Thursday, December 30, 2010

Burgh Island owner reaps what she sows...or at least, in part

Burgh Island at low tide (Photo: SP Tiley)

The day after our wedding reception, when the house was full of the grown daughters’ friends, my husband and I wanted some peaceful togetherness, alone…except for my dog. She had been a bit neglected regarding walks and treats in the run up to the event. So we decided to take a drive to the beach. It was midwinter; surely there would be a place within a couple of hours of our Maryland home where Brownie could play in the surf.

There was not. There was not one single patch of sand in Maryland on which a dog and her people could freely roam in February. We couldn’t believe it, but it was true. Even in pricey coastal Connecticut, I had been able to take my dog to the beach in winter.

When we moved to England, we
and the dogwere elated to find more than half of all Devon and Cornwall beaches allow dogs year-round, while others prohibit them between Easter and Oct. 1, the main beach season. Still, it was no hardship to find dog beaches in July, and the three of us happily visited several favorites whenever the sun peeked through.
One beach we thought might be fun was at Bigbury-on-Sea. There, the public beach is half doggie/half undoggie during summer months. But there was still lots of room! Plus, at low tide, one can walk to Burgh Island where there is an ancient pub and a swell hotel.

As it turns out, the hotel is so swell that owning it seems to have swelled the head of Deborah Clark, who was granted an exemption from the “right to roam” legislation that is intended to make virtually all of England’s coastline accessible to walkers, so that she could keep the entire island away from the roiling masses of scrofulous peasants…in other words, British families trying to enjoy their own magnificent coast. Clark claims that participating would have a devastating effect on local businesses.
Greedy hotelier battles other local businesses
No, Deborah. In fact, according to Devon Life magazine, “Nearly 75% of accommodation providers within one mile of the path consider it to be an important selling point for their business. It’s also a key attraction for day visitors to the region, who account for 40% of the annual tourism spend.”

What this unethical and greedy businesswoman meant was that allowing access to the historic island might be detrimental to luring the fops and dandies and B-rated celebrities who fork over 500 quid a night for the pleasure of sleeping at the Burgh Island Hotel. The hotel was once great, then a virtual flop-house for decades until Tony Porter resurrected it at great expense (his own) and with great trouble (again, his own). Porter is, in fact, fairly eloquent on what he thinks of Clark’s attitude, as reported by the Telegraph. He said:
“When we owned the island we allowed access to all of it and I would often meet people at the summit after climbing up there myself.
“We saw ourselves as being entrusted with the island when we had it and when we sold it we passed on our dream. It is a shame that things have changed.”
After reading Porter’s book about his project a few years ago, I did want to stay there, at least once. He and his wife had risked everything to take a derelict building and make it very special.

Banning the peasants from the land

But not now. It is people like Deborah Clark who make reasonable progressives into rabid socialists. After initially giving in to the demands of a high-powered barrister Clark had hired to ensure that the hoi polloi could be banned from the island, local authorities thought better of it and reversed the finding, giving Clarke only the closest paths to the hotel as private, and leaving the others open so that hikers could cross the island, look out to sea, visit the ancient hut at the peak. So, against the odds of big money and big ego, the common folk won most of the day.

What the reversal didn’t do, of course, was make the venerable Pilchard Inn accessible to anyone but hotel guests. Hikers and walkers are not even allowed in the door; if they require a pint or a cup of coffee after a hike, it is served to them through a half-door at the end of the building and they can consume it on outdoor picnic benches. But step inside the inn, which once served smugglers and other folks much more ethical and decent than the hotel’s current owners and faux-important guests? Nope. Commoner cooties would doubtless infest the place in short order.

Five months to a stunning flop

Last September, I met the hotel’s bartender. We attended an Agatha Christie Festival event about cocktails at a new restaurant, Port Salut, in Torquay. He is a nice guy and a good mixologist. I was hoping to see him again at events at Port Salut restaurant, also owned by Clarke. I didn’t know about her attitude toward the peasants back then.

So I thought I would just check up on Port Salut before writing about it.
What I found out is that there is a god.  Here’s what the Port Salut website had to say:

And meanwhile, I’ll try not to tell the rest of Torquay’s business owners that while they might not know it, they are NOT a worthwhile tourism destination at the moment. Deborah Clark said so.