Room Service

Peace in our towns

Fiona Duncan loves the unexpectedly luxurious calm of a city break

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Earlier this year, while we were still deep in lockdown, I wrote in these pages about the fear with which hoteliers viewed the future. How, with social distancing, would they be able to host enough guests to remain financially viable? How would they keep their guests safe? Would anyone want to brave a hotel or a restaurant, let alone a cosy inn?

Now that the dust has settled, the results are clear. Anyone with a hotel in a seaside or halfway decent rural location has had a rip-roaring summer, and many have reported their best August on record.

You can swan into a top London hotel any time you feel like it

Dropping the two-metre rule in favour of one-metre was a game changer; in most dining rooms, a two-metre distance between diners and staff would have meant two-thirds fewer customers; a one-metre distance has meant, in many cases, only a quarter fewer.

Hoteliers across the country have risen to the Covid challenge with aplomb, thinking of, and implementing, everything they can to keep their guests safe but at the same time keep them coming and keep them happy. I’ve stayed in half a dozen rural and coastal hotels and inns since they reopened in July and I have enjoyed every one of them more than I normally do: more space; a sense of calm and order; excellent housekeeping; better food because shorter menus; a genuine welcome and grateful thanks to guests just for being there.

So that’s all right then — for staycation places. But not for city hotels. Who could have guessed that in 2020 the average occupancy of a five-star London hotel this autumn would be around 15 per cent? Usually, it’s around 85 to 90 per cent. Many have yet to reopen; those that have opened have laid off vast swathes of their staff. You may have to go on a waiting list for a room at a Pig Hotel in the suddenly-adored English countryside, but you can swan into a top London hotel any time you feel like it.

I swanned in. And I had the time of my life. OK, the buzz isn’t there (the enforced hush reminded me of my childhood, when hotels were strictly for whispering) but if you stay in one now, you’ll have the place almost to yourself and be treated like royalty by staff grateful for something to do and someone to look after.

Even if you live in Tier 2 London, it’s a wonderfully self-indulgent treat to stay in one of our very fine hotels. You won’t find anywhere safer (most have spent around £50,000 on anti-Covid cleaning measures and they are terrified of anyone catching the thing in their premises), you will be pampered rotten and you will have a much quieter than usual central London at your feet, ripe for exploring all those nooks and crannies you never got round to before.

I stayed at the Goring and at Firmdale’s Soho Hotel (not at the same time). Both were memorable experiences. I’ve always adored the Goring (privately owned and in the same nicely eccentric family since 1910) but my stay this time stood out. “To be honest,” Jeremy Goring told me, “we had become a bit complacent pre-pandemic. If the truth be told, we had been relying too heavily on our US, Arab and Far East guests who were just thrilled to be staying in a hotel with royal connections, across the road from Buckingham Palace. They weren’t particularly discerning, so corners were sometimes cut. Right now, they aren’t here.

“The ones that are — mainly British — are more discerning and so the spotlight is on and little ‘flecks’ as I call them — things like timing, temperature, efficiency at reception and so on — have all been improved. We’ve had time during our six-month closure to really think about how we could tighten up our act and as a result I have never known a better, more well-honed team than I have now.”

It’s a great time to come and stay at the Goring, he says (mini-weddings have been a big hit, utilising the lovely garden), and cleanliness is “mega, off the chart. The main problem is the masks. Our head waiter is a wonderful Frenchman. I can’t understand him at the best of times, but with his mask on . . .”

At Soho Hotel in Dean Street, the normal buzz of the film and media crowd is missing, but owners Tim and Kit Kemps’ belief in the importance, above all, of sensible comfort, warmth and personality means that the hotel works just as well without the bustle and hum. Some cool, contemporary and minimalist hotels can feel characterless when empty; the Soho emphatically does not. It feels a privilege to have the place to oneself, and I am sure the same goes for Firmdale’s other addresses, which include Ham Yard, Covent Garden and Charlotte Street hotels.

Talk about a treat. While London’s top hotels have made a joint decision not to drop their rates, upgrading is not unknown, though an upgrade to the hotel’s penthouse Terrace Suite was an unexpected thrill.

A girlfriend came to join me for dinner; since the suite had two bedrooms, she asked for a toothbrush and stayed. The next day, it was very difficult for either of us to leave. We could have had a beauty treatment or exercised in the gym, but we were happy just to loll about, sipping champagne and martinis and pretending it was home (about twice as big as either of our London flats).

We were the first guests to stay in the vast just-refurbished and unveiled suite, with wraparound terrace dotted with sofas and armchairs. Clio Peppiatt, a young couturier, created the magical, musical appliqué headboard in the principal bedroom, while the lovely sofa cushions were stitched by prisoners for the charity Fine Cell Work, a sobering reminder of the restrictions and hardships caused by the pandemic — in their case fewer visits and classes and more time locked in their cells.

We ate in the hotel’s restaurant, Refuel, with its dashing motoring mural (a nod to the multi-storey car park that the hotel replaced). Well-spaced, we were among only a handful of fellow diners, assiduously looked after by relaxed and friendly waiters.

We felt special. When this is all over, that feeling will be gone too.

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