Staying by the seaside with the ghosts of Basil and Sybil.
Mrs. Richards: When I pay for a view, I expect something more interesting than that.
Basil Fawlty: [going to window, indicating] Well, that is Torquay, ma’am.
Mrs. Richards: Well, it’s not good enough.
Basil Fawlty: Well, may I ask what you were expecting to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeasts swinging majestically…
Mrs. Richards: Don’t be silly. I expect to be able to see the sea.
Basil Fawlty: You CAN see the sea. It’s over there, between the land and the sky.
English seaside hotels bring out something in me. Perhaps its the hideous swirly carpets running into each other, with all the visual coherence of a DFS sofa. Perhaps its the permanent state of ‘seen better days’. Or it’s the aging couples staring at the sea in silence at dinner time, desparately expecting something to happen (conversation, perchance?). The ill-fitting ties of the 15yr-old bar staff, wishing themselves away from the dead-end streets of the coast. That the only things that stand out from the musty and disheveled air are green Fire Exit signs. The high teas and clotted arteries (and cream). Maybe its the ghost of Basil down every corridor, the cackle of Sybil in the crumbling rooms.
But I just can’t help giggling. And loving them.
The wonder is that they still survive. That their clientele hasn’t died with them, leaving skeleton couples still staring at that immutable ocean. These hotels seem to be museum pieces, untouched by the vagaries of fashion, the vulgarities of modern life. No computers. No health clubs. Spa? No, but there’s a Tesco Express on the high street.
It’s the pace of a different life. A less independent life. Breakfast will be sleepy-eyed served at 7.30 or 8 (if you are lucky). You are booked into dinner at a time the hotel thinks is convenient for you. Or is convenient for them. The menu will have a paltry catch of the day, a tiddler toasted; fish and chips will attempt to be a class above the local chippie, and be half as tasty; a splurge of desert will be served with calorific custard (with optional lumps); the bread will be fresh from the microwave. The front door is locked closed at 11. The tap will drip all night.
No minibar in the room, a ‘rustle up a sandwich’ the nearest to room service, a bar/lounge for the pot-bellied golfers, a TV without satellite or cable. Or a working remote control.
And the sea just sits there.
If you are used to the swishness of intercontinental city palaces; chrome, glass, immaculate, impersonal, efficient, soulless, the reek of Mrs. Fiddlecome’s odor over breakfast, of the stain upon stain rug, the threadbare towels in the chipped porcelain bathroom, the shaky banisters, the brown, always brown, curtains, all come as a bit of a shock. In fact its hard to equate them both as belonging to the same category of establishment – ‘hotel’ just doesn’t seem to have the breadth or variety to cover both.
Even within the genre of the English seaside hotel, there are the top-of-the-heap examples such as The Grand in Brighton, less grand Golden Lion in Hunstanton, or the ubiquitous B+Bs, but they all seem to offer the same ‘panoramic’ sea views, creaking stairs, and ennui. Manuel may have been replaced by harder-working Eastern Europeans, the Major hasn’t seen a whole lot of conflict, and England now win at cricket, but there are some guarantees. Shortbread with your tea, silence in the dining room, front doors that can never be closed in the wind, fusty fishing boat pictures on the walls and down-at-heel nautical themes on stationary and curled postcards. It’s all there.
As are the ruddy-cheeked oldies, swapping cagoules for evening cardigans, and a long, slow, silent, English seaside journey into night. Just brilliant. Long may they continue.
But one does fear for them – the large hotel chains swallow everything in the end, and an independent hotel with decent sea-facing views is a natural target. The Brighton seafront is now a who’s who – Best Western, Mercure, Hilton, Holiday Inn – all with their pesky standards and cleanliness. So if you can, if they still exist, find yourself a prime example and delight to the rhythms and the creaks of an English seaside hotel before they are gone for good.