I have developed a natural aversion to country house hotels over the years, based on bitter experience.
Arriving at the beautiful Hartsfield Manor hotel and conference centre in Surrey lulled me into a false sense of security on Wednesday evening as my cab from Dorking Deepdene pulled up outside the palatial pile at 21:15.
Having gleaned the cab driver’s life story during our 10-minute ride, I wandered in expecting a 4-star 12 hours.
My first indication of the fun and games to come was the sight of the male receptionist mincing rapidly past me and out of the front door I had just entered.
With his fingers in his mouth he blew a potent whistle and darted off into the summer evening gloom, leaving me standing at the desk wondering what the hell was going on?
I dumped my bags, visited the gents and returned to wait patiently for his return some minutes later, telling me that he was trying to catch the cabbie as he was a persistent offender, driving over the grass when he turned his cab around to depart.
Sadly, the chase had been unsuccessful (leaving me speculating as to what would have happened if he had caught up – a duel?) and so I was efficiently checked into room 11, “just down the corridor and take the first right.”
I marvelled at the magnificent wooden entrance hall and balustrade leading up to a grand 1st Floor gallery in “the old house” and then carried my baggage out and into the adjoining annex, following a narrow dead-end corridor to the last door on the right – my digs.
My entry revealed a tribute to a North Sea ferry cabin, with a single bed pushed tight up against the wall, a cupboard for hobbits and an equally small bathroom sporting a mysteriously enormous ticking clock on the wall.
Suddenly my £102 bed and breakfast rate seemed expensive.
The window had been closed all day and the resulting ambient room temperature would have facilitated a fried egg on my glass topped wall-mounted desk.
Nope. Not in the annex.
So my first act was to open my window (thank goodness I could) to let at least some air in whilst I unpacked, hung my still sweaty running gear up to dry (you wouldn’t want to bunk with me when I’m travelling and marathon training) and then head down to the bar to grab a cheeky one and call home before bed.
Bars in country house hotels are often an afterthought as there is no passing trade – this one was a miniature affair set into the wall of what must once have been a reception room, dotted around with the type of casual furniture that should have red ropes draped between brass uprights, encouraging visitors to look but not touch.
I was alone and so was the bar – sans barman, I waited and waited, watching the incongruous flat-screen TV, mounted on the Victorian wallpaper and playing Sky News without sound.
10 minutes seemed to be a reasonable point at which to wander back to reception and ask where the barman was?
“In the kitchen” came the reply, with the tonality and facial expression of someone who thought that anyone who didn’t know the barman was in the kitchen must be in need of a medication top up.
Being British, I replied “thank you” as if this explanation had quenched my growing desire for a Fosters and walked back to the bar to obediently await the arrival.
Another 10 minutes were to tick away – that’s 20 Foster-less minutes at the end of a long, hot day that included 2 full client meetings and a total of 5 trains.
Men have died for less.
Suddenly the back door of the bar swung open and the elusive pimpernel returned, looking exactly like someone whose cigarette in the back yard had been interrupted and looking at me as if I had just tripped over his poodle.
The pint was pulled and I enjoyed a relatively peaceful 20 minutes sat in “the grounds” (as gardens in these places are called), watching the last of the fading sunlight and chatting to Annie.
Recognising the need for a good night’s sleep, one (pint that is) was enough and I returned to Room 11 at 22:30.
In bed, latest novel out, ready for a read before light’s out, temperature down to the 80’s in the room, bed covers discarded – surely now I can rest?
But no – enter the mozzie – you know THAT mozzie – the one that sounds like a prop from “Honey I Shrunk the Harley-Davidson”?
That high-pitched whine that floats from one end of the room to another like the micro-drone invented by Q for Bond’s latest clash with a cat-stroking villain but no matter how hard you look you cannot see it?
OK – you try reading complex historical fiction whilst the mozzie sound stops and starts.
I read the same sentence a dozen times, trying to recall who was who, doing what, with whom to who (and why) before getting out of bed and standing in the middle of the room, poised like a ninja with my 1000-page paperback but still unable to catch any remote glimpse of the source.
Surrendering to the inevitable, I clambered back onto the bed and switched the light out, ear plugs (bright orange) retrieved from my toilet bag and, thus, presenting a part-tango’ed, part naked scene for any hidden cameras.
Surely now I can get some sleep.
Well no – there was one last chapter about to unfold.
The couple in Room 9.
There’s a thing about couples having sex in the room next door – your reaction goes through phases, as the “ooh, ooh, ooh’s” and the “aah, aah, aah’s” become louder and more frequent:
Stage 1 – FFS – just my luck – lucky them I suppose – I hope they get it over and done with reasonably quickly
Stage 2 – OK – I get it – well done, very impressive, clearly either just married or just met
Stage 3 – really? again? when is this going to end?
Stage 4 – Bloody hell, what are these two made of?
Stage 5 – Well I’ve never managed that! Do I need to up my game?
Stage 6 – should I applaud or something?
Stage 7 (the final stage) – I think I might pop down to reception and see if I can cadge a cigarette. I feel as if I need one.
Well I managed all 7 stages last night before drifting off purely through a combination of exhaustion and envy (and the fact that the mozzie had also capitulated).
At 05:00 this morning my alarm sounded as usual and, resisting the urge to find a bugle reveille on Google and play it as loud as possible through my Macbook to “give them a taste of their own medicine” I simply did what I always do and enjoyed a superb 10k run through the gorgeous surrounding countryside.
We live to fight another day.
Country house hotels – avoid them – unless, of course, you are feeling frisky.
Back to the Hilton tonight in Nottingham – fingers crossed.
Although my train is running late.