Review by Fiona Duncan, published 2nd July 2006.
When I was young, our best family holidays were spent in a hotel whose owners, locked in the mother of all love-hate relationships, were eccentric, idiosyncratic and impulsive – and hospitable, funny and warm. Their endearing hotel had a wide circle of faithful clients, including my family, who reckoned they had stumbled on something special.
Ditto Fingals, minus the marital strife. Like that long-gone place, this anarchic, I’ll-do-it-my-way one-off is somewhere you either love or you hate, or, as its creator and raison d’être Richard Johnson puts it, “you either get it or you don’t”.
If you don’t, you’ll flee. A Fingals aficionado told me that he and Richard were once playing tennis on the lawn in front of the house when a first-time couple arrived. Richard (rarely dressed in anything smarter than gardening trousers or baggy shorts) called out jovially that he’d come when he’d finished the game. By which time, expecting their hotelier to be behind a desk rather than executing demon serves, they had upped and left. “Good thing” said Richard, “they wouldn’t have liked it anyway. I do always warn people that things are different here”. Sometimes they don’t realise how different.
What would they have found if they’d stayed? In a hidden valley, an old manor-farmhouse that Richard restored 25 years ago. Inside, no reception but a pub-style bar, a lived-in sitting room and library, a ‘mini-cinema’ with a good collection of films, and two panelled dining rooms, one with a large table for communal eating, the other with separate tables. Upstairs, a variety of bedrooms – informal, pretty, eclectic – with bathrooms that are more serviceable than sybaritic. There’s also a one-bedroom folly in the attractive, beautifully kept garden, a small indoor pool surrounded by exotic plants and a little sun room with a ‘duck flap’ so that the ducks can get through to the stream beyond. It’s all a bit haphazard and a bit scruffy though basically clean. Put simply, it’s less a hotel than a house where people gather, relax and have fun – or run from in horror.
Have you stopped reading? Lived-in, laid-back, eclectic, eccentricly English: hang on to those words before you even think of booking. For plush, smart, sane, don’t consider it. Children love Fingals, and so do dogs, and anyone like me, who’d rather a hotel that was barking mad than bland. Why does it work? Because behind their laissez faire manner Richard and his delightful partner Sheila are totally committed and work hard to keep the show on the road. If Richard is the book, Sheila is the glue that binds the pages together.
Everyone comes together at drinks time, and mostly (it’s not obligatory) they eat together too. Gone are the days when Richard was chef and guests waited in vain for food while he lost count of time on the river. For the past five years Eric, from France, has been delivering delicious dinners. Breakfast is served ‘anytime after nine’.
Fingals is a mile from the stunning River Dart. Take the ferry to Dartmouth and walk home, go for a row or a sail, visit Agatha Christie’s home, Greenaway, or join Richard and Sheila for a river trip and a beach barbecue. Or stay home and chill. Have you stumbled on something special?