Thursday 28 June 2018

An Island Story by Lynne Benton

Last week I travelled back in time.  My husband and I spent a night on Burgh Island, a tiny island just off the South Devon coast which contains a hotel, a pub and nothing else.  It is an island only at high tide, since you can walk across the sand to it when the tide is low, which adds to its attractions.  And the Burgh Island Hotel is a very special place indeed - a place where you really do feel you have slipped back in time to the 1930’s.

Burgh Island Hotel
Its history is fascinating.  It began in the 1890s when the music hall star George H Chirgwin built a prefabricated wooden house on the island, which was used by guests for weekend parties.

In 1927 the filmmaker Archibald Nettlefold bought the island and built a more substantial hotel in the Art Deco style which was all the rage at the time.  By the 1930s it had become one of the most popular hotels of its day, and improvements and further additions were made during the 1930s.  These included the Captain’s Cabin, which was modelled on the captain’s cabin of HMS Ganges, the last British wooden flagship in the Royal Navy.

Inside the captain's cabin

The cabin from outside
In World War II the hotel was used as a recovery centre for wounded RAF personnel, probably because of Burgh Island’s convenient seaside location.  At one point the hotel was actually hit by a bomb, thankfully with no loss of life, but the top two floors were damaged.
Although the bomb damage was subsequently repaired, the hotel became largely neglected after the war, and during the sixties many of its original features were brutally ripped out when it was converted into self-catering apartment accommodation.

Fortunately by the end of the 20th century when the island was sold again, the new owners realised what had been lost and decided to restore the hotel to its former glory.  They painstakingly searched for and installed replacement Art Deco furniture and fittings, so that by the first decade of this century the hotel had regained its reputation and was now recognised as a perfect example of one of the great hotels of the era.  Inside the hotel everything is in the Art Deco style, so that you truly feel you have slipped back in time.  Today the Burgh Island Hotel is a Grade II listed building, and one of the prime examples of Art Deco style in Europe. 

Ceiling of the cocktail lounge

The reception desk
In its heyday it became the favourite haunt of many famous people, including Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Amy Johnson, Winston Churchill and Nancy Cunard, but one of its most famous visitors was Agatha Christie, who stayed on the island many times and set two of her books there.   This is the Beach House where she stayed.
The Beach House

“Evil Under the Sun” was written and set on the island (in 2001 a TV version, starring David Suchet as Poirot, was actually filmed there) and so was “And Then There were None” (though in the latter book Christie “moved” the island further out to sea so it really could be cut off!) 

Today most of the rooms in the hotel are named after its former illustrious guests.

The key to our room!
Today’s guests are not required to come dressed in 30s costume, though 30s-style bathing costumes are available for hire should anyone feel brave enough to venture into the Mermaid Pool immediately below the hotel (filled every day from the sea, so  very cold!) in full view of all the other guests.  However, at the weekly Dinner Dances the advice given is that “it is impossible to be overdressed”, which is an invitation not to be taken lightly!  Most people really took it to heart.

We could only afford to stay there for one night – but that night was truly one to remember.

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