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Motoring in Britain

           Last year The Guardian printed a supplement designed to make us feel friendly to the Germans, including a section on German humour, and I have to admit that I can’t get at least one of the jokes out of my mind.
         It was about the meaning of life. A Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Lutheran pastor were debating when exactly human life began. Was it, as the priest maintained, as far back as the very moment when the egg is fertilised? Or was it, as the Lutheran said, not until the foetus is recognisably human?
         “You are both wrong,” said the rabbi. “Life doesn’t really begin until the children leave home and the dog dies.”
         My wife and I, who have nearly attained that state, have always said that when it arrives, we would go on motoring tours of Britain and explore the homeland again. There is something rather evocative and nostalgic about the phrase itself, “motoring tour”, suggesting that if you drive far and fast enough, you can suddenly find yourself back in the 1930s, with AA patrol men saluting you, and men at hotels called “boots”. (Do you remember when people left their shoes outside hotel bedrooms to be cleaned overnight? If you did that now, I am afraid they would be thrown away by the chambermaid, or sent back to Poland.)
         We have already acquired a taste of the motoring tour by making regular visits to cousins in Scotland. Our drive from Wiltshire to Perthshire could be done in the day, just, but it is far more restful to take an overnight break on the way up, at a place like The Inn at Whitewell, which welcomes dogs and is wonderful in other ways as well. Just for one night we can pretend we are on a touring holiday of the old country, staying at nice places like the Snooty Fox at Kirkby Lonsdale  . . .
         Between you and me, I cannot remember now exactly how nice it was, but I have learnt to be cautious about writing about hotels in print, ever since our visit to Portugal in the late 1980s. We had our baby son with us (the very same one who is about to leave home) and were horrified to find that the room we had booked in the hotel in Viana do Castelo had, among other things, a broken cot and a door to the third floor balcony which would not close and therefore might tempt our boy to his death. It was a very grim hotel all round, and the next night we moved to the local Pousada on the hill, which was great.
         Back home in Britain, I wrote a piece in the Independent on our travels, mentioning en passant the ghastly hotel in Viana do Castelo. I very soon had a pained letter from a big travel company saying that they had had lots of angry letters from customers. It turned out that this hotel had been chosen by them as a destination for their package tour of Portugal, and the letters all said: “Dear Sir, the journalist Miles Kington says that the hotel you have booked us into is a disgrace. What are you going to do about it?” The travel company asked me to recant publicly. I refused. I did, however, take a mental vow not to be rude in future about places I had stayed in unless there was a very good reason.
         One good reason might be that the place is no longer there. Years ago we once stayed the night at a country pub in Cumbria called the Swan at Middleton, which was nice enough to warrant a repeat booking the next year. I wrote and booked. There was no answer. I phoned. there was no answer. We drove up from Wiltshire, and knocked on the Swan’s door. There was no answer. There were no lights on, either.
         “No,” they told us at the Barbon Inn, a nice pub nearby, ”we are afraid the Swan is empty at the moment. The owner has gone mysteriously missing.”
         Or “done a runner”, in other words, and my letter was no doubt still lying on the doormat with all the other unanswered mail. We stayed the night at the Barbon Inn instead, where everything was fine except possibly the background music in the dining room, which seemed unnecessary as there was only one other couple in the dining room
         “Any chance we can get the music turned off?” I asked the waitress.
         She looked doubtful, and glanced at the other couple.
         “I can do it all right, but if I turn the music off, you’ll have to listen to their conversation, and I wouldn’t honestly recommend it.”
         We left the music as it was. That was years ago, by the way, and I see that The Swan at Middleton is up and running again, and it looks good. But the place I really want to take my wife to, in our touring days-to-come, is the White Swan at Alnwick, way up in Northumberland. I found myself billeted there a year back, after doing a talk at an amazing second-hand book emporium called Barter Books, which fills the entire old railway station. (If you like trains and books, as I do, it’s a dangerously addictive place.)
         The White Swan, though, has something much more remarkable than mere rail memories. When the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, was being broken up in the 1930s, they sold off the fixtures and fittings, and the White Swan Hotel bought all the décor from the first class lounge. It still lines the dining room. It is quite unnerving to go into this really quite modest, almost dowdy, country hotel, and find yourself suddenly in a huge elegant room lined with leaded windows and finely carved panelling. You can almost hear the rustle of the Edwardian long dresses and the creak of the starched shirt-fronts, though it required some imagination the night I stayed, as the dining crowd were all on a ladies coach tour from Lancashire.
         Ah, yes - that is the other thing about motoring round Britain today. Outside school holidays, everyone is grown-up, not to say mature. During school holidays, older people hibernate. In term-time we come out and take over the place. A year ago I took my wife to Painswick, to see the famous local snowdrops, and we had lunch at a smart hotel in town. Even though a weekday, it was packed. Not a young person to be seen. Only elderly couples. All clutching tiny tickets. As if they had won lunch in a raffle. Which they had in a way, because I discovered from one of them that they were all there to cash in their Daily Telegraph lunch vouchers.
I think my wife and I were the only ones there who didn’t read the Telegraph.
But the waiter didn’t know that, and charged us the bargain price for lunch anyway.
Thanks, Daily Telegraph.


The Lady
10th January 2007

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