Bella Travel


A Strange Hotel Experience in England

When booking hotels online all you have to really go on is photos and reviews. If the photos look nice, it’s in a good location and the first page of reviews is ok, then I book. But you don’t always get the experience you expect.

Case in point is a hotel I stayed at recently in England. It was just for one night and reasonably close to the airport and seemed to be a friendly hotel based on the few guest reviews I read. It was around a 15 minute walk from the nearest train station but that was ok, I planned to get a taxi in the morning anyway so a 15 minute trek with my suitcase wouldn’t hurt.

I rocked on up to the front door and buzzed. I waited for a while. Nothing. I buzzed again. I was about to ring the number when the door was flung open and a woman speaking heavily accented English greeted me. She bustled me in to an elegant entranceway and through into a formal reception room. We discussed my needs briefly and I had to say what time I wanted breakfast and what time for the taxi. Easy enough. Breakfast 8am, taxi 9am. I’m a bit of a stickler for being on time anyway, and if they had a tight schedule then I could acquiesce.

The woman showed me to my room, on the ground floor because of my suitcase. Fine too. Except when she left the noise of the road was quite loud, so I thought stuff it I’ll ask for another room. This was handled with grace and ease. Yes, of course, the second floor room was available but I would have to wait until her husband came home from work to bring up the suitcase. I gathered she didn’t want me lugging it up the stairs and perhaps ruining the carpet. Fine.

The room upstairs was actually nicer as it was in the attic and had a low beam and a cute bathroom. I didn’t need to mind my head either as the sign said.

bedroom

I had a look at the dinner menu, the meals were all kind of basic, lasagne, shepherds pie, fish and chips, and quite possibly would be microwaved meals though they cost around 10 pounds each. She’d said I needed to let her know what time I wanted dinner as she would have to ‘cook it herself’.

At around 4.30 pm I rang and said please could I have the fish and chips and cheesecake. Yes, no problem. Is is ok to eat in my room? Yes, no problem. Right, great. What time do you want to eat? 6.30? No problem. Oh and what time is your husband coming home so I can get my suitcase? He will be home at 6pm. Ok, thanks.

Sigh, another hour and half to wait. At 5.50 pm there is a knock on the door. It is the husband with my suitcase. He is puffing and looks exhausted. Oh dear, surely it isn’t that heavy? Thank you I say, I hope you didn’t injure yourself. Oh no, he says, it wasn’t heavy, I have been working all day and now I’ve come home. Right, well, yes.

You’re having dinner? Please could you eat downstairs, as we have to think about the carpets. They charge us 100 pounds to get them cleaned. Oh, right, of course, no problem (even though your wife said it was ok). He stands there for a bit longer. Ok, well thank you.

Dinner time rolls around, and I just know I’m going to be sitting there by myself. Sure enough I’m the only guest for dinner. I still haven’t seen or heard anyone else. The door marked ‘staff only’ flies open and the husband comes out and ushers me in to the conservatory. He says I will not have to wait long as the fish is in the pan, it is frying, and it is very fresh. He explains about the condiments on the side and that there is salt and pepper. And in that jar is sugar because another guest thought it was salt. He goes off to check on the fish.

He comes in again shortly with the meal. The peas are very green and the fish is very fried but it looks ok. The husband hovers, it is ok? Yes, thank you. Is it enough? Yes, thank you. Will there be anyone else coming in for dinner? I ask. No, I think not, maybe later. But there are other people here? Oh yes, it is Saturday the hotel is always full (strange I haven’t heard a peep).

fresh-fish

However, when I’m halfway through my fish a car pulls up and some people arrive. I hear the husband checking them in, whew guests at last. But they don’t come in for dinner. The husband ventures back into the dining room and leans against the door. How is it? Good thank you. It is cooked well? Yes, thank you. There is now another guest, just after I told you now there wasn’t, he says. He is coming down shortly, he is having the lasagne and the cheesecake like you (good for him, I think).

He disappears back into the kitchen. I haven’t seen the wife so not sure if she is in there cooking up a storm or doing her nails. I’m kind of getting used to the husband but there is something decidedly strange about his manner, or perhaps he thinks being overly attentive is part of being a good host. Either way when the other guest shows up for his lasagne, I’m relieved. Now the attention will be diverted.

The husband sidles in with my cheesecake. You can have it in your room, he says. Huh? But what about the carpets, I think. But I’m off the hook so I’m relieved. Except that I have to pay for the meal. Can I do it in the morning. No, now would be better he thinks. Ok, I have to get my purse. I will come with you, he says. Great. So you don’t have to come down again. Right.

We head upstairs. So do you have two jobs? I ask. Yes, he says, during the day I work on a building site and then at night I come home and I help my wife. But it’s not my job. We reach my room and he hovers in the doorway while I get the money. Luckily I have the right change as otherwise there would be more tooing and frowing. As it is he helps me to identify the coins ‘that’s a 1 pence, that’s a 2 pence’ in case I’m not sure.

At last I’m left alone and feel like I’ve had a lucky escape but there is still breakfast tomorrow. Sure enough when I head down at 7.55am I’m the only person there again. The husband comes out and queries me about the full English, I can hear sizzling coming from the kitchen. Oh no I hope I didn’t give his wife the impression that I wanted a full English. Luckily he seems ok with just my request for cereal and toast and goes off to get the toast. Since he’s so willing, I also ask for some fruit.

He comes back with the toast and fruit, then hovers. It is ok? Yes, thank you. It is foggy today, I say conversationally to get him off the topic of the breakfast. He grunts. Is it? I haven’t looked outside yet, he says. He tuts and looks at the clock. There are also guests coming down for breakfast at 8am, he says, but they are late. I will have to ring them, their breakfast is getting cold. He goes off.

At this point I nearly get the giggles, because surely they wouldn’t start cooking their breakfast until they come down? I can imagine them getting a curt phone call. Please come down, the full English is waiting. Eventually the couple shuffles into the room and the full English is immediately whipped in front of them. They don’t seem to mind though and just start eating it.

I take my chance and quickly head back upstairs before I’m questioned anymore about the breakfast. At least that was included in the price so I don’t have to count out my money under a penetrating gaze. But there is more. He has said that he will be up at 8.50am to carry my suitcase down. By this time I’ve realised he’s a complete control freak but at least I don’t have to worry about him not being on time. On the dot there’s the knock.

He carries it down but only to the bottom of the stairs. You can put it over here, he says, gesturing to the door (could you not have carried it a few steps further?). The taxi driver arrives 5 minutes early (thank you lord) which is pointed out to me by the husband and he shepherds me outside and hovers. I do what is only polite, thank him and then as I’m not sure what else to do, shake his hand, which he looks surprised about. Although he is probably the oddest person I have met for a while, there is something that makes me feel a bit sorry for him. But I’m glad I only booked one night, I really can’t imagine having to go through the whole dinner/breakfast rigmarole again.

A few days later I checked the online reviews of the hotel to see if anyone else had thought it was all a bit odd. Sure enough a few pages in there were a few comments about the ‘strange mannerisms’ of the husband and the ‘hovering’. One guest had said that he’d knocked on their door at 6.45 am and said that the hotel hairdryer was needed and that he’d driven another guest’s daughter to tears. As strange and uncomfortable as it was though, it was kind of funny, and certainly not at all what I expected.


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Dennis Severs’ House: A Step into the Past

Dennis Severs’ House is not a museum.  The custodians of this 18th century time capsule are most anxious to point out this fact.  It is also not a collection of antiques or a heritage house.  So what is it then?

Everyone has time to ponder this as the queue outside 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields doesn’t move for quite a while. The outside of the house doesn’t give much away either. It’s part of a four-storey brick block and has red shutters.  A gas lamp with a flame burning hangs above the door and over the entrance way is a face of an old bearded man.

I’m hoping the promised ‘short introduction’ will shed some light on what it’s all about.  Eventually, the queue starts moving and one by one people are ushered into the house.  Others that have finished their visit come out looking surprised, bemused or completely blank.  Not knowing what’s inside seems to add to the tension that’s building – in my mind anyway.

Finally I’m at the front and we’re given the ‘short introduction’ by a small man in a green-checked shirt and an empathetic face.  He says something like “This is not a museum it’s an experience, as you go round the rooms tune in and ‘feel’ the presence of the family, don’t touch anything, keep silent and mind your step it’s quite dark. Lastly, relax and enjoy yourself. Please start with the room on the right”.

I’m still none the wiser after this.  I was expecting a full-on spiel about the late Dennis Severs, the history of the house and the concept, not to mention the furniture.  I was expecting a bit much.  He’s right about one thing though, it’s very dark.  So dark that it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust.  As does standing in a room with other people who are all trying to ‘feel’ the presence of the owners.

This isn’t a seance or anything, it’s part of the concept.  The fictional Jervis family, Huguenot silk weavers, have ‘just left’ when you entered which is why the rooms have half-drunk cups of tea, burning candles and unmade beds.  Strangely enough, once you get used to the other shuffling visitors and Americans drawling in hushed whispers “I just love what they’ve done with the drapes!” you do tune in to the house somewhat.

Entering a bedroom does feel like you’re prying into someone’s private life, and half-finished letters and combs with hair stuck in them add a certain amount realism to the feeling. Some rooms are not for the faint-hearted however and make me feel glad there are other people around.  The top floor bedrooms, for example, are ramshackle, dusty and one of them has a huge four-poster bed with red velvet curtains and gargoyles peeking out from under cobwebs.  I wonder if this is where Dennis Severs slept, he’d have nightmares if he did.  He lived in the house surrounded by all this 18th century paraphenalia for years, no wonder he started thinking other people lived there too!

Though it’s difficult to ‘feel’ the Jervis’ presence with other people around talking and whispering to each other, I imagine being there on one of the evening tours would definitely be quite creepy, especially as the basement contains some unearthed ruins of the Spitalfields Leper Hospital.

I go for another jaunt around the house, there are 10 rooms but they’re quite small which explains why some people were coming out after only 20 minutes.  A visit can take up to 45 minutes apparently. One of the rooms, the Jervis’ bedroom, has an overpowering smell of cloves, and the recorded sounds of people bustling about in adjoining rooms.  Another has the sound of horses clopping.  Everywhere you go notices tell you to search for clues and not to look at objects but ‘feel’ the whole picture. I’m getting slightly tired of being told what to feel, and a group of American girls touching the vegetables in the kitchen and exclaiming over them unfortunately ends the visit for me.

In my book the hype slightly exceeds the experience, but it’s a place that’s definitely worth visiting. Even if you’re not into ‘sensing’ fictional characters, the house itself is an exceptionally well preserved time capsule of 18th century life, complete with sights, sounds and smells. And if you come away feeling short-changed remember the house’s motto is “you either see it, or you don’t” which acts as a disclaimer so you’ve really got no one to blame but yourself.

For more information visit www.dennissevershouse.co.uk.


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On the trail of Enid Blyton

On the day I meet up with Cliff Watkins from the Enid Blyton Society for my Enid Blyton tour it’s hot.  So hot in fact that The Famous Five would’ve been taking off on their bikes and picniking on doorstop sandwiches, fruit cake and lashings of ginger beer, not walking around the streets of Beckenham.  But I’m determined to see where this famous author who wrote 600 books, and who coloured my childhood with her stories, lived.

Street in Beckenham named after the Malory Towers series.

I’ve gathered already from email that Cliff is an intelligent man, but in person he’s even more so.  Ten minutes into the tour he’s already told me more about Beckenham than I’d probably learn in a history book.

In his 70’s at least, Cliff also posseses an old-school gallantry, worrying that he’s walking on the inside of the footpath and that I could be in danger if a car mounts the kerb.  We stop briefly at the Baptist Church where Enid was baptised when she was in her teens.  He manages to secure me a glass of orange juice from the ladies who run the church as he’s worried about me dehydrating.

As we’re closer to the three middle houses she lived in we do the tour in reverse order by starting in Elm Road and Clockhouse Road.  Cliff knows a lot about Enid’s parents, their separation and young Enid’s ‘adoption’ by the Attenborough family who encouraged her writing.  It appears she didn’t have much time for her father, a cloak-maker who ran off with a mistress.  Or for her mother either who tried to hide her failed marriage by asking Enid and her brothers to tell people her husband was away on business. In fact Enid didn’t show up to either of their funerals.

One of Enid’s two childhood houses in Clockhouse Road.

I ask Cliff if he thinks that grumpy Uncle Quentin in The Famous Five series was perhaps representative of her absent father?  Cliff seems perplexed about that, and is not sure.  I gather he’s not read much of The Famous Five, as he is more interested in Carey Blyton, Enid’s nephew who was a composer and wrote a song which inspired the Australian TV show Bananas in Pajamas. Shame, I would’ve liked to have an indepth discussion about Uncle Quentin.

Moving on….we reach Enid’s first home in Chaffinch Road which is a quiet, green leafy street.  Cliff is interested that the home has just been sold and takes down the details of the real estate agent from the sign outside the house.  He says he tries to keep in touch with the owners of Enid’s houses and has been inside several of them.  He wanted to knock on the door of one of the previous ones and ask the owners if I could look inside as I was all the way from New Zealand, but I wasn’t keen on that idea.

Enid’s first home in Beckenham: 95 Chaffinch Road.

After Chaffinch Road we stop for lunch in a cafe and I buy us lunch, since Cliff is giving me the tour for free.  I eat my cheese, ham and coleslaw sandwiches while he nibbles on his cheese and pickle and keeps talking until his tea gets cold.

By now I’m beginning to appreciate the depth of Cliff’s knowledge of Beckenham’s famous people and famous people connected with Beckenham by any means possible.

I hear about Charles Darwin whose mail had to have ‘Beckenham’ written on the address, as that was where the sorting office was, otherwise his mail ended up in Northern Ireland.  Then there was Harold Bride a Beckenham lad who was a telegraph officer on the Titanic and who was the town’s hero because he’d jumped into the water (after helping lots of people) and managed to survive.

After lunch the tour continues and we catch a tram, and then a train, to visit Enid’s final two houses that she’d lived in when she was married.  By this time she was starting to make decent money from her writing and had children of her own.  I ask Cliff about this as I’d read she didn’t pay them much attention.  He said this was pretty accurate and that her own daughter had described her as ‘a bit of a bitch’.

Enid’s final house in Beckenham at 83 Shortland’s Road before she moved.

Perhaps ‘George’ in The Famous Five was actually Enid’s alter ego then?  And if she’d only had two children why was there Julian, Dick, Anne and George in the Famous Five? Unfortunately Cliff is not forthcoming about this side of things. But he does tell me there was a BBC TV drama starring Helena Bonham-Carter as Enid, and that there was a ‘primitive’ scene where Enid/Helena told the maid to ‘remove the child’ as she couldn’t bear it screaming while she was trying to write. Cliff thinks this is a bit over the top but says I should watch it anyway, even if it wasn’t filmed in Beckenham.

By this time it is mid-afternoon and I’m drooping from the heat.  In contrast Cliff still seems quite lively and able to talk for at least another hour. We catch a bus and head to his house to meet his wife Veronica who kindly makes us sandwiches (better than the cafe’s) and gives us orange juice.  Cliff then sells me a book he’s written on Beckenham for £6, discounted from £8.

Finally he escorts me to the bus-stop and waits with me until the bus arrives.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my Enid Blyton tour, even if it wasn’t about Uncle Quentin or George, it’s that chivalry is definitely alive and well in Beckenham.


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‘Private Property’ Was Invented by the English

I’ve been in London five minutes and already I’ve been told off.

There I was having lunch in Queen’s Park enjoying an asian noodle salad with prawns purchased from Sainsburys, and blissfully minding my own business.

I chose to eat this aforementioned meal perched on a low front wall in front of a block of apartments called ‘St James Residence’.  The fact that it was a ‘Residence’ should’ve have given me some warning.  But no.

As I munched away happily I thought to myself, isn’t it great you can just sit where you want in London, no one really cares.  Just then out of the corner of my eye I saw a middle aged english man appear and go off down the walkway behind me.  I felt a slight frisson in the air.

Black clouds gathered overhead and soon it began to rain.  I gathered up my belongings and stood under a tree in one of the residence’s carparks.  From behind the tree the man appeared.

“This is private property” he intimated sternly, with a face like thunder.  For a second I just stared at him not knowing how to react. I was literally one step from the public footpath.  “I’ll only be here for a minute”, I said.  He seemed to shake with some kind of anger, the source of which was only known to him. “This is private property!” he cried.  His intolerant red face started to twist in consternation.

Lord!  I never knew that standing under a tree could cause someone such distress, he was acting like I was vandalising his house.  Huffily I gathered my belongings again and stood under a tree further off.  I gathered this was not private property as he watched me for a minute and then shuffled off, collecting a stray plastic bag as went.

My inner devil was tempted to deposit the remains of my Sainsburys plastic lunch container in the ‘private’ hedge but I decided it would be stooping to his level.

I just imagined what it would be like to live in the residence with him as a neighbour, and decided the relief I felt of never having to was more than enough emotional compensation.  At least I know now without a doubt in which country the concept of ‘Private Property’ originated.


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Four-legged friends and other animals

House-sitting is an interesting venture.  It’s like you’re a guest in someone’s home but the host is not actually there.  No, they’ve left you a list of instructions, showed you how to work the dishwasher and then taken off on holiday.

Which is fine, it’s kind of like you are on holiday too – except you have to feed the cats, take out the rubbish, mow the lawn and clean the house.  But again, it’s all for free and you get to clear out the fridge of whatever they’ve left behind.

My first foray into house-sitting has certainly been a lesson in domesticity.  Looking after a four bedroom house takes a bit more work than a one bedroom apartment.  It’s also been a learning curve with household appliances – I vowed I wasn’t going to use the dishwasher and I’ve used it at least four times already – and gardening – I used a flymo and survived.

Looking after two cats has also been interesting.  Burmese I read on Wikipedia are ‘kittenish’ by nature and also have the tendencies of dogs, which means they like human company and can also be taught to fetch.  I don’t know about the fetching but they certainly like company if scratching at my door at 6am most mornings is anything to go by.

Cats will be cats as well, and so far I’ve rescued a bee, a spider, a mouse, an electronic collar from the next door neighbours garden (after a fight with a neighbouring stray tore it off) and broken up a furry squabble with a broom.

It wasn’t the cats I was looking after thank god, but two strays clawing each other outside in the driveway with such ferocity that bits of fur flew off everywhere.  No it wouldn’t be a good look for the hosts to come back and find one of their pets with a missing ear!

Such are the worries of a house-sitter, at least I can de-stress in front of the 40 inch TV – now that’s what I call a perk of the job.