The battle for the Castle hotel

30 September 2010
The battle for the Castle hotel

In his new book, My Archipelago, Kit Chapman, owner of the Castle hotel in Taunton, Somerset, tells the turbulent story of how he took over the running of the family business. This extract shows how the battle reached a crescendo.

By the end of the 1980s, the Castle, which Kit Chapman's parents Peter and Etty took over in 1950, had debts of nearly £900,000 and the family decided to put the hotel up for sale for offers in excess of £5m. At this time, Kit, managing director of the business, was pursuing a number of literary, television and other new ventures.

But with the onset of the recession in 1990, property values plummeted and no satisfactory buyer was found. The company restructured, and with the support of the hotel's chairman, Michael Blackwell, Kit and his wife Louise decided to relaunch the hotel.

Those autumn weeks of 1990 groaned with bitterness and tension. Our board meeting had been a masked ritual of hollow words, a showcase of empty unanimity. On the surface we played our parts, issued grand statements about the future, held staff meetings.

I organised a photocall with the chairman-designate [Michael Blackwell, a local chartered accountant] and the new directors [Louise Chapman and general manager Ian Fleming], despatched my press releases and lunched the editor of the Somerset County Gazette. He obliged with a prominent report in his paper on 21 September and the trade press and other media followed suit.

Beneath the surface, the waters ran ice cold. At the end of the month, I sat down to write my journal. "So much has happened," I began, "all with a gloss of predictability I find deeply depressing. A state of cold war has descended on my relations with M and D. It's bad, very bad.

"M's hysteria, her egotism, her vanity and the inability of her mind to marshal any vision for the future or see the need for a new order in the way we manage the affairs of the Castle are alienating me from the filial affection she craves. She has lost one son [Kit's brother, Gerald, had died in 1987]. She is near the point of losing another in spirit.

"But the real casualty is my father. He is suffering horribly from this dreadful conflict between mother and son. He can't cope. He doesn't know how. And she is making his life hell.

"The other day he confessed - swearing me to silence - that he had had to desert her for five hours. He just needed a break and passed the time driving around the Somerset countryside. ‘She thinks you don't love her,' he pleaded. ‘Please go and see her and give her a kiss!' Then the old mantra: ‘life's not worth living if we don't have family harmony.' But filial affection is not like tap water and I'm damned if I'm going to turn on some phoney display just to encourage my mother in her own self-conceit."

The decision - my famous compromise - to provide a role for Etty under the new board structure ran into trouble from the start and, inevitably, this was the cause which soured rather than soothed relations inside the family.

With Louise's arrival on the management team, Peter drew up new job descriptions - a list of duties which were duly apportioned between his wife and their daughter-in-law. When the chairman-designate saw these, he sighed and shook his head in dismay. "This is farcical!" he declared.

"Yes, it is," I said. "But let's accept it for now and get on with the job of relaunching the business."

In essence, Etty retained all her old duties. On the flower-front, Louise (Constance Spry-trained with career credits at the Savoy, the Dorchester and other top West End hotels) was relegated to small vases for the restaurant tables - a task previously held by my mother's part-time assistant. This little charade was annoying but I was unconcerned because Louise and I had discussed a variety of ideas of our own. She was keen to do a real job for the Castle and I wanted to see her profile raised in the local community as part of my relaunch plans.

But my father's list of "Louise's Duties" did include one essential job. If Etty was designated Director of Aesthetics, Louise was now adopted in the more prosaic role of Director of Maintenance (a responsibility my mother was delighted to shed). As a first step the board asked her to draw up a schedule of repair works in the hotel's public areas and bedrooms - a job she set about in the company of Mrs. Harper, the head housekeeper.

Louise's findings were a revelation. She discovered that much of the hotel had lapsed into a poor decorative state. Worse, to her horror, she saw that many of the bedrooms had been stripped of their best pieces of furniture - pictures, lamps, coffee tables, mirrors, desks, chairs and much else. The gaps filled, here and there, with old items snatched from different parts of the building.

In the expectation of a sale and unknown to me, Etty had spirited these items out of the hotel and stored them in the "Rumpus Room", an airy space in a lost corner of the garage block where Gerald and I had played as children. When I checked, I felt like Ali Baba opening his cave to find it stacked with hidden treasure - and Harrods' treasure at that! Here was a secret storeroom standing ready to furnish the beautiful new home my parents were going to buy after the Castle was sold.

The mindset had not changed. They had not come to terms with their new circumstances: that, after all, the hotel was not to be sold; that we were relaunching, rebuilding, looking to a new future with a new team.

These were the saddest days. I was less sympathetic then, my impatience and determination to turn the business obscuring the shock - trauma even - of recent events on my parents. Now their impulsive behaviour was damaging their pride and their dignity. Looking back at that time, I think I was being a little blind and insensitive to their distress.

I called Michael. The furniture was company property, it had to be returned. He telephoned and spoke to my father - and the following morning, Saturday, I was summoned to the penthouse [where Peter and Etty lived]. They were both in their bedroom, my mother at her dressing table applying her make-up, my father pacing up and down in a state of nerves. I sat on a corner of the bed.

"Blackwell called last night," he said. "I gather you've been speaking to him."

"Yes, that's right."

"Look Kit, I want to make it absolutely clear to you that your mother and I want to sell."

"But the board decided three weeks ago to withdraw the hotel from the market. You were part of that decision. It was unanimous."

"I don't care. We're fed up - miserable. We want to get out regardless of your plans and ideas."

"Well I'm sorry, I simply can't accept that."

"Don't interrupt Kit!" interjected Etty. "Listen to what your father is saying!"

Peter continued: "I want you to call Michael on Monday and get him to instruct the agents to find a buyer."

"No, I won't do that," I insisted. "What's more important is getting all this furniture back into the hotel."

"That's nothing. It's only a few items from the hall and a couple of chairs."

"But I've been to the Rumpus Room. I've seen for myself how much stuff has come out of the bedrooms. It's got to go back. All of it."

Etty exploded: "How dare you poke your nose in there! Who do you think you are? That room is private. It is none of your business!"

"What do you mean it's private! That's utterly ridiculous! All that furniture belongs to the hotel and it's got to be returned to the bedrooms."

With the eruption of another terrible row, Peter retreated into his shell. I stood up and walked out, my mother calling after me. But by early the following week the Castle's lost furniture had been retrieved, each item restored to its proper place.

There had been a host of other upsets in the wake of the board meeting and the press announcements. The new order was being given a rough ride by the ancien régime - inconsequential issues magnified into grand soap opera. Ian Fleming came to see me. "The staff can't see that there's been any change," he said. "Mrs Chapman is still Queen Bee!"

With the new board, chaired by Michael Blackwell, in place, Kit and Louise, together with Ian Fleming, set about running the hotel regardless of Etty's interventions. There was a need to move on urgently. As well as a deepening recession and inflation running at more than 10%, the Castle's total debt was almost £900,000. Costs had to be trimmed, but there was also a need to regain the confidence of lost customers and reassert the hotel's reputation - damaged by the brief hoisting of the For Sale sign above the Castle.

By the third week of November our recovery plan was set to go. So was Mrs Thatcher, who resigned as prime minister on Thursday the 22nd, during the week that the Somerset County Gazette published a massive spread across two pages of its paper to announce a fabulous menu of appetizing new initiatives from the Castle hotel.

Supported by 30 small advertisements from our suppliers, the feature cost us nothing and raised the curtain on a major campaign to promote a variety of recession-busting deals: from winter breaks and seminar packages for corporates, to wine offers and fixed-price lunch and dinner menus. But the real attraction of the piece came with the unveiling of two eye-catching ideas aimed at raising the profile of a fresh, young team, which included the arrival of a gifted new chef.

The first was a dining club which offered its members a series of gastronomic evenings, each featuring an entertaining speaker who was willing to accept our hospitality in lieu of a fee. The club was an instant success and over the years our speakers have included wits and mavericks from the world of politics, the media and show business: Auberon Waugh, Bernard Ingham, Julian Critchley, Ned Sherrin, Clement Freud, Maureen Lipman and Derek Nimmo among them.

The second idea was Louise's "lifestyle workshops", a programme of morning talks-cum-demonstrations organized and hosted by her and aimed at Somerset's ladies-who-lunch. Themes included health and beauty, interior design, floral display and cookery - each session concluding with a long gossipy lunch. Louise soon earned herself a name as a consummate hostess with the additional bonus that both initiatives provided a platform to launch our new head chef, Phil Vickery, whom I wanted to establish quickly as a rising star in his own right after the departure of Gary Rhodes.

But the central plank of our campaign was the launch of Castle Times, a twice-yearly newsletter bursting with images of our celebrity visitors and crammed with activities, deals and events. In the face of economic gloom and the rumble of war breaking over the Gulf, I wanted to breathe a little optimism and fun into the air. The back page listed all our offers in the style of a booking form. I baptised Gill, my PA, "Dining Club Secretary". And we despatched the glossy A4 publication to nine thousand addresses on our database.

The response was overwhelming and Gill struggled to cope with the flood of enquiries and bookings. Colleagues, staff and customers loved it. At last we had begun our long, stony trek to recovery - a halting start which coincided with the Castle's summary demotion in the 1991 edition of the Egon Ronay Guide. Not unexpectedly, Mr Ronay complained about our "dated rooms" and patchy service". Yes, this was going to be a hard-run marathon.

Meanwhile, in the penthouse the reaction to Castle Times was muted and, at times, indignant. One item in our first edition featured a list of wine offers accompanied by tasting notes which I invited Peter to write. Foolishly, I overlooked my obligation to match his exposure with an equally prominent puff for Etty - a diplomatic omission inflamed by a full page article devoted to Louise's lifestyle workshops, a piece richly graced with a fetching image of a radiant Mrs Chapman junior.

In my naïvety, I had assumed that the purpose of the newsletter was to avoid making homilies to the past. Its purpose, I thought, was to launch a new washes-whiter formula, a bright new "ring of confidence". Oh dear! The message from the penthouse was one of "shock" and I was roundly accused of wilfully excluding my mother.

Once again I found myself on a mission to restore peace and "family harmony". The second edition of Castle Times, published in the spring of 1991, carried a full page exclusive on Peter and Etty's 40 Glorious Years at the Castle - a florid tribute written by Rosie Inge, the newsletter's editor. My father may have felt like an old soldier but my mother was determined to make sure that neither he nor she would be fading away.

To seal the moment of their belated anniversary I threw a lunch party in their honour. Etty was thrilled at the attention we lavished on her, especially when she saw her name enshrined at the heart of the menu. The main course was billed "Chargrilled Souvlaki Georgette", a flattering tease which shot straight over her head - the "Georgette" of the dish folded into its saucing as a rich, spicy, lemony emulsion which seemed appropriate.

Within four years of Kit and Louise steering the Castle forward, the business turned the corner. In 1994, after a prolonged period of annual losses running into five and six figures, the hotel's accounts registered a modest profit of £3,937. A new solid team of staff had been brought together and the Castle's restaurant had reclaimed its lost Michelin star. But, the price paid for this success was the collapse of Kit's relationship with his parents.

In next week's Caterer and Hotelkeeper, Kit Chapman explains how the agony he experienced in taking over the running of the Castle from his parents has encouraged him to ensure the handing over of the business to the next generation will be conducted entirely differently.

Readers of Caterer and Hotelkeeper can buy a signed copy of Kit Chapman's My Archipelgo at the special price of £20 plus post and packing (RRP: £25). Contact Caroline Warwick on 020 7722 5466, or e-mail

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