£1.8m restoration hotel recalls guests Thatcher and Fairbanks

Herald Series: Peter Borg-Neal, chief executive of new owners Oakman Inns, outside Abingdon’s Crown & Thistle Buy this photo Peter Borg-Neal, chief executive of new owners Oakman Inns, outside Abingdon’s Crown & Thistle

As a landmark Abingdon hotel undergoes a £1.8m restoration, Reg Little looks back at its illustrious past, and a very famous guest list

 

LOOKING at the Crown & Thistle Hotel today, it’s hard to imagine some of the famous people who have propped up its bar.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Hollywood legend Douglas Fairbanks Junior are just some of the Abingdon venue’s better known clientele.

The 17th century coaching inn is currently undergoing a £1.8m restoration to return it to its former glory.

Oakman Inns purchased the pub in Bridge Street last year for £1.6m and plans to reopen it in November.

Peter Borg-Neal, Oakman Inns chief executive, described the challenge of restoring the inn as “frightening” with the estimated cost having risen from an initial £1.3m.

He said: “This is the largest investment the group has made to date. The building is so old, with substantial alterations made down the years, that a lot of effort will be needed to do it the right way.

“It will be affordable, not exclusive. We are not looking to win a Michelin star but it will offer high-quality food.”

When it reopens it will provide 40 jobs, 20 rooms each with a unique design style, an 80-seat restaurant and a function room for up to 60 guests.

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Reputedly built in 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, it has evolved in piecemeal fashion over the past 400 years. The 18th-century innkeeper James Powell promoted it for auctions, banquets and other events.

The first mail coach arrived in Abingdon in 1794 and with the inn on the main road south from the town it prospered with the arrival of daily passenger services to London, its official description being ‘a family and commercial hotel and railway posting house’.

Expansion followed and the adjacent public house, The Old Fighting Cocks, was taken over in the 19th century.

In1887 Morland Brewery, which had relocated to Abingdon in the 1880s, took over the premises. It would become a Berni Inn soon after being acquired by Grand Met in 1973.

It was 25 years before this transformation that Britain’s only female Prime Minister paid a visit.

Baroness Thatcher – or Margaret Roberts as she was then – wrote an account of her visit to Abingdon during her time as a student at Somerville College, Oxford, which appears in the first volume of her authorised biography Not For Turning by Charles Moore.

The author provides an account of her night out with her then boyfriend Tony Bray, an army cadet attached to Brasenose College.

“We had a marvellous time,” she says in a letter to her sister Muriel.

“Tony hired a car and we drove out to Abingdon to the country Inn Crown and Thistle.

“I managed to borrow a glorious royal blue velvet coat which matched the blue frock perfectly.

“I felt absolutely on top of the world as we walked through the lounge at the Crown and Thistle and everyone looked up and stared.

“We went into the bar and had a gin and grapefruit and then to the dining room for dinner. We had some lovely, thick creamy soup followed by pidgeon (sic) and then a chocolate sweet. With it we had Moussec to drink. Moussec, in case you don’t know, is a sparkling champagne.”

Baroness Thatcher was certainly following in famous footsteps.

20th century Hollywood leading man Douglas Fairbanks Junior – star of many blockbusters including The Prisoner of Zenda and The Corsican Brothers – moored his boat on the Thames nearby in the 1930s.

His appreciation of the inn is detailed in a postcard sent to the landlord JB Pennefather from the Hollywood set of Gunga Din, co-starring Cary Grant.

“This is a far cry from Abingdon,” he wrote. “So I wish I were on the ‘Grateful’ now and could drop in for the night. Have you any new pin-tables?”

John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and social commentator, made the inn his home in the early 1870s, while writing his Fors Clavigera – his letters to the workmen of Great Britain.

Ruskin had his own room on the top floor where he set up his desk and had a kennel for his St Bernard, Camille.

From the inn he would regularly walk the seven-and-a-half miles to Oxford, when giving lectures and visiting the university. In his biography of Ruskin, Tim Hilton wrote: “Ruskin soon became so comfortable in the Crown and Thistle that he felt he had left London for ever.

“The Crown and Thistle was the sort of hermitage he liked...There was a variety of public rooms. The fireplaces were grand, staircases took odd directions and pictures of hunting scenes hung on wood panelling.”

It is these sort of appealing features that Oakman Inns hope to celebrate. Parts of the original building had been hidden behind plastic boards and new ceilings. But the original beams of the 17th-century stables have been uncovered and will be a prominent feature when the stables become a function room.

The inn retains a cobbled courtyard, with a wisteria growing by the stocks and cannon. It is believed to have been planted more than 200 years ago when the first coaches arrived.

Mr Borg-Neal said he was hugely impressed by the local passion for the long-awaited restoration.

He said: “A lot of people came forward with old photographs and to tell us about its history.

“We have been encouraged by the enthusiasm of people for the project.”

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