A Lake District Love Affair
It’s 1987, and John and Chris Cunliffe’s first hotel, the Hole in the Wall in Bath, has turned into a disaster.
Fed up with corporate hospitality, John had left a successful career within the Forte empire, holding senior positions in hotels around the world, then in charge of catering and banquets for some of London’s most venerable institutions.
They had bought an established small hotel in a tourist hotspot popular with Americans – but it was plagued with problems. The Americans bombed Libya. Business plummeted. The roof leaked. Business people stopped doing lunch. Tourists preferred pizzas and burgers. There were staff problems. The accounts were a mess.
Then Chris sees a small ad in Caterer & Hotelkeeper. ‘John. Gilpin Lodge is for sale. We need to get out of this place. It’s been wrong since day one. Get up to Windermere today. Get the accounts. See the rooms. You’ve always wanted a hotel in the Lakes. They don’t grow on trees. You know the place. It’s in your blood. Just go and get us out of this mess.’
It’s a pivotal moment in Slightly Perfect, and within months Gilpin Lodge, the Lake District house once owned by his grandmother, where John had spent happy childhood summers, is theirs, and so begins a much-loved lifelong project.
This is a warm, entertaining and honest account of one marriage, one family, and one industry – spanning 50 years.
The story starts as Chris and John meet at hotel and catering management college in London. On graduation, John heads to New York’s Waldorf Astoria for his first job. Chris needs a Green Card to work in the USA, but the rules change. Their wedding is brought forward and she joins him. But their American tale is dramatically cut short.
Back to London and Chris joins Forte & Co’s head office dealing with recruitment for the international hotels division, while John works at Browns Hotel in Dover Street.
A brief spell in the Lakes follows, and they start a family before returning to London where Chris continues to climb the Forte ladder. John joins her in the company as Catering Manager at City caterers Ring & Brymer. He then moves to the world-famous Café Royal.
The next stop is Cyprus in the run-up to the Turkish invasion, then yet another move to Jamaica, where John opens a new hotel, before another dramatic exit…
Returning to London, John manages Grosvenor House Hotel’s apartments, a Mayfair home to wealthy widows, obscure colonial Royals and Middle Eastern playboys. He then returns to Ring & Brymer and we see a fascinating portrait of a world of Livery Company banquets, Guildhall dinners and Downing Street functions in the 70s and 80s. Chris meanwhile juggles motherhood with running catering services for the London Borough of Bromley, responsible for 120 schools and over 600 staff.
And so The Hole in the Wall leads to part two of Slightly Perfect: a story of a family business and a quest for perfection, as John and Chris turn a tired bed and breakfast into something altogether different.
With 80-hour weeks, no holidays or even a proper home, and Chris in the kitchen as head chef, the Cunliffes constantly find new ways to add more rooms, improve food, attract new custom, grapple with computers, and develop their ‘brand’. Readers gain a real insight into the business of hospitality and what drives success.
This is no Fawlty Towers memoir, but there are trials and tribulations, with ignorant banks, failed septic tanks, erratic builders, litigious staff, and a mystery fire.
It’s also a family story. Eldest son Barney joins the business with his wife Zoë; they search for a new chef on TV and win accolades, and younger son Ben helps steer Gilpin’s stunning developments.
Gilpin Lake House Books
Hardback; 240 x 160mm
Black and white and colour photographs