'Fawlty Towers failures' push star hotels out of elite listing

'The Good Hotel Guide' finds plenty of faults with £600-a-night accommodation managed by chain
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The Independent Online

For years they have set the standard for luxury, wealth and hospitality and kept alive the tradition of the great English country house.

For years they have set the standard for luxury, wealth and hospitality and kept alive the tradition of the great English country house.

Now, though, following a list of complaints that would provide enough material for a series of Fawlty Towers, eight of Britain's most famous hotels have been axed from The Good Hotel Guide, viewed by trade professionals as the leading authority on where to stay.

Among those dropped from the 2005 edition, published this month, is Cliveden House in Berkshire, a 300-year-old mansion once owned by Nancy Astor. Axed too is the Sharrow Bay in Cumbria, famed for its stunning views of Ullswater. Also missing are the antique furniture and log fires of Ston Easton Park, in Bath, a Grade I Palladian manor house which claims to have one of the finest restaurants in the city. The dinner menu includes quail and black pudding salad, foie gras and warm tartlets of lobster.

All eight are owned by Andrew Davis, a colourful entrepreneur described by friends as the "ultimate wheeler-dealer" who has spent the last four years and millions of pounds in his bid to "collect" 25 of Britain's best country house hotels.

Joint editor of the guide Adam Raphael said: "It is unusual for so many hotels to drop off at once. Some of the hotels have been in the guide for many years. The Cliveden has been in the guide on and off for 20 years, and the Sharrow Bay in Cumbria, for 27 years. It is very difficult for a chain to run these very individualistic hotels. If you charge a huge amount of money the service has got to be pretty faultless."

Mr Davis's von Essen group has 16 hotels, and he is not taking this blow lying down. One of their hotel managers accused the guide's publishers of being biased against chains and insisted that letters praising the hotels had been sent to the publishers.

Mr Davis has written to the guide's other joint editor, Desmond Balmer, arguing "our own feedback is extremely positive" and saying he intends to invest £30m in the hotels over the next few years.

The Good Hotel Guide, now in its 28th year, relies on unsolicited letters of recommendation or complaint from hotel guests and carries out unannounced inspections.

Cliveden, perhaps Britain's most famous country hotel, charges up to £635 a night. Its award-winning afternoon tea, with champagne, costs £22.50, for which you can also expect smoked salmon and caviar.

But illustrative of one of the tales that saw it dropped from the guide is that of an American billionaire publishing magnate, who was celebrating his 75th anniversary with his family. He was shown to the Prince of Wales suite by a "young red-faced, acned porter" who proceeded to insult him.

The letter of complaints reads: "[The porter pointed out] the bath, which he said was seven feet long, and, looking down at the 5ft 2in grandparents, added: 'but that won't be a problem for you will it?' Most important, he said: 'I must have your credit card details and address - right now'."

Another letter said: "I was surprised to see so much detritus from the room piled up in the corridor outside. These included dog bowls and breakfast things not cleared up by late afternoon."

The Royal Crescent in Bath, built in 1767 and costing up to £840 a night, came in for criticism after an evening meal dragged on for three hours. At one point a woman celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary stood on a table, knife and fork in hand, and shouted "I'm really angry now."

On the hotel's winter menu guests can find Rose Venison, dauphinoise potatoes, baby spinach and wild mushrooms, costing up to £49.

Other famous names owned by von Essen that no longer figure among Britain's best are the Greenway in Shurdington, Thornbury Castle in Gloucester and Buckland Manor, also in Gloucester.

THE VERDICTS

Sharrow Bay, Cumbria

History: Built in 1840 as a private residence. Run as the first country house hotel in Britain by Francis Coulson from 1949 until his death in 1998.

Famous for: Stands on the shores of Ullswater and commands stunning views of the lake.

Visitors say: "I believe that you are fundamentally mistaken in believing that this marvellous hotel has lost its sparkle." (Letter to Good Hotel Guide)

Tariff: £160 to £225 a night.

The Royal Crescent, Bath

History: Occupies the two central buildings of the Royal Crescent in Bath, which was begun in 1767 by John Wood as one of the great architectural set pieces in Europe.

Famous for: Collection of paintings by Gainsborough and Reynolds.

Critics say: "They barged in without knocking, tipped the minibar over; on the last morning they forgot our wake-up call. It was a shambles. Nevertheless, we had a nice time." (Letter to the Guide)

Tariff: £280 to £840 a night.

The Hotel, Cliveden, Berkshire

History: Built in 1666, rebuilt by Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, in 1850, former home of Lord and Lady Astor.

Famous for: 376 acres of formal gardens and parkland, winner of 2004 Tea Council Award for best afternoon tea. Featured in Thunderbirds film as Lady Penelope's mansion.

Critics say: "You'd think they'd at least look some of their guests' names up on the internet when they are spending so much money on them." (Letter to the Guide)

Tariff: £225-£635 a night.

The Hotel, Ston, Easton Park, Bath

History: A Grade I-listed building dating from 1740 in grounds designed by Humphry Repton. Boasts state rooms, library.

Famous for: Cellar of vintage and rare wines and rare 18th-century plunge pool.

Visitors say: "My wife and I agree that we have never stayed in a hotel that was so relaxing. A gem of a place." (Letter to the manager)

Tariff: £150-£335 a night.

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