The Boar’s Head

Please read the title carefully and so understand that this will not be a post about the fountainhead of GofaDM.  No, I shall be musing about different approaches to the concept of hospitality in our debased, market-obsessed age.  I shall be illustrating these musings – using words rather than a slideshow or an ill-advised excursion into the visual arts – by reference to some of my activities over the last weekend (and probably some other entirely gratuitous material which takes my fancy).

From humble beginnings, hospitality is now often described – including by its corporate practitioners – in unhappy conjunction with the word ‘industry’.  While the word has a fairly broad definition, I still feel that the phrase ‘industrial hospitality’ is not one liable to induce warm feelings in those exposed to its activities.  The head of a boar was, of course, considered a symbol of hospitality from its more halcyon days – today, the head of an accountant might be more appropriate.

Later this week, I shall be visiting Cambridge for the first time in almost six months and so have booked some accommodation: despite the milder temperatures July affords, I decided against sleeping rough.  When I travel – whether for business or pleasure – my hotel (or equivalent) needs to provide a bed (preferably comfy), a small amount of hanging space, some basic ablutional facilities and free wifi (or, at least a decent 4G signal from Three).  Anything beyond these basics is a bonus, but has little economic value to me: I have not travelled to visit the hotel, I’m there to “do” something(s) in the locale and need a place to rest my weary, activity-tousled head at the end of the day.  In Cambridge, during term-time my needs are satisfied by one of the local Travelodges which offer en-suite ablutions and a desk, chair and television above requirements (but do charge for wifi, so I use my mobile phone as a hot-spot).  When the students are away, I stay in one of the colleges which offer varying facilities but easily meet my minimum requirements and provide a substantial breakfast in the refectory (plus a chance to wallow in nostalgia for my bright college days).  This rarely sets me back more than £50 per night – but even within Cambridge, I could pay as much as £600 for a hotel room.  What can they possibly be offering that would be worth an extra £550 every night?  How much extra furniture, floor space or additional, fluffier towels can one man use in 20 hours (or so)?  I suppose they might have a gym, but one can readily acquire a DayPass at a much better-equipped local gym for less than a tenner.  In fact, I struggle to think of any combination of additional equipment or services that such an expensive hotel could offer that I couldn’t acquire vastly more cheaply from an alternative local supplier.

On Saturday, I took afternoon tea at a rather posh hotel a short cycle ride from New Milton station (just across the New Forest from my home).  If I wanted a room for the same dates as I shall be staying in Cambridge, I would need to find £800 per night – though this would be in a ‘treehouse suite’ (more a wood and glass structure, raised above ground level on one side, than my idea of a treehouse).  This does provide a forest view and terrace (with hot tub), among other features – but given that I could take a decent holiday to almost any European forest for the cost of a single night’s stay, this is not making for a compelling commercial proposition.  The hotel does have some rather pleasant grounds and not one but two helipads(!), but could not offer a single decent Sheffield stand for the visitor to secure his bike (only the very inferior and insecure style where your front wheel is held in a ‘V’ of thin metal, open to the elements).  Luckily, my expression of dismay when faced with the poor cycle security was noticed by one of the porters who offered to valet park my bike somewhere more secure (and under cover).

Afternoon tea was perfectly pleasant – and did allow me to enjoy the grounds, and particularly the kitchen garden (I am turning into my parents) at a very reasonable rate – but did seem to have been designed to a budget.  The rather odd combination of an attempt at luxury and the fact that every sandwich soldier, mini scone and cake had clearly been counted and the jam and cream portions precisely measured.  In fact, as a table of six we had to share three teapots (one for each type of the three teas selected) but only two strainers and only a single small saucer of jam.  Their attempt to mix the feeling of extravagance with this accountant-led, thrift was oddly jarring.  Still, I didn’t really go for the tea or the hotel but rather for the sparkling company (not provided by the hotel) who made it a very enjoyable afternoon.

I fled this slightly ersatz luxury by bike and rail for, in theory, much more basic surroundings at the Courthouse in Eastleigh.  This is, among other things, a performance space for music and provides studios for a number of artists.  It is sited in the old magistrate’s court and is a tad tricky to find (not helped by my expectations of a white neo-Pallandian edifice – rather than the squat, modern grey-brick building I eventually encountered via the miracle of GPS).  The Courthouse makes no pretensions towards luxury, but for my money made a much better stab at hospitality than its temporal predecessor.  It too lacked bike stands, but my bicycle was quickly stowed in a corridor out of the way.  The staff were very welcoming – as was the foyer’s greyhound who certainly made me feel wanted (I have yet to meet a greyhound both without the sweetest of natures or more than two brain cells to rub together).  The Courthouse doesn’t have a licence (for £2 you can bring as much liquor from home as you like) but does offer a range of snacks and supplied me with a bottle of water to slake my post-cycle ride thirst for only 50p (which may be the cheapest soft drink I have bought in many years).  The furniture in the foyer – and the two courtrooms used as venues – may not shout luxury hotel (but might be able to say boutique hotel in a stage whisper) and certainly didn’t all match but it was very comfy.  There is even a small art gallery to visit while you wait for the gig to start.  The whole place has a wonderfully friendly and informal feel.

The gig itself was a line-up of three talented guitarists with a range of styles which I enjoyed from one of the most comfortable seats upon which I have ever had the pleasure to rest my buttocks (it must be in the top three): I even had heaps of legroom!  The venue is literally a courtroom and you can still see the raised platform on which the judge and other court officials used to sit, though disappointingly no sign of the dock.  It was a very convivial evening, though apparently in the winter visitors might be advised to bring a coat and gloves.

Given the choice between the high-cost, industrial hospitality of an upmarket hotel and the low-cost, ‘craft’ hospitality of an arts centre, I’ll take the latter every time (future dates should considered themselves warned!).  It seems to me that the rich (or at least some of them) really do have more money than sense!

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