Augill Castle and the tale of the nude dinner party
PUBLISHED: 00:28 30 January 2014
In an extract from his amusing new book, hotelier Simon Temple-Bennett describes the weekend when some uninhibited guests came to stay
Harriet and Gordon booked their house party at Augill Castle 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 had 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. ‘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.’
We have laid on a magnificent afternoon tea and at three o’clock Harriet and Gordon arrive. They are clearly very excited.
‘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.
By six-thirty everyone has disappeared upstairs to get ready for the evening ahead and we are making the final preparations for dinner. 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 enquiries leaves me puzzled. ‘They don’t want anything out of the ordinary.’
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?’
‘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 with us for so long 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. ‘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. 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.
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 come around 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.
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?’
‘They’re guests,’ I reassure her.
‘Oh that’s all right then,’ she replies, clearly relieved, ‘I was just worried they were trespassing.’
Simon is write at home
Former hotelier, restaurateur and newspaper reporter, Simon Temple-Bennett, right, quit London and moved with his wife Wendy to Augill Castle, a few miles from Kirkby Stephen in the Eden Valley. Simon and his wife transformed a near derelict pile into an exceptional family hotel entertaining guests from around the world. Augill is also home to their children, Oliver and Emily and assorted dogs, cats, chickens and goats and, perhaps, a ghost or two. Simon’s highly entertaining book, Undressed for Dinner, is published by Hayloft Publishing, priced £12. (cover illustrations by Henry Jenkins)