Do Not Disturb by Michael Matthews
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Beyond the Call of Duty in Devon
January 20, 2011 -- Just how far should a hotelier go before an event is "beyond the call of duty"? I have a glowing example on my recent holiday visit to the English countryside.
My wife and I checked out of the Combe House on a blustery, cold winter morning in Devon. Our goal: to drive about three hours to a hotel on the coast of Cornwall situated miles from anywhere. The problem: We left a bag containing my wife's medicine, her favorite pillow (without which she cannot sleep) and some other important items by the front door of Combe House.
We didn't discover our loss until we arrived on the Cornish coast, leaving behind single-lane roads no wider than my rented Hertz Kia. A frantic phone call to Combe House was met with "Mr. Matthews, we have your bag. We've been searching for you. Where are you?"
I told the lovely lady I was on the Cornish coast and the easiest access was probably by boat or by helicopter. This was met with a few moments of stunned silence.
"I've no idea how to get your bag to you," she admitted. "I will call you back."
Ten minutes later, she did call back. "Mrs. Hunt, our owner, is leaving now," I was told. "She should be with you within three hours."
When Mrs. Hunt arrived, we reacquainted ourselves in the lobby of our hotel, thanked her profusely and invited her for a drink. Mrs. Hunt would have none of it.
"Sorry," she explained. "Have to get back for a drinks party." Only an Australian would venture forth again for another three-hour drive in the foulest of weather knowing there was a drink at the end of it!
To return my wife's pillow, Mrs. Hunt had taken a six-hour roundtrip drive, in awful weather, on almost impassable roads, in the middle of the Christmas/New Year's holiday.
That's what I call beyond the call of duty for a hotelier.
In a way, though, nothing seems to be beyond the call of duty for Combe House, one of those spots that restores the faith of cynical travelers.
Parts of it were originally built in 1084 by Bishop Odo, the brother-in-law of William the Conqueror. It now sits in the most glorious part of Devon, on 3,500 acres of its own pastoral land. Massive logs roar in fireplaces that are bigger than some New York apartments. They face sofas so plush that you sink into them and need a helping hand to escape. The original flagstone floors are covered in huge, nicely worn carpets. Young, friendly, impeccably trained, uniformed staff look after your every need.
The restaurant offers a menu that does not have pretensions to a Michelin star. But it is fairly priced and exceedingly good and the dining room is consistently voted one of the best in the United Kingdom. It specializes in locally sourced items, 70 percent of which are obtained from just outside where you are seated. The wine list is superb and bottles are racked in 600-year-old cellars beneath the house.
The Combe House hotel has been owned and managed for the past 10 years by an Australian couple well experienced Down Under in the field of hospitality. Ken Hunt, very visible in bright pink corduroy trousers, fusses like any great host should. Helen Hunt takes care of matters such as housekeeping and uniforms and delivery of lost luggage.
Combe House has the most wonderful patina. In a word, it is fabulous. And unlike some better-known British country house hotels, it is in no way "twee." It has all the basics, all beautifully presented.
If you are touring England this year and next, during the royal ceremonies and the London Olympics, do try to stay there. It is a short drive from Honiton, a town famous for its lacemaking and antique stores. Exeter, with its amazing cathedral, is just 16 miles away. Dartmoor and the rest of the west of England is on your doorstep.
And, if you leave a bag behind, don't be surprised if the owner soon shows up on your doorstep with a hearty "G'day!"
A note to readers: Since 2016, Combe House has been part of small group of properties known as The Pig Hotel. It has also expanded. The Web site link has been updated to the current operation of the hotel, which is called The Pig at Combe. The Pig Hotel group is the brainchild of noted British hotelier Robin Hutson. Ken and Helen Hunt have returned to Australia after a 17-year run at Combe House.
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