"If you have ever stayed in a country house hotel," says Richard Claymore, "you will know that the experience was, most of the time, not very much like staying in a country house. It was more like - well, like staying in yet another country house hotel. More and more you wonder why many hotels even bother to call themselves country house hotels."
Richard Claymore is the organiser of a new movement called the Campaign for Real Country House Hotels. So what is a fake country house hotel, when it's not a real one?
"A fake country house hotel?" says Richard. "It has bookshelves crammed full of hotel guides, it has boxes in the bedrooms full of Earl Grey tea bags and it has Radio 3 coming out of the drainpipes. Now, correct me if I am wrong, but when you went to stay in a real old-style country house, you didn't find Earl Grey tea bags anywhere. You didn't see a single hotel guide. You didn't get designer cakes of soap everywhere, and if there was any music, it was provided by the guests themselves. Tea? If you got tea in the morning it was brought up by a housemaid, who then lit the fire for you! That's the kind of thing a country house hotel should be doing!"
Richard Claymore is not just full of words. As the motivator of the CRCHH he gets a lot done, but he also owns and runs a Midlands hotel called Grimley Park Towers where he puts his beliefs into action so that others can see how it should be done.
"We treat our visitors not as paying customers," he says, "but as genuine country house guests. That is to say, we put them in cold bedrooms down freezing corridors, give them a flickering coal fire to try to keep warm near, and leave them to guess where the nearest bathroom is, if any. And after they've had breakfast in the morning, they are detailed off to play croquet, form tennis pairs or go shooting, dependin' on where they're needed!"
And what happens if they don't like croquet or tennis or shooting?
"Then they shouldn't be stayin' at a country house hotel," says Richard Claymore crisply. "When people went to stay in people's country houses in the old days, it wasn't for pleasure - it was a social duty. Same at Grimley Park Towers. We don't allow anyone to stay who can't play bridge, ride a horse or hold his drink properly."
But surely it wasn't just the guests who created the ambiance at a country house gathering? Didn't it help if the host was eccentric and the family a bit off-centre?
"Absolutely," says Richard Claymore. "I like to create that sort of atmosphere at Grimley Park Towers as well. Why only last week, evening dinner was interrupted by the butler, or head waiter coming in and telling me that the second cook was pregnant. 'Pregnant?' I roared. 'Then she shall have to go – and now!' and I whipped out of dinner in a rage, and moments later you could hear the sobbing woman being driven down the drive!"
Good heavens. How often has that happened?
"Once a week all this year to my certain knowledge. She's not really pregnant at all, of course. It's all done with a bit of acting skill. Same goes for the occasional duel, and the chasing of petticoats along corridors at night, and the all-night gambling sessions which lead to harrowing suicides..."
"Hmm. Are dogs allowed at Gatley Park Towers?
"Allowed?" says Richard Claymore, amazed. "They're compulsory! If for some reason or other you haven't brought one, you're given one as soon as you arrive. Can't stand that namby pamby sort of so-called country house hotel which doesn't allow dogs. Can you imagine a country house without dog hairs on the sofas, or the occasional puddle in the passage? I can't. Trouble is with a lot of so-called country house hotels these days is that they look is if they've come straight from the window display at Fortnum and Mason's - no, worse than that, they look as if they've been refurbished by the National Trust! Little bags of pot-pourri and those exquisite canapes with your aperitif! Can't bear it!"
And as I left Gatley Park Towers, a man and a woman were coming together outside, and I distinctly heard the woman say: "Rodney! Oh my God! I thought you had died in New Zealand! I've been and gorn and got married again!" and I thought to myself that, yes, there was something to be said for real country house hotels.
The Independent Thursday Oct 26 2000