Tuesday 13 December 2011

Our Spell in Gaol!

Not only is Canterbury a great City to visit because of all it's history and of course the local wild life parks, the shopping and the world famous Cathedral to name but a few. There are also some great little museums and quirky cafés where you can stop for a warming hot chocolate, a creamy latte and some delicious cakes!

It was at a place just like this that I thought, people should be coming to Canterbury just for this one experience! I have to blog about it!

I was invited to join a colleague for coffee one afternoon at the The Old City Gaol & Café which opened back on the 28th July 2011 after an extensive and painstaking restoration of the Old City Gaol.

We picked a table and enjoyed a delicious coffee each and a white chocolate and raspberry muffin (they were ENORMOUS)! Sitting in this café, looking out over the river that runs by,  under a roof of glass covering what used to be the old felons  exercise yard, doing some people watching and just soaking up the atmosphere that Canterbury has this time of year was just what the doctor ordered. Being a busy period at the hotel for office Christmas parties, weddings, accommodation and various other events it was lovely to spend some time watching other people rush around!

The café looks amazing, with a Vivienne Westwood Union Jack on the wall and various other historic images from when the towers were a Gaol way back when. They show the officers that used to work there and keep the felons in check, along with maps of Canterbury and photos of how it used to be. One wall in fact is completely covered in what looks to be a modern wall paper, but upon closer inspection you find it is actually out takes from the wardens diary from back in the 1800's and makes such interesting reading! I could have stood for hours trying to get through it all!

We then ventured up to the museum, access to which is under the Towers (which in case you weren’t aware is the largest remaining medieval gateway in the UK), and up the stone spiral staircase. We arrive in the main part of the museum, which houses armours from the Civil War, and much more. Lots to read and look at and the staff really know their stuff!

We then ventured through to the cells, meeting James, a felon who was only 15 or 16 when he was confined in the Gaol in 1793. According to the local newspaper the Kentish Gazette, he made ingenious efforts to escape from his cell. With his extraordinary strength he had repeatedly broken the iron manacles on his hands and legs. New and stronger shackles were put on his arms and legs and secured to the wall of the cell, but he remained defiant and would not give up his efforts to escape.

Seeing this cell that James would have had to share with up to 8 others and then moving through to the Victorian cells it was amazing to see the difference, and to appreciate how lucky later felons were as the cells for them seemed much more civilised!!!  They had a bed and a toilet each! (I have to say though, the bed didn't look comfortable!)

Finally up another flight of spiral stairs and we were on the roof, able to look around and take in the breathtaking views of Canterbury were you can see the New Marlowe Theatre clearly and the Cathedral. Some say it looks like the Marlowe is doffing its cap to the Cathedral, but you can make up your own mind!

The stairs from the roof brought our tour to an end and back in to the café! Such an interesting visit and just another of the many reasons why people need to come to this magical city and spend some time discovering hidden gems like this.

We are located within easy walking distance to all of Canterbury's major attractions in the town, so why not book yourself a short break in January or February to cheer yourself up and  enjoy what Canterbury has to offer.  We would love to see you!!!!

A Debtor's Despair.

A place there is, of ancient date
Entering the city, called Westgate.
Here felons lodge, and each poor debtor
Who cannot pay for lodging better.
To be in debt is sure a curse
The fear it causes, ten times worse.
How many honest men now rot
In jails, for debts of trifling note?
Denied the power to maintain
Their helpless wives and infant train.
No pity's show, but there must lie
Perchance until the wretches die.
Thus vexed and fretted at my luck
Some words I had with Master Ruck.
And he too falling in a rage
Secured me safely in the cage.
From whence, at nine, my tower mounted
Some hundred steps I believe I counted.
They ushered me into a room
Whose countenance bore a dismal gloom.
When struck with wonder at the sight
And siezed with terror and affright!
I threw myself into a chair.
The only on sure ever there.
In all the horrors of despair!

(Dated at Mr Ruck's West-Gate, Canterbury, Saturday July 10th 1773)

Thursday 1 December 2011

The Battle of the Stars

What images come to mind when someone tells you, that you are booked to stay in a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 star rated hotel?

Do you imagine the 1 & 2 star hotels are dark, unclean, not refurbished and offers poor service and food?  Do you imagine the 5 star can provide you bright, big, spacious rooms that are well furnished, with perfect service, gourmet food and a chocolate on your pillow?  Do you feel that hotels without a star rating are not even worth considering?  Do you even understand the star rating system?

Perhaps another question to ask is, what is important to you when booking a hotel?  Is it the location, the room size, how well furnished it is, or is it actually just a room to sleep in? People use the word quality, they want quality, so what does that mean?

The general idea behind a star rating is this.  The more stars, the higher the overall level of quality you can expect to find.  However all properties have to meet an extensive list of minimum standards before they are even considered for a rating.

Some hotels choose not to participate in the rating system, it can be quite costly, yet actually the absence of a rating does not indicate poor quality of amenities or service.

When it comes to trying to work your way through the hotel star rating system, it can be quite complicated.  Star ratings vary from global region to global region, country to country and occasionally within countries.  Within Europe, hotel stars are assigned if properties have leisure facilities and lifts, not always on when the last refurbishment was done and its current state.

The UK star rating system dates back to 1912, when Automobile Association's Secretary, Stenson Cooke hit on the idea, and the 3 star classification system was born.  Today in Great Britain, the AA works on a 5 star system and after years of confusing tourists and Britons, a standardised system was launched in 2007.

Cost comes into where you can afford to stay.  If you are on a tight budget and need somewhere for less than £70 a night, you might consider the likes of a 2 star or lesser rated properties, perhaps if you can afford a little more you will find yourself looking at 3 & 4 star hotels.  If you are the lucky ones who can afford the 5 star and deluxe hotels, you are in for a treat, but don't bank all your expectations on those shiny gold stars next to the hotel name, sometimes they disappoint and you are left wondering how they got it.

Bathroom size, a night porter, 24 hour hot room service, bed size and more all come into it. Sometimes you might surprise yourself and stay in a 3 star hotel that can offer you 5 star furnishings, and service, but because the bathrooms can't be increased in size they can't benefit from the higher rating.  If you think a nice fluffy towel and slippers will guarantee a perfect stay, it might, but don't always bank on it.

Many hotels nowadays are starting to move away from the star ratings, especially branded hotels such as Holiday Inns.  They feel that the brand projects and guarantees what the customer can expect better than the star rating system.  You may well find in the future, less and less hotels opt for a star rating for this exact reason.

Baring all the above in mind, try not to disregard a hotel purely because it lacks a pool, or because it is only rated 2 or 3 stars, or even if it doesn’t have a brand above the door. Brands certainly offer consistency so that a room in one branded UK hotel looks identical to a room in one of their Tokyo hotels, however some might argue that this also results in a lack of character compared to unbranded hotels that are unique in their own right.  If you’re adamant that you want to stick to a brand though, my suggestion would be to choose one like Best Western, who don’t own any of their hotels. All Best Western hotels are independently owned, so you can feel safe in the knowledge that you will experience consistency in the standards you would expect from the brand, whilst still having the unique experience that comes from a country house retreat or even a castle!  Who said you can’t have your cake and eat it too ;o)

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Trip advisor....friend or foe?

There are so many articles, new reports and bad press surrounding Trip Advisor these days. Yet up until 9 months ago a lot of people wouldn’t ever have considered staying at a hotel before reading reviews left on the infamous site. You might find 30 or even 500 reviews left over a period of a couple of years and more. All a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Still I can quite confidently say that those hotels would have seen many more guests passing through their doors, sleeping in their beds and enjoying their breakfasts and dinners who did not leave a review and had a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

A few months ago hoteliers finally found their voice and have brought and continue to bring to the public and presses attention that actually Trip Advisor has no way of verifying that those people leaving reviews have ever stayed in the hotel they are commenting on at all. In fact the chances are that a good handful have had a disappointing stay, the other handful are competitors who want to do damage to their rivals or just simply vindictive people posting a negative comment purely for their own satisfaction (a disgruntled member of staff perhaps). Needless to say some of the positive reviews may well have been posted by staff members, family members or friends, however the majority will probably be good honest reviews.

The point is people are finally starting to see it for what it is and what hoteliers have always known it to be but have muddled through because nobody seemed to be able to shout loudly enough about it...until recently.

Companies such as Booking.com and Laterooms.com have however got it right. They can and do have the ability to post reviews, as you can only do so if you have stayed in that hotel and booked your stay via the aforementioned websites, this is the proof the stay actually took place and means the reviews are from true customers.
A couple of months ago is was announced that the ASA had launched a formal investigation into TripAdvisor after receiving a complaint from a company called KwickChex.com. A Bournemouth based company that helps others manage their online reputations. They have been pursuing TripAdvisor since last year over what it claims are numerous misleading, fake and defamatory reviews posted about restaurants, hotels and bed & breakfasts. With the likes of Dragons Den entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne backing the campaign, this is certainly one investigation to keep your eye on!

I think the point I want to make is this. Trip Advisor, love it or hate it has been part of the holiday makers booking process for many years, and yet should never be taken too seriously. We as a nation much prefer to grumble and moan after the occurrence than speak up at the time, this bad feeling then festers and those who don't perhaps want a resolution will complain to Trip Advisor and such like. Those who are serious will contact the hotel and voice their concerns at the time or write a letter once back at home, giving the hotel a serious chance to rectify any fault or make amends, hopefully to the customers satisfaction.
A warning to those who read reviews, remember if the site can not guarantee these reviews are genuine, don't let it effect your own judgement too much.

I hope Trip Advisor can find away of verifying that past and new reviews are genuine. I also hope that since reading this and hearing about it in the press, those of you who have shunned hotels in the past due to a bad Trip Advisor review might reconsider visiting them. We don't bite. We are open to the public. We are here to serve you. Pop in and see us, ask for a look around, and make up your own mind.

Monday 3 October 2011

Get to the church on time!

So, he finally popped the question then?! Congratulations!! (That is if you said yes!)

Now this is where the fun and games start. Telling your families & telling your friends. Deciding on “Do we have an engagement party or don't we?”

Then it's a case of going out, buying all the wedding magazines you can lay your hands on and watching the colour drain from your husband to be's face as he realises the Bridezilla he has brought out in you and sticks a padlock on his wallet!

It's all fun and games, but where do you actually start??

Our advice....Fix a budget. This is key. If you are lucky enough to have parents who are able to help with costs, it's best to establish how much they are looking at putting your way. This means there are no crossed wires and will allow you to have a good idea of what you can afford.

Budget decided then, is it a church wedding or a civil ceremony?

Do you want a professional photographer?

Do you want a cake from a professional company or is dear Aunt Mabel making it for you?

Stationary, do you do it yourself or are you ordering it from a professional company? (If you are lucky enough to be crafty it can save you some money but me, well I'd glue my foot to my head!)

Venue....big, small, traditional, contemporary, castle, marquee, barn or a hotel?? Bare in mind that sometimes booking at certain venues can bring the additional work of planning all the extras such as caterers, tables, crockery, linen, glassware, drinks supplier etc. Hotels and some other venues on the other hand can arrange all this for you and it should be included in the price. The easiest way to be sure however is ask these questions when viewing the places you are considering.

All of the above are key questions to ask, make a decision on and book before your date and preferred choice is snapped up by someone else.

Next then is to ask are you having a theme? Are you building your day around your favourite colours, flowers, a TV Show, countries you've visited, seaside towns, a hobby, cars, knots, the list of suggestions goes on. If you are I suggest you make the decision early and stick to it. Sometimes it's easy to get over excited, go over the top and end up with 3 different themes that don't quite gel, so pick out your favourites and then pick out the best. Less is more remember!

Guest list....Are you both on the same page? When your husband to be suggests a small wedding is he thinking 10 people when you think small is 30 or vice versa.

Children, another potentially tricky subject. Do you allow children or not. If not, are they band from the entire day or perhaps just the service and meal. Think of who on your list this will affect and bare in mind that this could ultimately end up with them not being able to come at all. You might consider arranging for a mobile crèche to attend so your nearest and dearest can be there on the day. You might choose to leave it to the individuals to arrange themselves, but it is something that can cause some issues and you need to be aware of them.

Food! Catering for any amount of people can be a challenge. You can't please everyone, but you can please most. Offering a vegetarian option is a must and asking for dietary requirements when guests RSVP is crucial to make sure there are no surprises on the day. If you are worried about picking a fixed menu, ask the caterers or venue if you can offer your guests a choice of two main courses and pre order in advance. This might help if you know you have an amount of fussy eaters as it means they can choose what they want. Just be organised if this is the road you take and on the place cards for the tables write the persons menu choice on the back or inside, this will avoid confusion as they never remember what they ordered and ultimately will help with service on the day.
You might depending on the caterers be able to offer a served buffet instead. This will create a more informal atmosphere and will mean there should be a good selection of food so guests can just help themselves to what they fancy. Whatever happens be sure that there will be lots of options where food is concerned so if you are unsure trust that your caterer will have had lots of experience and should be able to help you with your decisions.

Table plan....Now hoping there hasn't been a family feud since you got engaged, this is relatively easy to do too. Make sure you mix the families together, try not to sit any lone guests on a table where they don't know anyone and make sure there is a good ratio of quiet people to chatty people on the tables. As for the top table, tradition says it has to be long with parents, maid of honour and best man, but if your not traditional that doesn't matter, do it your way!

Music, now here's another one to be seriously considered. If you are having an evening reception and want to include some music and dancing, then find the right band or DJ for you. Venues will have their own recommendations, these are worth considering as they will work with them all the time. Ask to see any testimonials and meet with them, perhaps go down and watch them perform. A nice touch is to ask your guests what songs they might like the DJ to play, or indeed the band (if they are good enough)

There are plenty of extras you can consider having during your big day. Some examples are chocolate fountains, champagne fountains, ice sculptures, photo booths, casino tables, candy floss stands, pick'n'mix tables, video booths, wii entertainers, the list goes on. Things like this add some excitement to the day and evening but can be costly so again, keep on top of your budget.

There is still a lot more of course that needs to be considered, such as the drinks you serve, the transport, the flowers, favours, the weather, parking, accommodation etc. but if you manage to find a venue with a wedding coordinator, they will be able to help and guide you step by step through the process, and of course those wedding magazines will help!

Be organised with the planning, enjoy the build up and sparkle on the day! Just get to the Church on time!!

Monday 5 September 2011

The Birth of the Brownies....

Make sure you enjoy networking is the first major point to all this. If you don't enjoy walking up to a perfect stranger in a crowded room, towering over them (as I do being 6ft tall and 6ft 3” in heels) interrupting a conversation and simply saying “How do you do” I wouldn't suggest you try it....

If you don't mind all of that however, and you like the idea, then all you need is a little push in the right direction. In our case it was another organiser of a networking event that let us down one to many times that gave us the push.....

After the nightmare of dealing with a contact who wanted to set up their own meeting, but then cancelling last minute and letting lots of people down, Christine Cooper and I decided to go it alone.

One day whilst doing a walk around of the businesses on the industrial estates around Canterbury letting everyone know how wonderful the Best Western Abbots Barton Hotel (http://www.abbotsbartonhotel.com/
) is Christine was telling me about a few things she used to do when in the Brownies. I was amazed, and also a little jealous as I was never allowed to be a Brownie due to my height. Apparently even producing your birth certificate back in those days to prove I was of the correct age wasn’t enough, my mum learned this as she was swiftly informed by the Brown Owl that “Your daughter is far to tall, and wont fit in, she will have to wait and join the Girl Guides.” Please don't feel too bad about it though, it only took me 28 years to get over ;)
I did however explain this to Christine who did feel sorry for me, and we jokingly mentioned our networking breakfast should be called, The Brownies, but that was as far as it went....

Finally by the end of our epic walk of Canterbury we had decided we would launch our own meeting. The facts were:

It would take place at the end of every month.
It would only cost £8 per person on a pay as you go basis.
It would be open to everyone.
It would be a healthy continental breakfast.
It would be interesting and relevant to everyone who attends.
It would have a great speaker at every meeting.
It will be made up of what the businesses attending want and we can adapt and change freely as and when needed.

As we arrived back at the hotel and made ourselves a cup of tea to get over the exercise we walked past the hotels chef, who politely asked if we would like to try a cake he had just taken out of the oven. Never people to turn down such an offer you can imagine the look that Christine & I gave each other when he produced us each with a delicious Chocolate Brownie! Well that was it, the networking group was born....Now to launch it!

June, June would be the month we took our first steps into the exciting world of hosting our own Breakfast Networking Group. We spread the word, we booked a great speaker, we got the attendees and it happened! The first meeting was a success, and everyone enjoyed themselves.

Our format is to start at 7am, chat and have a cup of tea until 7.25am. Everyone sits down then and tucks into their breakfast, a lovely continental and of course those now famous Chocolate Brownies. Everyone gets a chance to stand up and introduce themselves and their business, which is followed by a break and another chance to chat to those in the room and hopefully do some business! Around 8.15am we then settle down to a 20 minute talk from our speaker, they cover all topics and encourage debates, which are then followed by questions and the close of the meeting. Needless to say many stay behind after the meeting to continue networking!

We are now over a year on the meeting is still running, and has a wide range of people attending. We have fun and we do some serious business. We help each other out and discuss issues and ideas.

Due to the success of the meetings we have launched in Folkestone and in Eastbourne, and these too are going well.

If you want to try networking, or have never been to such an event and would like to dip your toe in to test the water, feel free to come along. There is no annual fee, and you can come and go as you please and as your working schedule allows.

The next Canterbury meetings will be taking place on:

Wednesday 28th September 2011
Thursday 27th October 2011
Wednesday 30th November 2011

All at 7am and with great speakers booked for all! We hope we might see you at one in the future!

For more information email social@castlewoodhotels.com

Monday 22 August 2011

Buy a wedding...on Ebay??

We are now going to share with you the challenge we set ourselves that came about all because of the Royal Engagement....

As we are a busy hotel, people tend to book rooms, conferences and weddings quite a way in advance, and on the 28th & 29th April 2011 we had a large conference booked in....until the Royal
Household announced that Prince William and Catherine Middleton were to be married on the 29th April 2011 and this would be a public holiday! Unsuprisingly the phone rang and the conference got pushed back to a later date so the companies staff could make the most of it and we were left with an empty function room and some empty bedrooms. Not wanting to have an empty hotel and being far enough away to think up a plan, we decided to take a chance and auction our own Royal Wedding Reception on Ebay. We got a package together, all singing all dancing with arrival drinks, a three course dinner and wine for 50 people, a drink to toast during the speaches, an evening buffet and disco and accommodation for the bride and groom for the evening. The auction would run from Friday to Sunday and the lucky bidders would get to have their wedding on the same day as Great Britains modern royal couple.

We opened the auction four weeks before the date and by the 4th day we had 27 people watching the item, with couples ringing in asking questions and popping in to have a look around and get a feel for the venue and the fantastic day that could soon be theirs.
As the auction came to a close, the bidding started and the wedding (worth over £4000) went for the bargain price of £1999.
We were over the moon, the wedding had sold, the idea had worked and a wonderful couple, Selina & Tim had just booked themselves a wedding! When we asked them, what had made them bid on the wedding, we discovered they had met online themselves several years ago. They had discussed marriage but nothing had ever really materialised and so when they heard about the auction via the local papers it seemed to make sense. “A new kitchen or get married....??” asked Tim. “Lets get married!” said Selina, and the rest as they say, is history.

After a few meetings and adding the personnal touches that the happy couple required to make the day their own we were ready to go.

The day itself was a beautiful dry day, the bride looked stunning and the groom had a grin like the cat who got the cream. The venue sparkled and the party went on into the small hours of the morning.

Safe to say a lovely day was had by all and just goes to show, sometimes you really can grab a 5 star bargain on Ebay, so keep your eyes open, you neve know what you might find!

Monday 8 August 2011

The war of the Rosettes

Now its no surprise that everyone, when given the chance loves to go out to dinner, whether it be to your local Indian restaurant or to a top rated restaurant like the Fat Duck owned by Heston Blumenthal. It does of course depend on what kind of occasion, how much you can afford and what you like to eat when you do venture out. If you like to splash out occasionally, restaurants with rosettes tend to be the ones people head towards, but do you really understand how they work, how they are awarded and how much work the restaurants have to put in to gain them?

The rosette system has been established for a long time and recognises successful cooking at different levels across the UK. When an inspector visits the hotel or restaurant it is their chance to get a snap shot whereby the entire meal, including ancillary items (when served) is assessed. Around 10% of restaurants nationwide are of a standard worthy of one rosette and above. This is indeed a massive achievement, and something not to be underestimated.

Restaurants with one or two rosettes gain these through achieving standards that stand out in their local area. Good quality ingredients are selected, food is prepared with care, understanding and great precision should be apparent in the cooking process.

Restaurants with three and four rosettes are gained when all of the above is finely tuned, seasoning and the judgement of flavour combinations will be consistently excellent. They also combine appreciation of culinary traditions with a passionate desire to explore and improve. These virtues are then supported by intuitive service and a well chosen wine list.

A five star rating is extremely rare, and is the pinnacle, where cooking compares with the best in the world. These restaurants have set standards which others aspire to, yet very few achieve.

So now you understand how they work, all that's left is to try a few when the occasion arises!

If you aren't too worried about the awards though, there are still so many restaurants out there waiting to be discovered. A lot of them can be found hidden in hotels and down side streets. Don't ever be afraid to book a table and give them a go. You will be surprised and perhaps even delighted at what you find!

Monday 25 July 2011

Canterbury and the Abbots Barton....

Durovermum Cantiacorum gained its English name Canterbury, itself derived from the Old English Cantwareburh after it became the chief Jutish settlement in the 1st century AD.
After The Kingdom of Kent's conversion to Christianity in 597, St Augustine founded an episcopa and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. A position that now heads the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion. Thomas Beckets murder at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 led to the cathedral becoming a place of pilgrimage for Christians worldwide. It is this pilgrimage that provided the theme for Geoffery Chaucer’s 14th Century literary classic The Canterbury Tales. The literary heritage continued with the birth of the playwright Christopher Marlowe in the city in the 16th Century.

The Black Death hit Canterbury in 1348. At 10,000 Canterbury had the 10th largest population in England. By the early 16th Century the population had fallen to 3,000.

During the dissolution of the monasteries, the city’s priory, nunnery and three friaries were closed. St Augustine’s Abbey was surrendered to the Crown and its church and cloister were levelled. Thomas Beckets shrine in the Cathedral was demolished and all the gold, silver and jewels were removed to the Tower of London, and Beckets images, name and feasts were obliterated throughout the kingdom, ending the pilgrimages.

Bringing you more up to date, during the Second World War, 10,445 bombs were dropped during 135 separate raids destroying 731 homes and 296 other buildings in the city. The most devastating raid happened on the 1st June 1942 during the Baedecker Blitz.

The 1980's saw visits from Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth II, and the beginning of the annual Canterbury Festival.

Many historical structures remain in the city, including a city wall founded in Roman times and rebuilt in the 14th Century, the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and a Norman Castle, and perhaps the oldest school in England, the Kings School.
So where does the Abbots Barton fit into all of this history? Well, the original building was erected around the1830's as a private home on the site of the Barley Farm of St Augustine (previously known as Westfield House). It became a hotel in 1927 and has since expanded to its present size.

Acquired in 1998 by the Sangiuseppe family and closed in 2000 for complete refurbishment for almost two years the hotel re-opened to a high-end 3 star standard under the Best Western brand in 2002.
The hotel had been beautifully brought back to life, having taken care to keep the character of the building and its many original features.

The Cathedral Suite offers beautiful surroundings ideal for hosting any event or conference with views and access to the terrace and gardens.

The Westfield Bar and lounges offer a relaxing place to enjoy a coffee or a bite to eat with friends, or business colleagues with free wifi throughout and a snack menu offering locally and ethically sourced seasonal produce.

The Fountain Restaurant, a popular place to dine with residents and locals, also offers a menu reflecting the seasons that is modern British again using locally and ethically sourced produce where possible with a grill section with steaks from the award winning Butcher of Brogdale. It is the ideal setting for a romantic dinner for two or a get together with family, friends or business colleagues.
Why not have a look.....

The plans for the hotel aren’t done quite yet however! The near future holds an expansion to the hotel which includes more function space, a private function bar, spa and leisure facilities along with additional accommodation at a 4 star standard making this Canterbury’s premier city hotel.

The Abbots Barton is an amazing venue, with our team ready and willing to give you a warm welcome and make you feel at home, whatever your reason for visiting us. We are open to non-residents too so feel free to take a stroll up our driveway and come and say hello. We are confident you'll be pleased you did.