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Season of pot-washing and leftovers

by
22 December 2016

Paul Wilkinson talks to people working in the hospitality industry over Christmas

Family business: Adam Fox-Edwards in front of The Arundell Arms which his family has run since 1961

Family business: Adam Fox-Edwards in front of The Arundell Arms which his family has run since 1961

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. Luke 2.7

 

A MODERN-DAY Mary and Joseph arriving at Adam Fox-Edwards’s inn could well find themselves lodging in the stables. But not for them a space shared with livestock; today the stables at the Arundell Arms in Lifton, on the edge of Dartmoor, are eight en-suite bedrooms in a three-star hotel.

The atmosphere this Christmas is likely to be just as frenetic as it was at census-time in Bethlehem two millennia ago, with the hotel booked for a full complement of more than 100 diners sitting down to a six-course traditional lunch.

The Arundell Arms is a coaching inn that dates back more than 300 years. “In many ways it does the same job it has been doing for centuries,” Mr Fox-Edwards said, “welcoming travellers off the road to eat and drink, and providing somewhere to stay. They would put their horses in the stables, where they would be fed and watered ready for the next day. Today we do the same with a charging point for electric cars. I like to think life has gone full circle, refreshing your means of transport overnight — as well as the driver.”

A former fighter pilot, Mr Fox-Edwards, aged 54, took over the business in 2008 after the retirement of his mother, who had run the 27-bedroomed hotel since 1961. He said: “I remember childhood Christmases with my mum working here. It had a great atmosphere, which may surprise people who generally think working at Christmas must be awful. There was always a good buzz.”

 

ACCORDING to the TUC, more than 900,000 people worked on Christmas Day last year — an increase of five per cent over the three previous years. Apart from a huge number of essential utility personnel, and emergency and health workers, about 64,000 kitchen staff, from porters to chefs, and 37,000 waiting and bar staff were on duty in hotels, pubs, and restaurants. Significantly, 6000 fewer clerics than in 2012 — about 20,000 — were at work last year. Both sets of figures are perhaps indicative of the growing secularisation of the times.

The biggest proportion worked in the north-east — one in 28. This was followed by the East Midlands (one in 30), and the south-west (one in 31). More Londoners had the day off than anywhere else, with only one in 47 on duty during Christmas Day.

At the Arundell Arms, Mr Fox-Edwards will put in a ten-hour shift on Christmas Day, before returning to his home a mile away for a late supper. Boxing Day will follow a similar pattern. About 20 of his normal staff complement of 62 will also be on duty. “Mostly the younger ones will work Christmas Day, while the older staff are at home with children,” he said.

His sons Harry, aged 21, and George, 23, will be down for the holiday, and are insisting on washing pots in the hotel on Christmas Day and Boxing Day — something they have done for the past seven years, despite neither showing an interest in working full-time in the hotel trade.

”Ironically, two years ago, at my wife’s insistence, we didn’t work Christmas Day, and the boys rather missed it,” Mr Fox-Edwards said. “Sitting around all day, eating a huge meal, and playing board games didn’t compare to being in the hotel, welcoming visitors. We will try to get home for six, taking a portion of Christmas lunch home with us, and microwave it for dinner. It will be as good as the guests got, just a bit later.

”Working at Christmas goes with the business. If you work in hospitality, you know that you will have to work bank holidays and high days, Saturdays and Sundays. By its very nature, the hours tend to be anti-social.”

The run-up to Christmas is always hectic, with a number of office dinners, but the hotel workers must wait until January for their own staff party, when paradoxically, the Arundell Arms is still busy hosting celebrations for other businesses that, like the hotel, are too busy to stop before the holiday.

Mr Fox-Edwards sees his hotel and the parish church of St Mary’s as the focus of the village community. “I describe myself as soft Chris­tian,” he said. “I don’t always go to church, but I try and get to the carol service and the midnight service. I was married there, my children were christened, and my mum’s funeral was held there, and my father is buried in the churchyard.”

 

ALMOST 300 miles to the north, at the Mosborough Hall Hotel on the outskirts of Sheffield, in south Yorkshire, Helen Shepherd will follow a similar routine.

Mrs Shepherd, aged 33, is sales and mar­keting director for the hotel. She believes that Christmas is one of the best times of the year to be working. “I have been in hotels since I was 14,” she said. “The last Christmas Day I had off was when I was 13.” In that time she has worked in most jobs in the industry, starting as a waitress in a hotel in her native Derbyshire, and taking in housekeeping, receptionist, pot-washing, and even a spell as night porter. Her husband, Steve, whom she married last year, is a chef at another Sheffield hotel. The 46-bedroomed Mosborough Hall will cater for 230 Christmas-lunch covers this holiday.

“The hotel trade is all I know,” she said, “and it’s lovely. In this trade you work such long hours. The weekends and all the special days of the year are the busiest; so you end up spending those most special days of the year with the people you work with. Your work colleagues become your family.

“Because of that, although I am allowed Christmas Day off, I just wouldn’t. You’d just feel bad that they were working when you were not. You spend so much time with them that you want to see them on Christmas Day. We really enjoy coming in — even though I will probably spend this Christmas pot-washing at another of the hotels in the group.

“We always tell new staff at their interview that the job involves working Christmas and New Year, but we do try to give them the option, and have one or the other day off — though it doesn’t always work,” Mrs Sheherd admitted.

She recalled one woman employee who would attend church, and then report for work afterwards. “The hotel tries to accommodate staff who go to church. Obviously it’s a 24-hour business, but it works OK on Christmas Day as they don’t need to start until later than normal, so there is time to go church first if they wish.” There is a close link with Mosborough Parish Church, St Mark’s, which holds a carol service for guests in the hotel; the hotel supplies free mince pies and mulled wine.

“There is a fantastic atmosphere working over the holiday,” Mrs Shepherd said. “On Christmas Eve we all wear Christmas jumpers. It’s a lot happier than usual, and I have no regrets seeing other people going off to parties or to visit relatives.”

Mrs Shepherd and her husband expect to finish their Christmas Day duties at about 4 p.m. before setting off for a round of visits to their respective families, including picking up their helpings of the Christmas lunch her parents enjoyed earlier, to be microwaved when they get back home at around 10 p.m. to open their own presents to each other.

They make up for working the holiday by arranging a party for their friends one weekend in January. “We host a day at our house for our friends on the Sunday, which is our own Christmas Day,” she said. “We try to do it while the decorations are still up.”

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