How did I get into running Rutland House B&B? It’s a question I am often asked by guests.
It’s a long story that started when I was 20 years old living in London and utterly useless.
I had left my very expensive private boarding school where, after nine years, I learned absolutely nothing. I left school without even attempting matric. I spent three months living with a Swiss French family in Chateau D’Oex (a ski resort famous for its finishing schools one of which Princess Diana attended). I had done four years of French at school. When I arrived I didn’t understood a word anyone said and no one understood me. After one month of silence, the second month of tentative talk, the third month of making up for two months of not talking I left, thinking, dreaming and speaking French without hesitation and completely hooked on skiing.
I went to St Goderick’s Language and Secretarial College in Hampstead, London for a year and left not being able to do a word of shorthand, hating it, and typing hesitantly. So basically I was unemployable. However all was not wasted as I made a lot of friends some of whom were going on to do a Cordon Bleau Cooking Course to kill time before they were presented at court as Debutants in Society. I asked my father if I could also do the cooking course. His answer was “Your education is over – get a job” I was eighteen and a half. And in South Africa young “white girls” did not cook for a living. We had always been chased out of the farm kitchen by Ben the chef brandishing a sharp knife at us if we got underfoot.
I spent one year in Durban working as a receptionist and saving every cent to buy my ticket back to London. Once I had the air fare I was back on the plane to London. For my Christmas and birthday presents my father had said he would double what I had managed to save so that I had some money to live on until I found a job. I did temporary secretarial work which I loathed, since I had no clue what was going on. My best friend Doreen and a boy whom I had met when at college were both in the Cotswolds. David was at Cirencester Agriculture College (*this is a story in itself for later) and Doreen was working in a hotel in Stow on the World. They both persuaded me to leave London and get a summer job somewhere nearby. David drove me around from Inns to Pubs, to various restaurants. It was the same answer everywhere. “Sorry you are South African we cannot employ you”. It was 1972 and I had no work permit and South Africans were not popular. Eventually we found an advertisement in the Lady Magazine for a job at the Golden Ball Inn in Burford. David took me for the interview. When Mr Wittington, a crusty old gentleman, asked what I could do – I said “Nothing”. “Well I like your honesty” he said rather taken aback. “Are you willing to learn”? “I am desperate to learn” I replied, which I was. I was sick of being useless.
In six months I learned more than at all my previous expensive education establishments.
I learned how to make beds, clean out fire grates, clean bathrooms…pull pints, mix drinks, cook pub foods which was mostly deep fat frying, plant out flower boxes, deal with drunks, including my boss’s wife who started to dip into the gin at 10.30am and steadily made her way through the bottle till she was weaving around at 11pm. I also learned how to cook breakfast for 10 people from a tiny gallery kitchen. My biggest challenge was the change at the Pub till. It was still pounds, shillings and pence so I used to ask the patrons to work out the change as it was beyond me.
Now I was ready for anything. When the six summer months were finished I went to stay with family friends in Sussex for a weekend. They asked what I was going to do next and I said that I wasn’t ready to go home to South Africa and would really like to carry on working anywhere in England. It just happened that a relation of theirs had just opened a new Wine Bar. They phoned Sam there and then and I was offered the job, without interview, in their very new Wine Bar in an underground basement in Baker Street. Wine Bars were the new and the “in” thing. My bosses were two “Old Etonians” who loved wine and thought it a jolly good idea to open a wine bar. We had no waiting staff so I called on my cousin Liz Priday who was studying opera singing at The Royal College of Music at the top of Baker Street. I used to phone Liz and tell her how many waiters we needed for the lunch hour and she would gather up her friends and bring them down the road during their lunch hour to wait at our tables. The problem was, there was an old beat up piano in the restaurant and the patrons soon cottoned on that the waiting staff were all talented and budding performers who used to give the most amazing performances singing and dancing between the tables to the piano music. The patrons didn’t want to music to stop so they would come into the kitchen to fetch their own food. It was chaos…
When I started at Winepress Winebar I hadn’t a clue on how to make a white sauce (having done domestic science at school for 4 years…and failed) or how to make a quiche or any of the other typical “wine bar” food. In the pub we had done a lot of deep frying and opening of tins. Luckily I was the second cook and the girl I worked with was a good cook. She must have thought I was crazy. At first I kept asking her how she made her white sauce, quiche etc as I wanted to do it her way.
I didn’t let on that I hadn’t a clue how to cook in anyway. After 18 months I had learned a whole new repertoire of cooking, made friends and had great fun. I had to keep leaving England every 6 months to renew my “visitors” permit in my passport. However I never left it for 6 months as it would have looked suspicious so I too opportunities when they came my way. I also became quite ill as I left my flat in South Kensington in the dark, caught the underground to Baker Street, walked in the dark to the underground restaurant and repeated the journey in the dark at
4 o’klock in the afternoon. For a South African not to see the sun for 5 days each week was too much. I needed sun and to renew my passport. My other boss Alex’s parent needed a cook on their yacht which sailed off Majorca. I leaped at the chance to escape to sun and sea for 10 weeks, cooking from a minute galley and shopping in wonderful colourful markets. Sir Charles and Lady Taylor were a strange couple. She was cool and distant but turned out to be the nicer of the two. He was a pompas old snob who loftily said to me one day ” Oooh I was at Cambridge before the war with a South African you may have heard of him but you wouldn’t know him” when he mentioned the mans name I said “yes I do know him, my father played polo with him and his younger brother was at Cambridge with my father and my father introduced him to his wife” I nearly said so there!!!! On another occasion he complained about the freshness of his daily boiled egg.
He was the only one who had an egg each day. I told him that particular day the egg was 4 days old and he shouted he wanted a fresh egg every day. So I went to the market and bought 6 fresh eggs. Next morning I boiled his 1 egg and stood in front of him and casually started throwing 1 egg at a time overboard. He had a fit, said he was not made of money and what did I think I was doing. I explained that one can’t buy 1 egg at a time so I cook 1 and chuck the rest. He shut up a bit after that. I was very ready to go back to the lovely people in London and summer was on its way. Four months back at Winepress and I was ready for my next adventure and next passport visitors permit renewal.
I hitch hiked around Europe with my old school friend Barbie, starting in Oslo and ending in Geneva via Create (during which time the Greek / Cypriot war broke out). My parents were horrified, but only learned about the hitch hiking once we had got back safely to London. There are many stories to that trip. **
I returned to Durban for 3 years, worked and saved and decided I needed a change of scenery. On my way to live in Johannesburg I went to Austria with friends to ski for two weeks and then to London for two weeks to see friends and cousins.
On my first night in London there was a group of friends all going to listen to Liz Priday sing her first solo with the Monteverdi Choir. There was an after party where I met up with old friends one of whom had a friend who had just started up a small catering company called Duff and Trotter. Next day I went for an interview, we sat around on various pieces of kitchen tables, chairs and on the deep freeze with glasses of white wine. I got the job and started the next day on my condition that I needed to leave from time to time to renew my visitors permit – again – and if anything cropped up that I just had to do I could take off and come back. Examples being going to Wimbledon as a players guest and going deer stalking in Scotland and being on the “right side of the servants divide for a change”
The all girl company comprised two ex merchant bankers, a harpist, and the two cooks, myself and Heather a crazy Welsh girl. We had such fun. Once we took an order for a gala dinner at St James’ palace which had us making fruit salad in a bath. We lost the bath plug during this session and I still wonder who found the bath plug in their fruit salad at the Palace!! We cooked many corporate lunches for banks and stock brokers in the city where I had to deliver the meals. There were only two of us who had our drivers licence so I did the deliveries. I was used to Durban where you have the sea in front, the Berea behind you and north and south. In London there are no landmarks, especially in the city area. I could always get to the companies as I had been given very good directions, but never directions to get back, so I would take three times as long to find my way home. They decided that my navigation skills were costing them too much in time and petrol so the girls decided to employ out of work actors to do the deliveries. One of the young actors was a charming, delightful, good looking young man called Hugh Grant. He had just finished his first film and he asked Heather and I to go and see it.. The next morning Heather flung her arms around Hugh and said “Hughie darling, I am sure you will be famous someday”….
One thing I always wanted to do since I had left school was work in a ski resort. I went to some dodgy interviews (one where I had to wear a very short mini skirt) and I was about to give up hope when another cousin’s friend, who took me out from time to time, asked what I was going to do next. I told him about my dream and he said that he and two friends had just bought three apartments in Verbier, Switzerland and were looking for 2 chalet girls to run the apartments for them. I was in luck. For 2 years I worked my winters in Switzerland and my summers in London back at Duff and Trotter. I am not sure work is the right description for my Swiss job. I planned my life around getting the maximum amount of skiing. I cleaned, shopped and cooked like crazy on Saturdays and Sundays and skied every day from 9am till 4pm during the week. During the second season I offered my services as an illegal ski instructor. I told my guests that ski school was X amount of money and they would be in a group of about fourteen people or they could have me all to themselves for less. They always chose the latter. If the people weren’t very good I would teach them skiing, or if they were good skiers I would act as a guide if they wanted to know the best runs to do. This is when I had the most fun. One memorable week 6 men came to my chalet. They were all good skiers so I skied every inch with them, they took me out to dinner so I didn’t “waste time cooking for them”. Unfortunately they also played ‘dead ants’. A King Ant would be appointed each day and at any time they could shout “Dead Ants” and we would have to lie on our backs waving our arms and legs in the air – skis and all. Last one down had to buy the drinks. I never bought the drinks, I made sure of that. Many more skiing stories ***
I made enough money out of my illegal teaching and guiding to fly to America and back. I wanted to do the rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon again. I had done this amazingly beautiful and terrifying trip the previous year. I had made friends with the boatman who was a skier in Park City during the winters. He had invited me back to be a “swamper” (helper) for a trip the following spring when the ski season finished. I leaped at the chance to get a free trip in return for helping with some cooking duties on the boats. In fact I was more use as a translator for two French girls who spoke very little English.
Three years after leaving Durban for Johannesburg I arrived back in South Africa, in Johannesburg. I was unemployable again. I got a few jobs as executive chef at various large companies and then decided to start my own catering company. I had very little money and was renting a cottage. I worked out of the back of a takeaway with working space the size of a wooden chopping board. Through a contact I landed the catering for a very large accounting firm. I needed a home for my business.
I had just met my ‘now’ ex husband who persuaded the bank to give me a 90% loan and the sellers of this property to give me a 10% loan. With R10,000.00 in the bank, made up from meagre savings and money given to me by my very generous English godfather to pay for a return business class plane ticket to visit them in the Isle of Man. I never bought the ticket, instead I used the ticket money to pay for the transfer duties for the property. I converted the large woodworking room and double garage into my catering kitchen. The food flew around this kitchen for five years. I employed Alison an Irish chef and Mabel to clean, chop and do the basics. I did the buying, cooking, delivering to the various companies, orders, invoicing, and everything else that it takes to run a business. By the time I fell pregnant with my daughter I had had enough of catering and physically couldn’t carry on. I let out the premises to a few caterers but after two years of most of them going broke and not paying the rent I was looking for an alternative way of using the space.
Twenty two years ago Bed & Breakfasts in South Africa were almost unheard of, however Fay, a new friend, had just started one and she said it was a wonderful way to earn a living. With much encouragement and advice from her I started Rutland House. We had two “rooms”, a very small bedroom with en-suite bathroom and a large 2 bedroom cottage. This was not an easy combination to work with. We had two houses in Parkhurst, the next door suburb which, much against my will, I was persuaded to use as part of Rutland House B&B. During this time – about 18 months – the old catering kitchen was standing empty and half renovated. No amount of persuading my husband to finish them worked so they sat empty.
It is very difficult to run a B&B and not to live on the property. Guests need attention and help at any time of day or evening. After a few complaints we let the cottages as furnished accommodation. I was desperate to finish the conversion of the old catering kitchen into two bedrooms. Finally after much anguish the rooms were finished. Business was not easy to get in the early days. The internet was not around and advertising had to be taken in very expensive booklets. We struggled to get the guests but once a guest had stayed at Rutland House B&B they were hooked forever and swore never to go back to hotels if they could help it. Once my husband had moved out altogether I converted his “office” into another bedroom.
One morning, many years later, whilst serving a guest breakfast, I was moaning about my front veranda being tatty and needing a revamp. “Well” the guest said with a sweep of her hand “Why don’t you make this breakfast room into another bedroom and build a really big enclosed veranda and make that into your new breakfast room overlooking the swimming pool”. Nine months later the new breakfast room, and delightful one bedroom Butterfly Cottage were born. During the building process many of my regular guests come on “site inspections” and gave much needed support and advice. Business is booming and the very best thing is belonging to the Rosebank Region Accommodation Association. There are about twenty establishments in the same area who all work together to keep all our rooms filled. If a guest contacts us to make a booking and we are full we can look at our up to date availability list and, at a glance we can recommend another B&B in the area of the same standard. This saves the client time and many phone calls trying to find accommodation.
I had no conceivable career path for most of the years after leaving school, I did the most menial jobs to keep body and soul afloat, learning to cook on the various jobs and basically working to travel. I look back on my life and think that whatever one does it is never wasted. All my strange and wonderful jobs and the people I met and learned from and the places I travelled were the perfect training ground for running Rutland House B&B.