'Sometimes I have to pinch myself' – Fiona Duncan reflects on 20 years as a Telegraph hotel critic

Fiona Duncan
fiona duncan, the goring

Twenty years ago I wrote my first ever newspaper article and bravely faxed it (faxed!) to the Travel Desk at the Telegraph. It was about accommodation in Venice and since I had already written a book on the subject, they kindly published it. Things went from there, and suddenly, after many years of being a publisher, then a guide book writer, I was a journalist. Regularly I have to pinch myself in order to quite believe the jammy life that I have somehow fallen into (though I promise you, it does entail hard work too).

I’ve had the most wonderful two decades, thanks to the Telegraph, travelling the world but also, as their UK hotel critic, getting to know and love my own country. There have been lows, of course, as well as highs. For many years my column was weekly, and I would make forays from London to review several hotels in, say, Scotland, Wales or the West Country, scooting each day from one to the next. On one occasion, when I had just started using Sat Nav instead of a map, I found myself at Hardknott Pass in the Lakes. It was getting dark and the long way round would have entailed a four-hour drive, so I recklessly ignored the sign that said “closed due to bad weather” and drove it anyway. Somehow I survived, but I didn’t deserve to.

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Another time, I borrowed my son’s soft top to drive the entire length of the M4. Unexpectedly, it began to rain, hard. I tried to put the hood up. It wouldn’t work and I arrived at the hotel drenched from head to foot.

But there have been so many highs too, which usually come in the shape of the people I meet – the often unsung staff who make these hotels tick. Many times I have bumped into the same delightful youngsters at different establishments as they climb the hospitality ladder and it gives me such pleasure to see them again. People like Tom, whom I first met when he carried my bags at a hotel in Perthshire and is now head sommelier at five-star Grantley Hall. There is, I hope, a camaraderie: I’m an outsider, yes, there to criticise as well as to praise, but I understand what it takes to succeed in the industry in which I have immersed myself for the last 20 and more years.

1. True luxury lies in magic moments

Hotel bliss is not about marble bathrooms and fancy facilities, though of course they have their place. For me, it’s that rare but delicious feeling of being in heaven. Lying in a sunken bath at the Horn of Plenty with a glass of champagne, a good book and a view of the River Tamar as it made a silver dash through its rocky gorge. Curling up in the residents’ sitting room at the Gunton Arms, surrounded by superb modern art. Climbing the ladder to the divine circular Wheel Room at Cley Windmill, thoughts of childhood adventures crowding in; eating a dish of Alexanders, just picked from the hedgerow, by the fire at Gurnard’s Head.

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2. The best hoteliers stay cool when critics call

At The Lugger, they got wind I was a critic, and quickly moved a couple’s unpacked bags from the best room while they were out. But the couple still had their key. They went to the room, unlocked the door and found me, stark naked, in their bedroom. At the great Chewton Glen, many years ago, an unctuous manager insisted on taking my flimsy overnight bag. I resisted; it broke and about a dozen tampons scattered across the marble floor, which he had no alternative but to pick up one by one. In what is now Malmaison Cheltenham, a similarly enthusiastic manager offered to show me, on a whim, the shiny new kitchen, much to the horror of the head chef. That’s because he had blown up a photograph of me, complete with devil’s horns and fangs and stuck it on the wall by the pass, so the wary staff could recognise me in the restaurant.

3. British country hotels used to be so different

Times they are a-changing. Crusty old colonels, eccentric landowners, splendid chatelaines of crumbling piles, maverick chefs who opened restaurants and added bedrooms, with results that varied from delightful to downright dotty – those were the types that made up country house hotels 20 years ago. Now owner-run places are thin on the ground and chintzy luxury ones have been replaced by bubbles of hip metropolitan lifestyle such as Babington House, Soho Farmhouse, Beaverbrook, Heckfield Place, The Newt and Grantley Hall. They are brilliantly executed, but very much an urban vision of life in the British countryside. 

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4. Basil Fawlty has all but disappeared...

As groups and brands take the place of independents, eccentric British hoteliers are becoming as rare as a moment of sanity at Fawlty Towers. I mourn their passing. My earliest hotel memory involved British eccentricity on a lavish scale. An ex-pat English couple owned the long gone Pension Miravista in then sleepy Cala Ratjada, Mallorca. An abiding early memory is of listening to a shouting match in the kitchen, whereupon the proprietor rushed into the dining room, tearing up a passport, chased by his wife who was brandishing a carving knife. Chairs flew, guests had to intervene. The couple kissed and made up and peace descended. Similar eruptions happened regularly, and yet my parents returned four years running, for the Miravista had charm, a lovely location and, crucially, character. Nearly 60 years on, my sister and I still remember it with affection.

5. ... But happily a few time warps still remain

On my visit to Knoll House I found baby listening carried out by uniformed girls reading outside the bedrooms, strict meal times, fruit juice for starters and trifle for pudding. “We like routine,” the owner told me. “And by the way, we’ll never have those newfangled trouser presses,” he added, at least a decade after the last trouser press had died and gone to hotel heaven. Knoll House is now in new hands, but not, thank heaven, Northbank. Back in 2009, I described it as an “astonishing anachronism”. Happily (imagine the Thirties with a Sixties twist), it still is. In Ireland, Currarevagh House has been run by the same family for five generations. A gong for dinner, Fifties glass coffee Conas, no room keys. 

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6. Generosity pays...

The bigger, better quality and prettier the bottles in the bathroom, the more I love the hotel. Take a bow (among others) Soho House and the Blonde Hedgehog. And take a bow Bramley Products and 100 Acres, whose smellies I love. My worst nightmare: bottles bolted to the wall by the bath – never in the right position and make me feel like a criminal.

7. … And thoughtful touches pay too

Like a vase of country flowers, well-chosen books, simple lighting you can actually operate, somewhere to put the wash bag, enough hangers and a bedside radio, preferably tuned to Radio 3 or 4. Chocolates on the pillow, cellophane wrapped fruit baskets and slippers, televisions that dominate and teeny toiletries be gone.

8. I love meeting innovative young hoteliers

They work long hours and take big risks but they are creative and passionate about what they do. Here’s a shout out, among others, for the Artist Residence, Oxfordshire; Hampton Manor in Solihull; Askham Hall and Brownber Hall, both in Cumbria; Middleton Lodge in Yorkshire; The Grove at Narberth, in Pembrokeshire; Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall; The Cider House in Devon; The Mash Inn in Buckinghamshire; and Padstow Townhouse. More seasoned innovators run The Old Coastguard in Cornwall; The Talbot in Somerset; The Swan at Ascott-under-Wychwood and Watergate Bay in Cornwall, amongst other sister properties.

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9. I don’t want a spa bath, I want a view

My favourite British rooms with a view: The Pier at Harwich, Essex; The Swan in Wells, Somerset; Shangri-La at the Shard; Easby Hall and Swinton Park in Yorkshire; Ardanaiseig, Airds and The Old Course, in Scotland; Hell Bay in the Isles of Scilly; Cliveden in Berkshire; The Scarlet in Cornwall; and Linthwaite House in the Lake District.

10. Don’t judge a critic by her clothes

I thought I was looking pretty presentable, if in a motherly, Peter Jones sort of way, for my date to review 45 Park Lane, sister hotel to The Dorchester, but as I got off a bus trundling my own suitcase, the doorman, used to glitzy ladies stepping out of limousines, had a different opinion. “What address are you looking for?” he asked me as I attempted to enter. “I think you have the wrong one.” “I’m looking for 45 Park Lane,” I replied. “I believe I am staying in your new penthouse suite. If you would let me pass, that would be very kind.” Sweet revenge.

11. I am allergic to teddies...

 … in glass cabinets in reception and on the bed, with terrible labels that say: “Take me home £30.”

12. … And I don’t want a butler

What are they for? No, please don’t unpack my suitcase; you would be shocked by the contents.

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13. Beware hoteliers in helicopters

A decade ago, when my column was called Hotel Guru, Andrew Davis, maverick owner of Von Essen, a collection of country house hotels, took me on a helicopter tour of some of his properties. I had ruffled his feathers by likening him, in print, to a sparrowhawk picking off garden birds for the way that company gobbled up independent hotels. “You’re right, Guru, I am a sparrowhawk”, he told me, warming to the description. “Pilot, what’s that estate down there? Sparrowhawk wants it. Sparrowhawk will buy it in the morning.” Unsurprisingly, Mr Davis’s empire collapsed not long after.

14. Hotel bedrooms with history are memorable

I have slept in the rooms where Oscar Wilde was arrested (Belmond Cadogan) and the room where he died (L’Hôtel), the room where Tchaikovsky composed (Londra Palace), Winston Churchill recuperated (Belmond Reid’s Palace), Hemingway wrote Across the River and Into the Trees (Locanda Cipriani) and Marlene Dietrich dallied (The Lancaster). I remember them all.

15. Hotel keeping is a tough job

As well as putting on a show for their guests (a hotel is just like a theatre) they need to be team leaders, financial wizards, PR and social media savvy, predictors of future trends, arbiters of taste and a great deal more besides. The young owners of Brownber Hall, formerly a barrister and management consultant, told me that their new career was far more challenging and rewarding than their old. Ask any hotelier their greatest challenge and they’ll tell me the same: finding the right staff and training them.

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16. There are leaders in the field

Two couples have grown to prominence as innovators during my years watching the hotel industry: Robin and Judy Hutson of the Pig Hotels and Lime Wood, and Tim and Kit Kemp of Firmdale Hotels, including Ham Yard. They, and of course Nick Jones of Soho House, have very much led the way in terms of delivering comfort, informality, glamour, style, great service, good food and, crucially, plentiful portions of panache.

17. Wallpaper perks me up

To name but three: Lewis & Wood’s Adam’s Eden at Gliffaes; anything chosen by Kit Kemp for her Firmdale Hotels, Fromental’s Arcadian landscape at The Goring, including caricatures of the owners.

18. I can’t be doing with Tripadvisor

 … and who needs it, now that Telegraph Travel has such an incredible Hotels website, with more than 10,000 reviews worldwide, compiled by experts. It’s an incredible achievement and I’m proud to be part of it.

19. Some hotels get under my skin and into my heart...

British and Irish hotels that I adore include Howtown Hotel in the Lake District; The Inn at Whitewell, Lancashire; Hotel Endsleigh in Devon; Tresanton and The Nare, both in Cornwall; Summer Lodge in Dorset; The East End Arms in the New Forest; The Cat Inn, Gravetye Manor and Park House, all three of which are in West Sussex; Waterside Inn in Berkshire; Langar Hall in Nottinghamshire; The Goring, The Ritz, Claridge’s, The Portobello, Hazlitt’s and Rosewood, all in London; Hambleton Hall in Rutland; Castle House in Herefordshire; Penally Abbey and Gliffaes, both in Wales; The Lord Crewe Arms in Northumberland; Scotland’s Killiecrankie Hotel; and, finally, Ballymaloe House, Ballyvolane House, The Merrion and Ballyfin, in Ireland.

20. … And so have all The Pigs 

As they’ve filled a market gap for mid-price country hotels and raised the bar for group hotels with their individuality, attention to detail, flair and ability to deliver just what today’s guests want.

Photographer: Catherine Harbour; Hair & Makeup: Sharleen Oldaker & Carin@Carol Hayes; Clothing & Accessories: COS, Missoma & Kurt Geiger; Photographed at The Goring