Wednesday, January 04, 2012

We’ve stayed in many, many different types of places over the
decades: from campsites to B&Bs; five-star hotels to hostels and everything
in between. They all have their qualities and often their charm is inherent in
their quirky nature and unique characteristics. So to find a place with a
mixture from two ends of the spectrum is unusual, for me personally, deeply
unsettling and in this case disappointing...

At first glance – or even after a few stays here, all is
well at the Alston House Hotel (AHH). The food is fabulous, prepared personally
by owner Michael with 30 years experience. The produce is mostly
locally-sourced and/or produced, unpretentious in nature and attractively
presented and priced. Michael’s wife Carole is an ever-present friendly smiling
face, always eager to help and very hospitable.

We decided to return to the AHH after an enjoyable one
nights stay some time ago. Knowing AHH to be a reputable, decent, dog-friendly
hotel in a quiet town with lots of walking opportunities, it seemed the ideal
get-away for a short break over New Year. Just the luxury we deserved to
recharge the batteries before returning to work and study.

We couldn’t fault the food. Lovely menu, beautifully cooked
and seasoned (although perhaps too heavy on the garlic for some palates). The coffee in particular a welcome speciality. Local ales and good selection of wine available at the bar. Breakfast was also a delight with everything cooked to order and very appetising (no kippers offered though – that was a disappointment). This is the main C2C cycle route, so many passing walkers and cyclists make a stop here. Its the perfect location. Unspoilt in many ways.

We thought it was strange that the TV didn’t work in the room, but we weren’t there to watch TV anyway - there are more than enough beautiful walks nearby - as you can see from the photos - my favourite was the South Tyneside Railway, now restored and running steam trains during the summer. We forgot to mention the TV issue to
Carole. However, upon check-out another guest mentioned this problem too, so I’m not sure whether this was a hotel-wide issue (?) Also worth a mention - the radiators go off during the day and at night. We were fully aware that there
were ‘additional heaters available if required’ (according to the guest information folder) and that actually the weather was unseasonably warm outside. However, I think in the depths of an English Lakeland Winter, it is reasonable to expect to have the heating on for most, if not ALL of the day and night (or am I being greedy?). Fortunately, our bed had the benefit of an electric underblanket,which was a God-send during the night – especially for Dizzy (but don't tell anyone)!!!

This was our fourth and final evening here and we thoroughly enjoyed New Years Eve dinner – served to the usual high expectations. It was a quiet, civilised evening with the company in the restaurant being mainly older adults, some of whom had obviously made an effort to dress formally in black-tie. The candles on each table were burning, the log fire was ambient and
the Christmas music was low. Everything seemed perfect.

Strange then, the sudden and dramatic metamorphosis that occurred after ten o’clock - just when we were congratulating ourselves on finding such a wonderful, relaxing place to spend celebrating seeing-in 2012.

This apparently four-star, classy, family-run hotel, with food of Bib Gourmand
standard and outstanding customer service, within half an hour, became a
setting of a teenage rave. A disco had been set-up and I was expecting some
loud music, but not on this scale! I did get slightly concerned when I saw the
Christmas decorations getting removed for what Carole said were “safety
reasons”. But within a few minutes, I saw what was reminiscent of the Youth
Club run at Woodnesborough Working Mens’ Club, every Wednesday night during my
schooldays - which involved paying an entrance fee and smuggling in a bottle of
cheap cider rather than paying the bar prices. Indeed, this materialised into
reality as I witnessed scantily-clad youngsters, queuing-up at the AHH
reception to pay £5 and have their hand stamped to enter the hotel’s disco.
Sadly for the owners, there were far fewer new guests that those leaving – and
I know what kind of customers I would have preferred to have stay! Many of
those leaving had (like us) enjoyed a lovely relaxing meal and would have
happily preferred to stay and spend additional money at the bar on champagne (even
though, like the white wine, someone had forgotten to put it into the fridge)
had the adult atmosphere been allowed to continue. Instead of that however,
most left to go to the more ‘grown-up’ atmosphere in the Cumberland Inn over
the road (also serving fabulous, honest food) where you could actually hold a
conversation without having to scream into each others ear over the thud, thud,
thud of whatever unrecognisable rubbish the ‘DJ’ was playing. Whilst on the
subject of the DJ – make no mistake he was useless. The best DJs, like any
presenters are always the most receptive to their audience. At one point he
actually said ‘well, it seems most people are leaving rather than dancing’ at
which the obvious remark came back “because all your music is crap”. Instead of
changing his choice of ‘music’ (and I use that word in its loosest sense), he
continued until it was nearly one o’clock (by which time we had escaped
upstairs) before I heard a Michael Jackson song (‘Dangerous’) which was the
first one with any identifiable lyrics! Oh dear, I must be getting old. But
surely this isn’t what others wanted either? The place was virtually deserted
by midnight with hardly anyone ordering at the bar.

If the owners really cared about their paying, staying
guests, then they would perhaps have been more responsive to their needs. We
obviously did not want to be surrounded by teenagers getting increasingly
drunk. As guests of the hotel, we were there for the main reason that we share
the owners’ philosophy in appreciating good food, in a stylish, relaxed
atmosphere in pleasant, quiet surroundings. None of these things are in line
with what occurred here on New Years Eve. I am truly bewildered. If the owners
felt that they needed to provide a place for the teenage children to get
together with their friends for a rave/disco, then hire the village hall which
is specially designed for such a purpose. Needless to say, many of the
youngsters did not want to attend the perceived ‘pretentious’ hotel setting,
preferring instead to hang around outside without paying the £5 entrance fee,
mixing with the smokers who had.

Two bottles of decent champagne alone would have easily
covered the relatively trivial amount raised through this thoughtless event. I
can’t understand hoteliers not wanting to keep their own customers happy first
– and increase the potential recommendations for profitable business. After
all, profits are definitely NOT to be found with drunk teenagers – especially
with all the cleaning-up required the following morning (yuk).

One last point. On Boxing Day there was a tragic car
accident where a young man was killed in the town – apparently after drinking
at AHH as well as other pubs. I have yet to read the full report, but
apparently he was drunk and deliberately drove his car into a house at a
junction. Of course, no-one can blame anyone for this horrific action, but the
local landlords do have some responsibility. It is no surprise or secret that
there is a huge teenage binge-drinking problem, combined with a drug problem in
this isolated area of the Lakes. High unemployment and little for young people
to do has had a polarising impact on local communities where more than half the
properties are holiday homes owned by wealthy ‘outsiders’. I would hope that
professional business people and conscientious parents would want to take any
opportunity they can to support their young people in a town like Alston and
provide a safe, responsible environment for them to socialise in – especially
when celebrating the New Year. What the AHH promoted did not fall into this
category and if anything only proved to further alienate the different groups
of locals and visitors.

My recommendations for the AHH for next year? Do what many
of the best hotels and restaurants do – charge extra for a set menu for dinner (easier
for Michael in the kitchen) guests can book in advance or turn up on the day
(and pay a premium). Formal dress only. Hire a professional musician – a
harpist or a pianist perhaps. Close the doors firmly at 11pm and let your
guests (and you and your family) enjoy a peaceful, grown-up and happy New Year
celebration, profitable and memorable for all the right reasons.

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