Fingals 30th Birthday
Why limit a birthday celebration to just one day when it can be spread over the whole holiday season! Actually when you think about it Fingals did not magically happen over one day or two but has evolved over many years to provide the home away from home; relaxed, easy going and slightly quirky destination that it is. Richard Johnston has, with much personal effort and over time, restored the Grade 2 listed Queen Anne Devon farmhouse that was mentioned in the Domesday Book, from what was essentially a semi-derelict building.
He opened for business 30 years ago with just one useable bedroom and by the end of the first year had increased that to three and was running a restaurant that locals knew and used as well as the hotel guests. The hotel now boasts a choice of accommodation in 11 beautifully appointed ‘boutique style’ ensuite bedrooms including the Stream Room (an ’eco’ building) and The Folly built from the ruins of a little mill. The restaurant welcomes non-residents for dining and functions and they pride themselves on the quality of locally sourced food which is as fresh and organic as possible. They have a brilliant new chef starting in May after the demise of their long standing French chef Eric.
Richard ‘just happened’ across the building in 1980 as he was driving through the narrow lanes of Devon. He had, up until then, run a small restaurant called Fingals in Fulham, London where his basic philosophy was that it should be a place where you went to meet friends, relax and put the world to rights over a meal round a large communal table.
The restaurant was actually named after Richard’s dog, a Dalmatian bitch, which he had at that time. She was a particular character who used to enjoy sitting in the restaurant window for all the world as if she owned it, hence Fingal’s Restaurant. As the bright lights of London were replaced by the call of the countryside, not just the ethos but the name was extended to Richard’s country version.
Thirty years have flown by and Richard admits it is quite scary when he looks at photos of the young man he was when he first arrived in Old Coombe, Dittisham. On opening the hotel he thought it would be something he would do for five years or so. The years rolled round and new projects were started to redesign certain elements of the hotel helped over the years by his friend and local architect Andras Kaldor. Sheila, Richard’s wife, joined him in running the hotel 18 years ago and it is now so much more than just a business it is very much their home. Richard says ‘Actually I cannot think of very many local hotels or public houses that have not changed hands many many times in the thirty years of Fingals’ existence!’
Inglenook fires, oak beams, wood panelling, squishy deep sofas, a wealth of art both in the hotel and also its gardens (most produced by local artists) and collectables from Richard and Sheila’s travels give it that laid-back country house feel which certainly runs on ‘Fingals time’, a gentle pace ideal for guests to relax and recharge their batteries. There is much to do locally, or further afield, or not – totally your choice. Just sit and catch up with your reading or perhaps make use of the indoor swimming pool, hot tub spa or streamside sauna. If you wake up feeling energetic there is a grass tennis court, croquet lawn or perhaps go off for a stroll in the surrounding countryside and along the River Dart. If the weather should prove inclement there is a snooker/games room, gym, library and tv/film room. Fingals can be many things for many people, a romantic hideaway, ideal for families or perhaps the perfect setting for a wedding party!
During its lifetime Fingals has attracted its share of celebrity patronage from John Fowles and Antonia Fraser to to Nick Hornby and Este Freud, Cameron Macintosh to Tim Bevan, John Sessions to Richard Curtis, Jeff Beck to Supergrass, Clare Rayner to Davina McCall, or from Leslie Phillips and Pete Postlethwaite to Harry Enfield and Vic Reeves. It provides an ideal hideaway and retreat for those who perhaps live somewhat in the limelight.
An addition to the Fingals offer is Finca La Morera, in Spain. It is a large complex of farm buildings providing luxury accommodation in the heart of Andalucia, Spain. As you would expect, it has been converted to the highest standards, for rental as a whole for up to 12 people or individually in the low season. It is run on a self-catering basis but with a couple who live in to manage it who will cook for guests if required. It has two swimming pools, a games room and a cinema/tv room and broadband connection. All situated in five acres of terraced and landscaped gardens with commanding views over the valley to the medieval Moorish town of Ronda. More information on this can be found on the Fingals website.
So in celebration of the past thirty years the hotel will be offering birthday tea parties for guests, and they have created a Fingals ice cream, selection of jams and fudge. The 18th May will be the Fingals 30th Birthday Ball in the garden in a marquee with a salsa band. Then on 15th June the Miracle Theatre Company from Falmouth will be performing an open-air play, a comedy based on Sherlock Holmes. For more information on these please contact the hotel.
Richard would sum up the past thirty years by saying, ’When I first came to Devon I thought I would be dipping in and out for an adventure somewhere else but what I didn’t realise was that I had landed on my feet in a little piece of heaven and consequently have had no inclination to be anywhere else. I constantly feel reassured by the envious comments from our guests when they take a break from their hectic life in the cities’. I think the rest of us who live in this area know exactly what he means!
Fingals Hotel, Old Coombe, Dittisham, TQ6 0JA. 01803 722398 www.fingals.co.uk
First published May 2011 By the Dart