An interview with Mrs Burt - looking back on 60 years in Cornish hotels

In the last eNatter Ken Cracknell shared his memories of his 40 years at The Nare. The second interview in this celebratory series was recorded in quiet dulcet tones by Cordelia Ashworth (CA), who is Bettye Gray’s eldest great granddaughter (15), and the respectful gentleness of Daphne Burt (DB). She quite correctly refers to Mrs Gray throughout the interview as “your great grandmother”, but Cordelia uses GG as she is affectionately known by her great grandchildren.

[Cordelia Ashworth]: So 1st Jan 2019 saw you mark 60 years since you started working with my great grandmother; but may I start by asking you what your childhood was like? Was it in Cornwall?

[Daphne Burt]: I am Cornish born and bred. I lived in a village 7 miles out of Newquay. At the age of 12 I won a scholarship to what was then the Grammar school in Newquay and travelled by steam train every day.
[CA]: How cool – I wasn’t expecting that! 

[CA]: How did you come to work with GG at The Edgcumbe Hotel in Newquay, and had you had any experience in hotels prior to this?

[DB]: I did a secretarial course at 17.5 and then got a position in Truro in the office of a big family firm called Jennings, an upmarket grocery store, in Victoria Square which used to supply all the hotels in the Cornwall area. Then I got an office position with the Western National Bus Co. in Newquay and then one day saw an advertisement for a receptionist in an hotel – I thought this sounded interesting. The Edgcumbe was being rebuilt during that winter so I was interviewed in December at the old family home where your great great grandmother, Livy, was living. I nearly didn’t get the post because she learnt I lived in a caravan and thought I must have been a gypsy. But I knew a lot about tax and wages, and your great grandmother had been stung by the Inland Revenue the previous year for dishing out bus fares to the staff to get to work – you see you weren’t allowed to just pay them cash. I think it was on the back of that I got the post. I started on 1st January – of course there was no bank holiday in those days!
[CA]: Really!

[CA]: What was your first impression of The Edgcumbe in those early days? Are there any funny stories you can share?

[DB]: When I turned up on the 1st January I knew that the temporary office was in a 1st floor bedroom, but I had to ask the builders how to get in – the ground floor was gutted;  “maid, you cann’ut get in 'ere, you be better climb the ladder and thro' the winda.” And so in your great grandmother’s book there is a cartoon of me climbing the ladder in high heels and through a first floor window.

[DB]: The Edgcumbe was a different world. I was very naïve about hotels, I hadn’t even stayed in one, and in those days all the post came by letter. There were neither computers nor the internet. Everyone would write a letter saying they wanted to stay and I simply put them in the booking chart, not quite realising that they had written to every other hotel as well. I hadn’t quite appreciated it was not a proper booking until you received a deposit. The chart looked wonderful, I had put them all in neatly hand written in pencil, and I very nearly got the sack! They were merely enquiries not bookings.

[CA]: You started as a receptionist but was your goal always to become General Manager?

[DB]: No not really, just wanted a job that was interesting and I wasn’t bored with.
[CA]: Well, even I know it’s never boring in a hotel.
[DB]: I found it completely fascinating and after a few years your Great Grandmother told me that a friend had told her “That girl is always on your side. She has her eyes open and will let nothing get past her, and if you nourish her she’ll go far.”
[CA]: And you have!
[DB]: And that is what happened.

[CA]: Quite a success story…was it an easy journey then?

[DB]: I was always a leader at school, captain etc and later when I was much older my brothers told me their nickname for me was Bossy Breeches.
[CA]: Loving older brothers!
[DB]: I just liked organising people and things.

[CA]:  So you’re quite well suited for this then?

[DB]: Yes!  [- long sighing laugh of recollection].

[CA:] Has Cornwall changed much over the years as a holiday destination? The Nare market is very luxurious. Was it always like that?

[DB:] In the war years there were a lot of troops. All these chaps thought Newquay was a wonderful place and when de-mobbed they brought their families back to Cornwall.
[CA:]  Ah! free marketing then.
[DB:] I honestly believe that’s how Newquay got its reputation after the war and before we saw it going downhill a bit in the 80’s when cheap flights abroad became available to all.

[CA:] What was your reaction when, in her 70’s, GG told you she was going to sell The Edgcumbe and purchase The Nare?

[DB:] Well I knew all about it. We had got on extremely well together as a team. Your great grandmother said let’s get out of here [The Edgcumbe] and we both had a look around Cornwall, and we came here [to The Nare] and had dinner one evening. If only we could have The Nare, but it wasn’t on the market. Then she rang me one day and said "you’ll never guess what!"  Somehow I guessed...I said "The Nare’s on the market?" "Yes it is, and we’re going to have it."

[CA:] Sounds though you were quite eager to move but did you have any trepidation? 

[DB:] No, absolutely not! - but I had a husband and two sons and we had to move out of our home in a flat at The Edgcumbe. When your great grandmother [told] asked me “You will come with me won’t you?” I did say…“but I’ll have to ask my husband”…and to him I said "what do you think?" He was lovely, a true Cornish Gentleman, he replied simply “whatever makes you happy”, so we moved over here.

[CA:] Was it much of a change moving to the south coast and The Nare?

[DB:] It was entirely different because the intention from the start was to make The Nare an upmarket and very comfortable hotel; as if you were welcoming guests into your own country house.

[CA:] How would you say Cornwall has changed as a holiday destination since you have been at The Nare?

[DB:] It has changed principally from being only a weekly holiday destination to one that people now book for short breaks. You used to only ever be able to book a stay from Saturday to Saturday. Our average length of stay is now 4 to 5 nights.

[CA:] Were there any international guests in the early days? 

[DB:] No, there were none. Since The Nare joined Pride of Britain and Small Luxury Hotels of the World we’ve seen an increasing number. The lovely unspoilt coastline and quaint fishing ports in Cornwall are very attractive to overseas visitors, especially Americans, who also seem to love the elegant and classic style of The Nare. That being said international visitors still only represent a small proportion of our guests each year. 

[CA:] In the year 2000 GG retired and you decided to step down as General Manager. What prompted this decision?

[DB:] Well in October I had reached 65 and Mrs Gray was stepping back. Your father had already joined The Nare in 1996 having worked previously with your great uncle and great aunt at the Headland Hotel, and, like his father and uncle before, he was working with me. It always was your great grandmother’s plan that your father would take on The Nare, and as my husband had just retired I thought it was time for me to step down.

[CA:] How would you describe your role since then, because obviously that was nineteen years ago and, well, you’re still here? What do you...actually do?!

[DB:] I just like keeping an eye on what the staff are doing and checking they are keeping things in the same vein that your great grandmother intended. I am a director of the family firm, together with your parents.
[CA:] So you are like a guardian of The Nare, almost a fairy godmother?
[DB:] Since your great grandmother died I have been for your father, so to speak, "a shoulder to cry on".

[CA:] I know he depends on you quite heavily. [Surely everyone does?– Ed]
[DB:] You have to understand it is quite helpful and very useful to have someone who knows the business inside out, to be there, to just have a battering ram to bounce ideas, and someone to talk to. You see it helps you to make decisions.
[CA:] You’re quite useful then as Papa’s mentor.
[DB:] I suppose so.

[CA:] How would you describe The Nare’s development over the last twenty years? Has it changed much?

[DB:] It has improved immensely, gone forward with technology obviously, but fundamentally I don’t think the ethos has changed. People feel welcomed, and if guests have been before they are recognised which makes them feel at home. Yes – a real home from home feel continues to flourish.

[CA:] After 60 years, clearly you must love working in hotels. What aspects do you most enjoy?

[DB:] I do, I find the whole thing fascinating. I love meeting people, I love organising staff. I love looking into the finances and checking that we’re doing better than last year, and just the whole thing. It still fascinates me even today.

[CA:] You found your perfect job then?

[DB:] Yes – I’m very lucky.

[CA:] Do you see yourself ever retiring?

[DB:] Well I was going to retire in January and I said to your father "how do you feel if I sort of stay on" and asked if he minded. He immediately replied “No, I would love it – do so for as long as you can”. I feel I still have some talents to offer The Nare and as long as I can safely drive and I am still compos mentis and contribute, who knows…

The country house hotel by the sea