What relevance, you may ask, does the last election have to a travel article?Because the opulent country house hotel at which I have just spent pounds 70 a night is the place where the BBC trained me and thousands of other engineers. A night's stay at the Wood Norton Hall in Worcestershire cost me the best part of a licence fee - and a lot more than a week's wages when I joined the corporation. And it was worth every hard-earned penny.
To visualise the Beeb's place in the country, imagine a slightly down- at-heel teacher-training college planted in surroundings a few notches more salubrious than it deserves. The publicity for Wood Norton, saying it is located in 170 acres of rolling Worcestershire countryside, is economical with the truth. Standard-issue halls of residence straggle down the hillside in the direction of Evesham; teaching blocks, varying from sub-Nissen huts to superior redbrick, meander through woodland towards Wales. At the hub, holding this eccentric estate together while remaining firmly aloof, is the marvellously pretentious baronial pile of Wood Norton Hall.
The old road from the medieval market town of Evesham to the cathedral city of Worcester lopes along the north bank of the Avon, through placid meadows framed by the sturdy Malvern hills. A 19th-century claimant to the throne of France, the Duc d'Aumale, shrewdly settled upon this location to establish a permanent home in England. (Indeed, the countryside does convincing impressions of Normandy.) He was the son of King Louis-Philippe, and set about embellishing a shooting lodge into an over-the-top ersatz chateau in a green and indisputably pleasant land. After he died in 1897, his great-nephew, the Duc d'Orleans, continued to create a home fit for a pretender to the French throne in central England.
So, from the outside, the hall is an architectural hoot. References from stout Flemish to half-hearted half-timbers combine with Midlands redbrick to produce an absurd concoction. It is listed Grade II*, presumably for its comedy value. Inside, the unfulfilled heirs to the French throne set about avenging their dispossession by imposing the regal emblem, the fleur-de-lis, upon every surface - notably the heavy and dark oak panelling.
Thus adorned by a frenzy of regal rubber-stamping, the hall changed hands repeatedly. The Orleans family sold it in 1912, after which it passed through the hands of several local merchants and enjoyed a spell as a preparatory school.
In 1938, with the prospect of war, the BBC bought Wood Norton to fit out as an emergency broadcasting centre. A succession of engineers arrived and built half a dozen studios. The plan, to quote the BBC, was to provide the nation "with music, talks and entertainment to keep up morale". During the war, Wood Norton's productivity almost matched the output of the corporation's present five national radio networks - 835 hours of broadcasting each week.
Once hostilities had ceased, the place was reconstituted the BBC's Engineering Training Centre. Thousands of trainees were dispatched on the train from Paddington to an ensemble that someone unfairly christened "Colditz-on- Avon".
The country house regular who is used to expansive croquet lawns, squash courts and a swimming-pool will get a surprise at Wood Norton. All those facilities are present, but they are accompanied by furrows of satellite dishes and a rank of huts that were put up as temporary accommodation, yet look as permanently rooted as the old hall. They are populated by brainy-looking people possessing clipboards, earnest expressions and the occasional beard.
What strange circumstances have planted mere tourists like me among them? In the brave new world of Birtian broadcasting, the old certainty that a few hundred engineers would have to be rolled out every year to feed the increasing corporate appetite no longer applied. The Engineering Training Centre, and its proprietor BBC Resources, urgently needed a Plan B.
Cut to the chaise-longue. I'm sitting in the bar of a country house hotel, where the virtues of moderation are cheerfully jettisoned in favour of unremitting indulgence. But this is the BBC's place in the country, and the corporation is playing to its strengths. A handsome monochrome photograph of Tony Hancock interrupts the march of the fleurs-de-lis, and reminds you who is keeper of Britain's cultural credentials. Stars of stage, screen and soap beam down while you sip a pre-dinner drink and choose your meal.
No engineer who has become accustomed to the high-volume institutional catering of the Wood Norton canteen will believe the creations in the Duc restaurant. My choice? Gravadlax with a celeriac remoulade (a phrase which sounds as if it could have escaped from an especially arcane circuit diagram), followed by monkfish in soy and ginger sauce and a miraculous souffle with its own sorbet - defying all the laws of physics I ever learnt.
Over the years, many of the guest rooms have served as offices or laboratories, but a massive makeover has turned each into a shrine to the BBC's artistic aristocracy; I opened the door to my bathroom and there was Victoria Wood. Photographs of the comedienne grinned from the (inevitable) fleur-de- lis wallpaper, perhaps amused by my astonishment at the range of toiletries. As a trainee, you were lucky to get a slab of carbolic. But changing role from employee to customer entitles you to a basket heaving with all manner of sweet-smelling potions.
Wood Norton has a ghost, of course, but nothing interrupted a sleep as long as the bed was wide. In the morning, after an industrial-sized breakfast, you can chase after other corporate legends. Meandering past television studios and the non-linear video editing suite, you locate an unprepossessing off-green building named the Bredon Wing. I learnt one end of a soldering iron from the other in one of its classrooms, and picked up dark rumours about a network of subterranean studios and of certain engineers sworn to secrecy. During the Cold War, it was said, Wood Norton was primed to fulfil the same role as it had in the Second World War. If a direct Soviet hit on Broadcasting House wiped out everything from the canteen to studio 4A, the plan was to continue broadcasting from a complex buried deep in the hillside.
I have no proof of this, because even after a good few pints in the Phoenix bar (that curious yellow-brick block that also houses the squash courts), those certain engineers remained taciturn. These days, Wood Norton occasionally speaks peace unto the nation, but only from the tiny news studio installed in a hall of residence.
Although you may never know what lies beneath the hill, the lands beyond it hold no secrets. While the old government withered in London, in Worcestershire, burgeoning bluebells were tickled by the morning breeze, reflecting the misty blue morning haze above the Avon. A chatter of bird-song mingled with chimes from the church tower down the road at Wyre Piddle (this sounds like a made-up name from a BBC sitcom but is in fact a jolly riverside village). Evesham, possessed of an ancient abbey and the highest density of Balti restaurants outside Birmingham, exerted an equal and opposite attraction. So I stayed put and revelled in the fact that I had not a single lecture to attend.
Say what you like about its programmes, the BBC has tackled its first venture into upmarket tourism with aplomb. The last time the Tories won an election, I disappeared to wander through the remnants of the USSR, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Next time, I'll just go to Worcestershire and relax in the bath with Victoria Wood.Reuse content