Sunday 7 May 2017

Chez Fothergill

To the agreeable Oxfordshire town of Thame on Friday evening, for a family occasion the next day. We stayed in the Spreadeagle, on the High Street, a hotel famous for having been run in the Twenties by the 'legendary' John Fothergill, who wrote a bestselling book, An Innkeeper's Diary, about the experience. A minor literary and artistic figure who liked to mingle with artists and writers, Fothergill was a friend and correspondent of Evelyn Waugh, who got to know Fothergill's Spreadeagle in his Oxford days. But he owed his fame - or notoriety - largely to the firm line he took with guests he did not consider worthy of his hotel, usually on grounds of bad manners.
 Like many a publican before and since, he took particular exception to visitors who made use of his sanitary facilities without bothering to buy a drink. Such offenders would be unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Fothergill was not really in the great British tradition of hoteliers and restaurateurs who are clearly in the wrong line of work and who take out their unhappiness on their unfortunate clientele. He was undoubtedly a snob, but not a boor; he was trying to ensure that his guests proved worthy of his hospitality and the very fine surroundings that he had created at the Spreadeagle. For those he approved of, he created a most agreeable kind of private club, over which he presided with charm, wit and generosity. At a time when English hotels were dreary places offering bad food and wine in a dismal environment, Fothergill created something more like a pleasant, artistically decorated country house, with good food and wine. He didn't want 'riffraff' (Basil Fawlty's term - 'vulgarians, bounders and coxcombs' Fothergill would have called them) spoiling the atmosphere of his inn.
  The Spreadeagle gets a mention in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, when Anthony Blanche takes Charles Ryder to dinner:
'We are going to Thame,' he said. 'There's a delightful hotel there, which luckily doesn't appeal to the Bullingdon [the notorious Oxford drinking club].'
  The Spreadeagle's glory days are long behind it, but it's a pleasant enough hotel. And when I stepped out to take a turn before dinner, I looked up and found the sky alive with swifts - my first of the year! Circling, swooping, chasing and screaming, they were in high spirits and losing no time in getting their short season under way.
 Back home, only a few wary pioneers have so far braved the cold and cloud, but at least they are here and, despite appearances, the summer has begun.

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