One night after dinner Toby Ashworth settled at the bar with a glass of port and asked Ken a few questions on his time at The Nare...
[TA]: What is your favourite memory from the last 40 years?
[Ken]: When being introduced to the Countess of Wessex she whispered something to me that never came out in public!
[TA]: When Mr and Mrs Gray arrived inevitably they were going to make some improvements to The Nare. Which one did you most admire?
[Ken]: There were so many little changes, it is hard to remember...but she made it very clear to all, that she wished to make The Nare the most comfortable hotel in Cornwall. In my opinion Mrs Gray achieved that aim admirably, and I considered her a very dear friend, because you could tell her anything. One day she gave me a present of a door mat with the words “Never mind the dog, beware of the owner!” She really didn’t need it herself.
[TA]: Thank you Ken, but that wasn’t quite the question...so perhaps then...in your opinion, what has changed most at the hotel over the last 40 years?
[Ken]: The standard of service. For example there was no bar-waiter or room service – you simply had to come up to the bar and collect your drinks yourself, unimaginable today.
[TA]: In contrast, what do you think remains unchanged?
[Ken]: The Nare always, as long as anyone can remember, has had a fabulous atmosphere from guests and staff alike - and that has never changed.
[TA]: What is it about The Nare that has kept you working at the hotel for the last 40 years?
[Ken]: Well I grew up around here and it is home to me. Veryan is my home and so I am very connected to this area. Mrs Gray recognised this in the first brochure with a quote “Ken the popular cocktail barman is well known to many regular guests”. Things haven’t changed much.
[TA]: What has been your most unusual request from a guest?
[Ken]: Well really now...I don’t think I could possibly answer that one!!! Not truthfully, anyway. We have to be discreet you know.
[TA]: What question are you most often asked by guests?
[Ken]: How’s Dougal? (my beloved Shih Tzu).
[TA]: In your opinion, why does The Nare have so many returning guests each year?
[Ken]: That’s really a corporate marketing question and not country house at all - I don’t know why, but I suppose it is that we just look after them.
[TA]: How would you describe The Nare in 3 words?
[Ken]: Home from Home - well after forty years coming into work it is just like coming home to family.
Following the Q&A session and with Toby on his second glass of port, Ken went on to reveal more memories - perhaps in too much detail. Realising this could be an opportunity to access some scarcely-heard accounts, Toby hit the record button on his phone and settled back to listen. If you wish do read on for the fully unedited transcript of that night's entertainment in all its rawness...a touch of Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.
I certainly look back fondly over my 40 years at The Nare. I have met and worked alongside so many lovely people over the years. Although I grew up in Veryan and knew of the hotel, the first time it really came onto my radar was when the local plumber, known as Coco Harris, drove his van into the hotel’s outdoor pool! The owners at the time had made a lot of investment in the building and unfortunately the cash had run out. Coco had gone down to the hotel to settle his bill, having built the pool over the winter, and was so enraged at not being paid that he deliberately took the handbrake off his old rusty lorry and pushed it into the swimming pool, saying “They haven’t paid me so they are not going to use it!” It is fair to say that was the talk of Veryan village for many years.
It wasn’t long after that when John and Martin Hall bought The Nare and invited me for a coffee to see if I would work for them. The previous owners had struggled with staff retention and they felt that a local Veryan boy could add some long-term stability to the hotel – little did they know that would turn into 40 years’ service!
I decided to give it a go and starting working full time for the Hall brothers in 1979. Back then I worked split shifts – lunchtimes and evenings - 6 days a week! In the first two years the hotel was closed over the winter but after that they decided to open it all year round. For the first Christmas, the Halls asked Quentin, one of the long-term porters, and I, to dress up as Jack and Jill to provide some festive entertainment for guests. Well, needless to say I ended up being Jill and turned up in tights and blonde pigtails – imagine the scene! Afterwards I vowed this would be the only time I would dress up at Christmas…although I did play the piano during dinner one year.
Even in my early days The Nare has had such a lovely atmosphere - sorry, have I mentioned this before? Well anyway, in the winter of 1988 Mr and Mrs Gray purchased The Nare from the Hall brothers. Despite being in their 70s the Grays soon made it clear that they had high aspirations for the place. One of the first things they did was remove the “No Dogs” sign from the front door - many guests that stayed after that were delighted they were able to bring their dogs on holiday. She also permanently silenced the music that was piped throughout the ground floor…but that’s a story for another day!
The Grays brought with them a very capable General Manageress called Mrs Burt. She had been with Mrs Gray at the Edgcumbe in Newquay for 30 years, and was by now a loyal ally. In fact Mrs Gray always used to say, that they would never have contemplated buying The Nare unless Mrs Burt had agreed to move and manage it for them. I quickly struck up a good working relationship with her and under her management, the comfort that guests experienced improved rapidly - not only because of the upgrades made to the bedrooms, but also with the introduction of room service, table service and a hotel concierge. Mrs Gray and Mrs Burt were clearly astute and experienced hoteliers, and Mrs Gray made it clear that her intention was to make The Nare the most comfortable hotel in Cornwall - which I think she achieved admirably.
Mrs Gray was such a lovely lady. Despite being strict, which was needed to ensure things were done in the “proper” way, she was always very warm-hearted towards her staff. She used to buy staff little gifts whenever she saw something for them. One time she bought me a doormat that said “Never mind the dog, beware of the owner”...hold on...have I told you that already?...well...she also bought me a sign for my garden gate with “A dog and his housekeeper lives here” written on it - she had certainly got the measure of me! The other thing I will always remember about her was the time I was awarded RAC Barman of the Year. When it was announced Mrs Gray said in front of all the staff, “Now come on Ken, why has it taken so long?”
Then you arrived Toby...was it in the early 1990s?...to help with the family business. I seem to remember you quickly got the hang of things. I do remember one night that you came to help me behind the bar…you were very good with the guests and quickly learnt the best way to make each drink, and before the night was out I was the one being bossed around! After that you named it “Ken’s bar” - I must have done something right!
Yes...do you remember that Ken's bar was also the venue for the infamous “whisper” from the Countess of Wessex? Did I tell this story earlier? I must say was a very pleasant lady. She had been visiting on official business to promote tourism in Cornwall, so the press had been invited. All of the staff had been asked to come in to meet her for the usual “line-up and handshake” routine. We were told she wouldn’t talk to us but when she got to me we ended up having a chat. I couldn’t possibly share what was said but at the end she asked me how long I had worked for the hotel. I answered “23 years, Ma’am”. She responded with “Well, I think for 25 years you deserve a nice present Ken!” You were stood nearby and looked quite unsure what I would say next. I remember saying “Thank you for bringing that up my dear” and her laughing loudly in response. Well, the reporters and photographers reacted like bees to a honeypot didn’t they? I refused to tell them anything, such is the discretion at The Nare. Despite taking many photographs, the one of the Countess and I, was the one plastered on the front pages of the local press the next day, with you and the rest of the staff completely chopped out!
Another favourite memory of mine was one of mistaken identity. It was early evening and guests were in the bar before dinner. The lovely Barbara had gone over the take the drinks order from a couple and greeted the gentleman with “How lovely it is to see you again.” Initially no harm appeared to have been done but as Barbara walked away I heard the lady say “You’ve been here before, you b**$£ard!” Barbara mistakenly thought they were returning guests and had been too convincing with her greeting. Anyway, this lady got up and walked out, with her husband close behind. No sooner had they come back and she started up again with “That’s typical of you, no wonder you wanted to come here! Who were you with might I ask?” I think I ducked behind the bar at this point. I don’t believe we ever saw this couple again so I don’t know if she’s killed him since or not!
On another occasion I was hosting and there was a young chap behind the bar, I can’t quite recall his name. Anyway, he came over to me and said “We have a problem.” I went with him to find a lady slumped in her chair motionless. I tried to communicate with her but to no avail. Needless to say her husband was still sat opposite her stuffing down canapés like nothing had happened. I declared her dead at 6.45pm but apparently this was just one of her funny turns, and two hours later she was eating king prawns from the hors d'oeuvres trolley in the Dining Room!
There are so many other stories I could share, as well as many that I couldn’t possibly divulge! In summary I guess what I would say is that over the forty years I have always felt that the comfort of guests was the main priority. And whenever the hotel has looked to change something it was always tested with the phrase, “but is this the best thing for our guests?” I think guests realise this and this makes the hotel a genuinely relaxing place to stay. In answer to your earlier question I guess this is why so many return. And because they return they get to know the staff and we get to know them – it becomes like a home from home. There are many guests I have got to know over the years that I would now consider to be friends. Whether you work for the hotel or have been a guest The Nare certainly makes you feel like you are part of a special place...
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