Anyone with a view to getting away from the city to somewhere a little out of the ordinary should consider a weekend at The Spread Eagle in Thame. This historic coaching inn lies ten miles off The Ridgeway, an ancient British route which runs for over 100 miles across Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire.
The eighteenth-century Spread Eagle sits in the middle of Thame, just 13 miles east of Oxford. For hundreds of years this imposing redbrick inn was known simply as The Eagle. In the early nineteenth century it gained a certain notoriety from housing captured Napoleonic officers in its cellars. (French other rankers were housed in the less salubrious Birdcage pub opposite). Then in 1922 the somewhat eccentric John Fothergill (1876 – 1957) took over The Eagle and renamed it The Spread Eagle. “At the ripe old age of 46,” he wrote. “I found that I must do something for a living, so I was counselled to take an inn.”
Fothergill was a minor Bloomsbury character, formerly a very handsome chap, drawn as a youth by the libidinous Augustus John in 1906 and a favourite of Oscar Wilde. After studying at Oxford he helped run a London art gallery that sold Walter Sickert's paintings. Then, after a lifetime of doing very little but being adored, he took over the landlordship of the Eagle Inn in 1922, claiming that Dora Carrington had painted the new pub sign for him.
How much of what followed is true in difficult to determine as Fothergill's memoirs, Confessions of an Innkeeper, are flavoured by his growing sense of indignation and frustration. His aim to create a fine-dining hotel in the country was ahead of its time and pretty much involved the eviction of farmers who frequented the old Eagle. In their place Fothergill wanted the Mayfair set who arrived but not in sufficient numbers to keep him solvent.
Nothing in John Fothergill's background had led him to become an innkeeper. For this reason of this he had very little idea how to be a host and could be “perfectly beastly” to people he felt weren't right for his establishment. Most infamously he was known to add an unspecified charge of a few pounds to a bill. If any of his guests queried it, they would be gruffly told that it was “Face Money.”
Face Money was invented one day when Fothergill was shaving to provided afternoon tea for 39 unattractive people. In his memoirs, he wrote, “I noticed they were almost all ill-shaped, ugly or ill-dressed. I came into the office and complained at having to work for such people at 1s. 2d. a head. Charles Neilson said, “That's easy – put up a notice, ‘Buy our masks at 1s. each or pay 6d. extra.' So I went in and told Phyllis to charge 6d. face-money each for the worst cases. Thus for the first time in history, seven people without knowing have left an inn having paid 6d. each for not being beautiful. Surely this was a more praiseworthy action than the usual one of charging people extra because theyare beautiful, well bred and dressed?”
The Spread Eagle barely turned a profit because of Fothergill's habit of alienating those who could pay but who were not to his liking. He did however turn Thame into a destination for fashionable Bohemian Londoners in the interwar years.
Evelyn Waugh mentioned the hotel in Brideshead Revisited and gave Fothergill a copy of his novel, Decline and Fall dedicated to “John Fothergill, Oxford's only civilizing influence.”
Fothergill was a visionary with Raymond Blanc's level of ambition - Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, is only nine miles away – but that flair was allied to Basil Fawlty's hostility towards “riff-raff”. After ten bitter years in Thame he gave up. The last straw – according to stories told by the staff today – was that in the 1930s a splendid lady – of the kind Fothergill courted - arrived with her chauffeur in tow. Both were served with the same meal but whereas Her Ladyship enjoyed it, the servant complained that he did not. At this point John Fothergill decided he had had enough.
Today some silver painted furniture, a bar decorated with oversized library style bookends and a lot of wood panelling are all that remain of Fothergill's vision.
There are however interesting elements of the hotel in its pre-Fothergill days. The breakfast room is said to have been an old cockpit, which explains the large window in the roof through which gamblers could watch the fighting birds on which they had bet. And there is of course a ghost, though thankfully not Fothergill's. He would give the wrong sort of guest a very bad time.
Go for lunch after you've read Confessions of An Innkeeper or if you're staying ask for one of the rooms at the front overlooking Cornmarket and the Birdcage Inn. It'll be a memorable experience.