“Undressed for Dinner” by Simon Bennett
In 1997 Simon & Wendy Bennett moved out of London and bought a near derelict castle at the foot of the Cumbrian fells. Today Augill Castle is a country house hotel with an international reputation but that was never really the plan. In his book, Undressed For Dinner, Simon recounts the story of fifteen years of hard graft building a hotel business from scratch while bringing up a family in a very fast changing world. Throughout he asks, how did we get here?
Harriet and Gordon booked their house party about a year ago and, unlike some house party guests, have been a delight to deal with. When asked what was the occasion they simply said it was a regular get together of like-minded friends. We thought no more of it.
We have been given carte blanche to devise the menus and choose the wines. ‘All they want is for everything to be natural.’ Wendy says.
‘It’s so good of you to welcome us into your home in such an open hearted way,’ enthuses Harriet.
‘Well, it’s what we do,’ Wendy smiles back, sweetly.
We have also been asked to find them an open-minded trio of musicians.
‘Open minded?’ Wendy asks, slightly quizzically.
‘You know. The sorts that don’t mind our unconventional ways,’ replies Gordon.
When Wendy recounts this conversation I roll my eyes. Why on earth didn’t she press them for more details of what they meant?
‘Their taste in music is none of my business,’ she harrumphs but I’m convinced there’s more to their unconventional ways than we’re privy to. It’s more than a bit of after-dark Bob Dylan.
We don’t ask many questions of our guests and sometimes the results can be alarming.‘You should have asked more questions,’ I am complaining as the day of their arrival draws closer. ‘They could be a cult or something. We may be brainwashed into joining a mass suicide.’
‘Oh don’t be so ridiculous Simon,’ Wendy snaps.
We have laid on a magnificent afternoon tea and at three o’clock Harriet and Gordon arrive. They are clearly very excited about the prospect of sharing the castle with just their friends.
‘It’s very special,’ says Harriet. ‘Obviously we like privacy and it’s not often you come across somewhere so lovely and welcoming and luxurious. We’ve ended up in some very basic places in the past.’
‘Nothing basic here,’ I reply, still deeply suspicious.
By four-thirty everyone has arrived and are gathered in the Music Room hungrily devouring the tea.
‘What a lovely bunch,’ Wendy says and I have to agree. They do seem to be the sorts of people we thoroughly enjoy looking after.
By six-thirty everyone has disappeared upstairs to get ready for the evening ahead and we are making the final preparations for dinner. In line with the guests’ requests for ‘simple and natural,’ we have sourced everything on the menu from within a fifty mile radius of the castle, most of it organic.
The band arrives to set up and I am keen to find out what discussions they have had about music.
But the reply to my questions leaves me puzzled. ‘They don’t want anything out of the ordinary, just mellow and laid back. That’s what they said.’
‘No unconventional requests?’
There’s movement in the upstairs corridor. It sounds as if everyone is coming down for pre-dinner drinks.
I go through to the hall to greet them at the bottom of the stairs and as Harriet and Gordon come round the landing towards me I am momentarily frozen to the spot before fleeing to the kitchen.
‘Wendy,’ I demand my wife’s attention, ‘what exactly did these people tell you when they booked this house party?’
‘Oh for God’s sake, Simon, can you drop it, they’re perfectly normal,’ comes her frustrated response.
‘What did they say?’ I persist.
‘They wanted somewhere quiet, private and natural, they’re naturalists,’ she replies with a slowness with which one might address a child’s persistent questioning.
‘Natural! Naturalists! They’re bloody naturists,’ I whisper hysterically. ‘They’re all coming downstairs stark naked.’
Wendy drops her spoon. Faye, who has been working with us for so long and shared so many of our memories that we can no longer see her as anything other than family and who had thought she’d seen it all, drops her composure and screams while I try to regain mine.
‘OK, so they’re wearing shoes and she’s got a pashmina around her shoulders.’
‘Well,’ Wendy says slowly, ‘We must just act as if everything is normal.’
‘Normal?!’ trumpets Faye and another of our girls.
‘Go and serve them some drinks, they might appreciate not having to bend over to get their own mixers out of the bar chiller.’
Now I dislike serving at the bar at the best of times and I look at Faye who usually jumps at the chance but she’s suddenly very busy chopping carrots and averts my gaze. As I make my way towards the library I’m wondering whether I should offer our guests cocktails. Straight up or on the rocks?
‘Oh stop being so puerile,’ I tell myself. I need not have worried about the bar. By the time I get there everyone is getting stuck in and seems quite self sufficient. In the Music Room two men are warming their backs in front of the open fire. I am sure I am imagining a slight whiff of burning hair.
Keen to get everyone to the table as bare torsos are going to be a hell of a lot easier to deal with than the full monty, I have thrown a few extra logs on the dining room fire.
Once seated a semblance of normality returns and we marvel at how relaxed everyone is and how quickly they make us feel at ease. And by main course it all seems perfectly ordinary (although we feel it best to banish Holly from under the table given her indiscriminate Labrador appetite and propensity for planting her head in people’s laps).
‘Do you think they were expecting us to take our clothes off?’ asks one of our waitresses.
‘I don’t think I’ve done a risk assessment for cooking in the buff,’ I reply. ‘And anyway, we’re cooking sausage and two bean casserole. We wouldn’t want a mix up.’
‘We’re not really?’ one of them gasps.
“No, that would just be too deliciously ironic… if only we’d known.’ I’m feeling far less scandalised than I imagine I should.
After dinner I confide in Gordon that we’d got it wrong and that we had no idea they were naturists until I saw them coming downstairs.
He stiffens momentarily but soon relaxes when he realises that we’re not bothered now we’ve got used to the whole thing.
The band have taken a little time to get used to the idea. They were outside when everyone appeared for drinks and so are only now being confronted by the reality of the situation.
‘Shall we start off with a bit of swing?’ asks the band leader and I simply cannot resist replying, ‘don’t ask me, the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.’ We fall about.
The rest of the evening goes much as any house party and it’s all very good natured. Having always been ready to strip off on the beach should the opportunity arise, I am almost tempted to join in until Wendy reminds me that the staff may never be able to look me in the eye again. The guests enjoy plenty of banter with the staff and the band and by bedtime we are congratulating ourselves on dealing with such an unexpected situation so well.
Unfortunately we forget to warn the breakfast staff and next morning the phone ringing in her ear is the last thing Wendy needs after the night before.
One of the girls has come to work and is concerned that there are four people on the top lawn doing Tai Chi.
‘They haven’t got any clothes on,’ she exclaims, ‘do you know who they are?’
‘It’s alright, they’re guests,’ I reassure her.
‘Oh that’s alright then,’ she replies, clearly relieved, ‘I was just worried they were trespassing.’
How did we get here…?
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Simon was born in North London and moved with his family to Somerset aged three. He attended Taunton School where hid did enough to get by and studied at Bournemouth University where the beach was always more tempting than the library.
After graduating with a BSc in Food and Catering Management he worked in various capacities in hotels in the Channel Islands, London, Sydney & Perth, Western Australia.
On his return to England he took a post graduate diploma in journalism and worked as a reporter on evening newspapers in the East Midlands for two years before marrying Wendy, buying a share of a restaurant in London’s Mayfair and moving to West London, all in the space of a month.
In 1997 the couple put everything on the line to buy a crumbling wreck which they have turned into a hotel which today they still resolutely refuse to run in any sort of conventional way.
Simon now lives at Augill Castle in Cumbria’s Eden Valley with Wendy, their two children, Oliver, 15 and Emily, 13, a cocker spaniel called Maisie, a cat called Luther, several chickens, a turkey and six goats.
He is a director of Cumbria Tourism, a governor at two schools and a dedicated supporter of Penrith RUFC under 16s.