Published 13 June 1999 Style Magazine 309th article
Smiling in the face of adversity. Vanessa Perry and Michael Winner at Cliveden (Joerg Boeckeler)
I was dining at Chequers with the prime minister, so I phoned Cliveden which is also in Buckinghamshire. "Are you nearby?" I asked. "Yes," they said. This was untrue, but by the time I'd checked the map, I thought: "I'll stay there anyway." We arrived at four o'clock and were offered tea, sandwiches, scones and cakes. We sat in the main hall and watched a coach party walking through wearing nametags. Cliveden is for ever full of tourists and day-trippers. A group gathered to look at the fireplace, and a lady said: "Forgive me, we're butting in on your tea." It's like eating in the lobby of Olympia exhibition hall. The tea arrived minus sandwiches, scones or cakes.
"They come later," said the waiter. With English tea you should get everything at the same time, so I asked him to take it away until they were ready for normal service. That took another 10 minutes.
An elegant man came up. "Mr Winner," he said, "forgive me for intruding. You're not going to write about this aeroplane food, are you?" "Are you staying here?" I asked. "No, I've just had lunch. For an aeroplane it wouldn't be too bad." He left. Then his wife appeared. "Do you agree with him?" she said cheerfully. "He's a pain, but the food was terrible."
The tea eventually arrived. The bread stuck to the top of your mouth - most unpleasant. Vanessa found the smoked salmon odd. The scones were cold. After I'd eaten most of one they brought some hot ones. The small chocolate eclair was very good.
The bedroom door had a handwritten card with our names on in a brass holder. That's absurd. Suppose I didn't want people to know I was there? Or which room I was in? Confidentiality obviously means nothing to the management at Cliveden, as was further revealed when they later issued a newspaper with a five-page, highly inaccurate memo written by the general manager, Ross Stevenson, about my every move.
The hotel executive accompanying us said: "I'd like to explain your room to you." "What on earth is he talking about?" I thought. "It's a room. It's got a bed, two small armchairs and it's £450 a night, which is outrageous. What else do I need to know?" The assistant opened the television-cabinet doors. "Here are two videos about the hotel," he announced. "Why should I watch a video of the hotel?" I asked. "I'm here, I can see it for myself." Instead of pestering guests about videos they should tell them where the hairdryer is. When needed the next day, it was lurking under some bedding in a cupboard.
The view would have been pleasing were the grounds not full of families sitting on sheets, kids rolling down slopes, back-packers, locals, tourists. It was like Legoland on a bad day. This is National Trust property, open to all. Exclusive it isn't.
After dinner, the doorman said: "I'll park your car at the back." "Why?" I asked. "Because of the loose stones," he replied. "If cars drive quickly by, they throw them up and might do damage." "That's nice," I thought. What about all the other people parked in front? If you're at Cliveden and acquire chipped paintwork, you now know why. Back in the room we ordered hot milk. It came in tall glasses - impossible to hold because they were so hot. Why not serve hot liquid in something with handles?
At breakfast there was a delay while someone brought cups. "Hot!" the man eventually announced triumphantly. What phoney nonsense. Who needs hot cups for tea and coffee? They're not worth waiting for. The toast was unbelievable. It was a French white roll sliced thickly and cut in half. It had seen, possibly, a small amount of heat. It was nothing like toast as the world knows it. I turned to a sickly, sticky croissant-type thing. It was revolting.
Vanessa was trying to eat her melon with the teaspoon that came for her tea. "They didn't bring any cutlery for the melon. Or a spoon for my muesli," she said. I rang down and made my displeasure known. The service at Cliveden, if you can call it that, is unctuous, overbearing and utterly incompetent.
At lunch we sat by the window. All you could see were the bottoms of day trippers leaning on the balcony looking at the grounds. We ordered two bucks fizzes and I opened the wine list. This was beyond human belief. It said: "Half-bottles, page 31." But there was no page 31. Then I looked and realised page 28 is followed by page 31, then you have page 30 and then page 33. Page 32 is after page 33.
The set lunch is an astronomical £45 per person for the usual three courses. At Claridge's and the Dorchester it's £29 and these are marvellously run hotels. It's £14.50 at the Ivy and Marco Pierre White's Mirabelle. In all these places the quality of food and service is superb: vastly superior to Cliveden and a fraction of the price.
The bucks fizz arrived. Vanessa looked at the glasses. "They're filthy," she said. They were smeared with lipstick and washing-up grime. "Take them away. You wouldn't expect this in a transport caff," I said to John Rogers, the assistant dining room manager. He left and cameback with new glasses. No apology. Just a sneer. "I think it came from the orange juice, sir," he said, referring to the dirt.
I've been dining in great hotels (which Cliveden certainly isn't) for well over 50 years. I can tell lipstick and smear-dirt from orange juice. If it was orange juice, why didn't Mr Rogers show it to us before taking the glasses away? It was just a typically inept response from a hotel parading as having class when it has none. Compared to Chewton Glen in New Milton or Ston Easton Park near Bath, or Inverlochy Castle at Fort William - all beautifully run places that I visit with pleasure - Cliveden is just a bad joke. I walked out. "You knew it was terrible from when we went before," said Vanessa as we drove off. "I don't know why we stayed for lunch anyway. It's only for tourists." She's right.
Knowing they were in for trouble, the hotel banned me. That's like being told I'm not welcome at the ladies toilet in Middlesbrough railway station. I wasn't going there, either.
I am writing to offer my hearty congratulations on your recent banning from Cliveden. This is by far the worst "first-class" hotel that my wife and I have ever stayed in. We visited Cliveden last September and were able to compare it with Chewton Glen, where we had spent two consecutive weekends the previous month. The contrast was remarkable - Cliveden was appalling. The catalogue of horrors is too long to list here. Suffice it to say that the hotel's incompetence was almost farcical. In a phone call to me, the general manager, Mr Stevenson, voiced the inevitable platitudes, expressing the hope that Cliveden would do better the next time we visited. As I put down the phone, I reflected that I was not going to fork out another £700 in order to give him the opportunity and decided on a self-imposed ban on us ever visiting Cliveden again. I never envisaged that such illustrious company as Michael Winner and Vanessa Perry would soon be joining us in our exile.
Duncan Grove, New Malden, Surrey
I was delighted to read your comments on the food at Cliveden. Fifteen months ago, my wife and I were invited to a company dinner there. The food was unbelievably rich and little thought had been given to ensuring that the guests did not feel bloated at the end of the meal. At breakfast the next morning, we were accompanied by our 11-year-old son, who had spent the night with us at the hotel. He ordered cereal and apple juice. The cereal was stale and the juice rancid. He only had a sip of the juice, but that was enough.
Clifford D Jakes, via e-mail
It is to be hoped that Mr Winner's fellow diners at Cliveden will be writing in with their views of his appalling behaviour. Mr Winner has held sway for too long with his petulant and tyrannical outpourings and it is to be hoped that Cliveden has paved the way for other establishments to take the suitably emboldened step of politely showing him the door. I feel that a plaque along the lines of "Les Routiers Recognised" commemorating future expulsions could do nothing but good for the standing of any restaurateur feeling confident enough to banish the man, and would certainly enjoy support from those of us who have felt nothing but sympathy for the objects of his poisonous scribblings.
Jane Howard, via e-mail
My wife and I were being served afternoon tea by the attentive and friendly waiters on the terrace at La Colombe d'Or in St-Paul-de-Vence when we chanced to read the comments by Judge Barrington Black (Style, May 23) concerning their refusal to provide him with a cup of tea. So anxious was the judge to find the hotel guilty that he omitted some highly relevant evidence: pinned to its only entrance is a notice stating that "entry is strictly reserved for the guests of the hotel". As such, we were pleased to be protected from the prying eyes of tourists wishing to enjoy its terrace on the cheap.
W Anthony Pike, Reigate, Surrey
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