine there, purely because of Fothergill’s notoriety.  But many others – including a “glitterati” of writers, actors, artists and heads of state – arrived as a result of the hotel’s widespread reputation as one of the best in the land.

As the cover notes to the book reveal, Fothergill was not only an illustrious innkeeper, but also an outstanding chef, connoisseur of wine, and an early campaigner for “Real Food”.  But he was also a volatile and provocative character – as well as a firm believer that the customer is not always right!

Think Basil Fawlty.  But with a hotel to match his own high opinions and standards.

As Hilary Rubinstein noted in her Foreword: “First time readers of this remarkable diary are inclined to exclaim: ‘What a terrible snob!  How rude!  How intolerant!’.”  But that should not detract from Fothergill as a true personality of his time, or his book which became an instant best seller and has been dramatized on TV and radio.

Copies are available today for just £3.95 from the Reception of the 21st century version of The Spread Eagle.  Here are just a few excerpts to keep you going in the meantime…

On his guests:

It is easy for a grocer to decide what quality of goods he will sell to his best advantage, but he needn’t trouble about the quality of the people he sells them to.  Nor does any hotel-keeper; he leaves it to luck, and so to ill-luck.  I’ve never heard it said of any hotel that they have any particular class of people as clientele, unless it be some residential place where they can easily pick and choose.  Here, I’ve determined not only to have proper and properly cooked food but to have only either intelligent, beautiful or well-bred people to eat it.

On the signpost which remains as one of the great High Street landmarks in Britain:

I told the auctioneer who, like the rest here, is sniffy and grudging of our new signpost, that it alone would bring into the town £40,000 in the course of the next ten years, which is putting it low, and he sniggered….  It used to hang out from the house fifteen feet over the parapet on iron bars and tie rods…  After ninety-two years of swinging and vibrating, the part of the house where it was fixed was getting disintegrated.  So in the summer of 1924, I write to the Council asking permission to put the sign up on a post on the pavement, which they wouldn’t have had power to do had I not told them that it would take the place of an ugly lamp-post which I would light at my own expense.

On The Spread Eagle’s position as one of the true great inns of Britain:

When Maisie Somerville, one of our foundation stones, told some people that ours was the most celebrated hotel in this part of the world I objected to her limiting the area, but she had in her mind Clough Williams-Ellis’s astonishing invention at Portmeirion.  I said that hotels like this, the Beetle and Wedge, Philip Sainsbury’s, and perhaps others and mine had no competitors or comparisons, simply because they are expressions of different individualities and, as such, are not for universal appreciation.  This Inn, fourteen crooked miles from a town, has been created in four years out of none of those factors that are the making of hotels that otherwise could never have existed for a day, not golf no shooting, hunting, riverside, seaside, climate, landscape, main road, nor jazz and cocktails – I have used only food, wine, furniture and people with which to express myself in the language of Innkeeping.

On his own, volatile method of dealing with his guests:

It’s a horrible thing to be a fanatic.  I saw a girl, rather a nice girl, on a nice undergrad’s knee in the Common Room, so I attacked the four of them like fury, telling them to go out, never to come again and to tell their friends not to.  One of the youths, an American, apparently not quite an undergrad, came to me afterwards and showed complete sympathy with my views and policy and we parted sentimentally.  How much better and more penetrating if I had sat down and slowly and kindly talked to them!  This conduct of mine is going backward.  I have learnt nothing.  It’s awful.  I hope the same sort of thing happens again soon to give me another chance.

On the need for Real Food:

When I took this shop, I thought round for all the things I had found best wherever I’d been and sent for them.  So Kate pays regular bills for food stuff in Athens, France, Norway, Jaffa and Italy.  And of English things we have daily from three bakers three different kinds of bread made from flours that I have forced upon them, besides the breads we make ourselves, cheese from East Harptree, salt from Malden, mustard from Leighton Buzzard, sausages, after a romantic search all over England, from Glenthorn in Thame, books from the Book Society, bacon found by accident, from the International Stores, and despite the trouble, the net result upon the patient is that he is alive to something very different in the food.  Real food is a surprise, and simply because the gastric juices fly out to it, whilst they hold back aching at the aromalessness of synthetic, poor or adulterated products.  Surely this is better than buying all of your stuff from an ‘Hotel Purveyor’, making out your quantities required on a big list – butter, coffee, coal, caviar, paraffin, all tasting the same and all wrapped up in Marie Stopes paper, even the coal.  Surely this is better and more difficult than having one specialite gastronomique?

On John Gielgud’s complimentary comments about The Spread Eagle:

John Gielgud cheered me today by saying he knew no hotel in England that approached this within measurable distance.  It’s true, of course, but you don’t expect people to feel and know that as keenly as I do myself.  Bless him!

And on the publication of An Innkeeper’s Diary:

To Charles Prentice, of Chatto and Windus, I sent these Diary books for him to see what, if anything, could be done with such industry…he writes suggesting that I publish excerpts just as they are…  I hate the thought of it now.  I’m better than this Diary, the product of the fag ends of my daily supply of energy.  I act and don’t write; I can’t see any interest to others in it…anyhow if you don’t write about yourself nowadays someone else will…  I can’t help it, so here goes.  Let people reading it think, perhaps, less of me that I really am.  And yet, if those who have been here, the lovely and the unlovely too, will think of me as an Innkeeper at best and as the best Innkeeper, I am content.