Review by Fiona Duncan, published 5th July 2009.
What a throwback. One wonders how much longer it can last, but for now Knoll House flies in the face of change with such splendid unconcern that one can only cry "three cheers" and celebrate its continued existence.
Be warned: it takes getting used to. Many guests in this large, old-fashioned, family oriented institution are repeat visitors, often returning every year with their children and grandchildren, but for new bugs, I tell you, Knoll House is hard core. Try the timetable for a start: breakfast 8.00 to 8.45, lunch 1.00-1.30, dinner 7.30–8.15, bar 6.00 to midnight "at the supervisor's discretion". Are they kidding?
No, they're not. It's not unlike boarding school. "Yes, we're all about routine here," says Mike Ferguson, one of the family which has run the hotel for 50 years. "And we don't do fuss. New people ask for all sorts of things at first – little children in the dining room, for example. We say 'no'. Takes a couple of days, but they get used to it."
The public rooms are almost anarchic in their dowdy post-war furnishings. The bedrooms, though recently spruced up, took me straight back to my sixth-form bedsit, down to the plain wood doors that have no keys. Though there's a Roberts radio in each, there's certainly no television. "You can have one if you must, but we'll punish you by charging for it," says Mike with a grin. As for the basic bathrooms, you'll find nothing but a couple of bars of soap.
Hairdryer? In reception. Need shampoo? Head & Shoulders in the hotel shop. Baby listening? Uniformed girls patrol the corridors or sit reading outside the rooms. "And I'm afraid we just won't be pressurised into trouser presses," Mike's sister Sarah told me defiantly. I didn't like to mention that trouser presses have long since ceased to be fashionable.
So what's to love about Knoll House, apart from its setting on Studland Bay (nothing short of sensational) and the sheer chutzpah of the place? It's the singular history of Britain's original child-friendly hotel, one that used to employ debutantes as staff, where very smart children were sent without their parents but with their nannies, and which gave Enid Blyton inspiration for her books. It's the happy, long-serving staff, the waitresses dressed like nurses, the superbly supervised (and modern) children's dining room, the playroom and the parents' kitchen, the pool and playground, the golf course, the lovely gardens over the road and the beach.
It's also the cleanliness. Crucially, the whole place is spotless: just one cobweb and it would feel miserably clapped out instead of delightfully fossilised. And most of all, it's the element of which we quickly became aware and liked the best: the tranquil, even serene, atmosphere. How do the staff achieve such a thing in a family hotel? "The routine, of course," says Mike. Of course.
Knoll House (01929 450450; www.knollhouse.co.uk) Doubles from £218 per night half board; families from £337 per night full board. Ground-floor rooms for guests with disabilities.