Simon's blog: In praise of Albion
A couple of decades ago, a little more in fact, there was roughly a 50% chance I’d wake up in a bed other my own. This went on for about five years, 3 or 4 nights a week going to sleep in a different hotel, 3 or 4 mornings a week that started with a stutter as I worked out just where I was waking up. In reality, those days weren’t as wild as that might make them sound; it was all part of the job, AA Hotel and Restaurant Inspector. Paid to eat drink and sleep and pass judgement on the experience. The quality and character of the venues varied from roadside bed factories to Cotswold country houses, Claridges and the Connaught. One morning, coffee from a vending machine in the lobby, the next, eggs Benedict wheeled in to the room on a starched white tablecloth laden with silver. Places to lay your head scored against a set of strict criteria for facilities, service and cleanliness which totalled up would determine a star rating that could hinge on the presence or otherwise of captive hangers or a Corby trouser press. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me to learn I never once took advantage of the latter technology, creases in my appearance have never been a serious concern to me, which is a blessing I count these days when I look in the mirror of a morning.
It was the food aspects of the vocation that interested me, the accommodation much less so. I can’t deny that frippery of high end hospitality was entertaining at times but the novelty of concierge, evening turndown and theatrical room service soon wore off and the whole rating system, based on a very specific and starchy perception of what makes a good hotel, always seemed perverse to me. The places I did love to stay in, the ones I remember with fondness, had something about them that couldn’t be so easily quantified. Much like the food I favoured they were without pretension but they did the simple things brilliantly. These were the days when places like Hotel Du Vin and Malmaison were emerging. These interpretations of what made a good hotel were light years away from the turgid templates of the AA, RAC and the Tourist Boards and sent the rating system into a spiralling meltdown from which it has never recovered - although it limps sadly along to this day, largely ignored and lonely in its irrelevance.
"I’ve stayed in quite a few hotels, many of them widely celebrated for one reason or another but rarely, if ever, have I fallen in love with a place in the way I was smitten by this one."
The real privileges for me were the standout small hotels and country inns, the product of the enthusiasm and creativity of individuals, friends and families that were and are an alchemy of personality and place, shot through with a generosity of spirit and an understanding of the meaning of hospitality that you can’t get from tick box service standards and operations manuals. Back then places like the Felinfach Griffin were just opening and made immediate sense to me and it’s the same spirit I encountered in Auvergne last autumn at Auberge de Chassignolles and Hotel Orfenor in Brioude - places that are true to where they are and who runs them rather than the perceived market place they are trying to serve. Places that reward open minds and an absence of preconceptions. Places that will leave their mark on you.
Which brings me, at last, to The Albion in Aberteifi/Cardigan. Maybe it’s a hangover from my inspection days but I feel I should make a declaration of interest here - Sian, James and the rest of the family behind it have become friends of our own family over the past decade or so since they first invited us to an informal feast with a couple of dozen others at Fforest Farm in Cilgerran one summer’s evening (in the intervening years, in addition to Fforest, they brought the equally brilliant Pizza Tipi to the Cardigan waterfront and The Boy Ashore to the beach at Aberporth). Since then they have been a source of never-ending inspiration and support, most recently manifested when we stayed over at the recently opened The Albion where Joel was hosting an evening of natural wines in the bar of one of the two majestic former warehouse buildings that stand splendid sentry at the dockside of the Teifi town. Like I said, I’ve stayed in quite a few hotels, many of them widely celebrated for one reason or another but rarely, if ever, have I fallen in love with a place in the way I was smitten by this one. For all the reasons I’ve talked about above, creating a wonderful place to stay is an art before it’s a science and the Albion is masterpiece of it’s genre. Everything about it is a testament to the integrity, commitment and creativity of the people who have brought the building new life, and in doing that they have managed, triumphantly, to enact something seldom achieved in the life of a historic building where the original purpose has long since been blown way in the winds of economic change - the feeling that what has happened is best described not as transformation but as succession. I’m not going to attempt to describe any more specifics here, I’m not entirely sure I could do it justice anyway - have a look at the website and if you can make it happen, visit and even better stay. You won’t regret it and you won’t forget it either.