Britain does not have a good reputation when it comes to service especially in the hospitality industry. Is this still justified? My anecdotal evidence – the best kind, I find, as it can’t be challenged – suggests that things have improved a lot largely due to the arrival in this country of large numbers of Eastern Europeans who are willing to work the unsocial hours and to deliver “service with a smile”.
I don’t know if they are all Polish, like the plumbers, but whether they are from Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania, they are to be found everywhere we travel in this country including both Scotland and Wales. We have just returned from the Lake District in England’s north-west and sure enough in an up-market hotel in Grasmere there were East Europeans waiting tables, behind the bar and cleaning rooms. They were serving at the restaurants that we ate at in Grasmere which is a very small tourist destination far from any large town. Staying overnight at Rowsley in the Peak District, in the middle of nowhere in particular there were a Spaniard, an East European and a local serving in the very up market Peacock Inn at which we ate in the evening. However, interestingly, in the Grouse and Claret Inn just down the road where we stayed for the night, which was a modest, locals’ pub with rooms, the staff were all natives and in fairness they were all helpful and friendly if somewhat less sophisticated.
Here in Bath we are served by a mixture of staff from all over the place. There seem to be a lot of Spanish in Bath. It is quite funny (not that I mind, you understand) to find that all the staff in the Saracen’s Head – claimed to be the oldest pub in Bath – were entirely young Spaniards the last time we visited, to the extent that there was a Spanish supervisor training a Spanish junior staff member on the ways of old English pubs.
Now I don’t want to give the wrong impression, that is that the natives are completely unable to past muster in the service industries, as that would be a gross misrepresentation. Nor, have I found, that all Eastern Europeans perform uniformly well. Indeed, if I had entertained that thought I would have assuredly have had it dashed by one experience in Grasmere at the Dove Restaurant attached to the Wordsworth Hotel. After a moderately good meal served in an acceptable but not especially outstanding way I nevertheless made a point of handing a cash tip to the main waiter as I paid my bill at the desk only to have it grabbed in a cursory way with virtually no acknowledgement as he occupied himself with some newly arriving guests. I definitely wished afterwards that I hadn’t bothered after all. In contrast to this isolated experience, one thing I have noticed is that, in general, local staff are very appreciative of tips to the extent of seeming almost surprised that one should be leaving a tip. Is this a typically self-deprecating British characteristic?
Our single worst experience so far, however, would have to be checking in at the Rothay Garden Hotel in Grasmere. Bear in mind that this is a hotel with definite pretensions to quality. The young woman, a local, was so peremptory and dictatorial that I felt as if I was being inducted into prison. I fully expected her to demand that I empty my pockets and then sign for my belongings. Fortunately the young chap who carried our bags upstairs – no lift – was more appropriately attentive and was, of course, of Eastern European extraction.
One thing that we found a bit odd in Grasmere was the significant number of hotels offering 4 or 5 course set, fixed priced menus. This is surely some weird gastro-hangover from some now passe fashion. We were hard pressed to find restaurants offering a straightforward à la carte menu. When we enquired about the menu at the Grasmere, the same prison official who had processed us earlier simply confirmed the fixed menu offering as if she were clearing up some misunderstanding on our part about the prison rules and offered no further assistance. To be fair there was a small bar menu which we did avail ourselves of another evening as we were a bit sick of eating too much but it did seem strange to us.
So, no country houses for you in this post but I will end with a view from a country house, albeit a very modest one, Allan Bank, that sits overlooking Grasmere, which Wordsworth rented after he found Dove Cottage to pokey for his tastes. It turned out he didn’t really like Allan Bank either as its chimneys were all too smokey.