Roosting at Fingals

PUBLISHED: 12:46 07 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:57 20 February 2013

The mural by Andras Kaldor was unveiled on Richard’s 50th birthday
Photo: Martyn Norsworthy

The mural by Andras Kaldor was unveiled on Richard’s 50th birthday Photo: Martyn Norsworthy

Eclectic and a little eccentric, the artefacts which adorn the rooms and grounds of this rambling hotel hideaway are both unconventional and inspired. <br/><br/>Words Harriet Mellor. Photos Martyn Norsworthy

Eclectic and a little eccentric, the artefacts which adorn the rooms and grounds of this rambling hotel hideaway are both unconventional and inspired.

Words Harriet Mellor. Photos Martyn Norsworthy

A huge number of people must have previously resided on the ancient plot that is Fingals Country House Hotel. Its a 17th-century Listed manor house with some medieval structural remnants that even merited a mention in the Domesday Book. But you can bet none of the previous occupants would have put their personality and stamp on the place as much as its present-day owner Richard Johnston. A hunch and an inch-square newspaper ad led the would-be proprietor from London up the windy lanes to an almost derelict clump of buildings near Dittisham in 1980.

I was looking for something to do within the countryside, and was on the way to Cornwall when I thought Id check out the place in the ad. My first reaction was no way, holy smoke, but the hotels up for sale in Cornwall were really dreary in style, and I didnt want to inherit a clientele. So I thought what not take on a total tip and do it in my own way and style.
Both Richards parents and bank were horrified at his choice of abode. However, he managed to move in some months and a new bank manager later, feeding 10 pence pieces into a meter.

At this point in life, Richard was most certainly not seeking a quiet retreat. He already had a thriving and fashionable restaurant in the Fulham Road named Fingals after his Dalmatian dog. Together the duo cruised around the capital in a custom-painted matching car a white Vauxhall Vectra 2000 with black spots.

Once habitable, Fingals Devon quickly morphed into a rural version of the London eatery, but instead of hailing a black cab home, revelling customers would dine around one massive table then collapse into a bedroom upstairs.

The atmosphere was great. It became the trendy place to go and a sort of Babbington of its day, full of advertising execs, trendy Fulham mates and people like Cameron Mackintosh. Because it was funky rather than desirable, it was quite decadent and extrovert.

As 2011 marks the beginning of Fingals fourth decade in business, it still exudes a similar ambience but less of the social excess. And even though the place is Richards baby much of the time, its co-run with his wife, Sheila.

The actual grounds and buildings with 12 bedrooms are organically added to and modernised retaining its complete sense of individuality whilst offering the sort of standards and trappings that come with a boutique hotel. But even those obligatory luxuries have their own Fingals twist. One wall of the Art Deco swimming pool is a mural painted by Andras Kaldor of Richard surrounded by a bevy of beauties, unveiled as a surprise on his 50th birthday, and the gym is decorated with two fabulous sculptured faces reminiscent of gang culture from Annie Bowies gallery in Totnes. Even the sauna, which sits on a wooden deck above a stream, has been designed and made by Richard with solar heating and recycling of the water.

Communal dining, when appropriate, is still a big feature in the wood-panelled adjoining dining rooms, which are covered in paintings, many of them oils. Richards father had a secret addiction to hoarding art.

My father used to go to all the auctions and then rush them upstairs into the loft of our big house in Scotland without my mother ever seeing them. There are seven of us siblings, so this is only a seventh of what he had!

The love of art is inherited, but Richards attitude to displaying it is the opposite of his fathers, as the quirky art, knick-knacks and artefacts are within every field of vision. Outside voluptuous Brigid McCrum sculptures recline in the grass with Nigel Watson heads, and birds and bodies are randomly perched on top of a roofs or propping up the entrance in place of pillars. Richard attributes the eclectic sourcing, which also continues everywhere inside, to an invented verb.

We call it scrudging, which is not a word in the dictionary. Its about finding things that have been deemed worthless in skips, on the beach etc, and giving them a second use.

The most romantic quarters (with much scrudging influence) is the self-contained Folly. Once a little mill house by the opening of the sluice gate, it is painted red, navy and green with a wiggly winding staircase between two floors and a weather vane on the top. The look and feel is Japanese pagoda meets Swedish beach hut. Downstairs theres a double bedroom with doors opening onto a platform over the stream where lovers can sit in an Indonesian seat shaped like a boat and watch for kingfishers or even fish. Upstairs is a tiny but light lounging area with a sofa, an old-fashioned record player, and a selection of vinyl retro-tunes.

In contrast, the newly converted Stream Room is open plan with a bath looking out onto the water. The colour scheme is a striking modern combination of monchrome and bleached wood. The art includes Poet Laureate Andrew Motion by Jilly Sutton and Sarah Gillespies sea print.
If Richard didnt run Fingals he may have been the archetypal eccentric inventor. The Trompe thermal masse wall with glass panels that traps the daytime heat then radiates and recycles it back in for evening warmth is another one of his creations.

Next to this is a courtyard with a dovecote full of contented plump birds who, Richard says, frequently multiply and refuse ever to leave their roost.

I tried to get rid of an abundance of them by selling them to locals but they all came back. It was like a boomerang selling scheme!
For those opting to stay en famille, there is a self-catering unit. Again one main room is open plan with Japanese silkscreen sliding wall/doors that separate into two bedrooms. Theres a kitchen area, a baby grand sits in one corner, and a rocking horse. Adjoining is the balcony suite with twin beds covered in damask bed throws and Anne Beattie hand-painted floral wallpaper.

Fingals has such a unique vibe it feels like the guests almost move in with Richard and Sheila and into their lives. The couple (and Sheilas children before they left home) have lived all over their land, but these days they retreat to an adjacent house next door or in summer to a converted summer house (which they name the dacha) with al fresco bathroom and their pygmy goats.

Fingals doesnt have the official accolades that many hotels strive to acquire but Richard says that is intentional.

I dont like to conform to anything. You either get it or you dont. I try and make it quite clear its very informal here and dinner might not come at exactly the right time, and there wont be stiff waitresses breathing down your neck.

Fingals has such a unique vibe it feels like the guests almost move in with Richard and Sheila

Even better for their credibility is being named as one of Alistair Sawdays favourites, and frequented by the likes of a former Poet Laureate, Man-Booker prize winning novelists, many thespians and comics (including Vic Reeves who declared the hotel Bonkers), and the Commander of the British Forces in the Balkans who escaped battle for a secret tryst at Fingals with his wife. Saying that, the clientele is just as likely to include exuberant kids or romantic couples. The one thing the eclectic visitors all have in common is a personality and a need to escape.

Latest from the Devon Life