A couple of years ago I stayed at the lovely Pen-y-Dyffryn hotel in Shropshire, a former rectory on the Welsh borders where the food is great and the views are fantastic. Like most country hotels these days, it prides itself on having “local produce” on its menu, with everything from Shropshire Blue Cheese and Carmarthen Ham through to carpaccio of Welsh beef fillet and haunch steak of Shropshire Venison (provided, I believe, by a local gamekeeper).
What was also notable about the Pen-y-Dyffryn, though, was that it in addition to locally-produced food, it also had locally-produced staff. Unlike the Travel Lodges and other chain hotels that I sometimes stay in, there was no Vitalis, Olgas or Pyotrs politely welcoming us at reception. Instead, Welsh and English accents abounded.
As we checked out, I got into conversation with the the owner Audrey Hunter, who happened to mention that as far as possible, they tried to employ local people – partly to keep the economy going, and partly because in a remote rural area, it meant people had less trouble getting to work.
All of which means that Pen-y-Dyffryn might also be a good place for the MP Chris Bryant to stay at, after he caused a controversy this week by complaining that too many hotel staff in Britain were foreigners.
Mr Bryant was actually just saying that it was a shame that Eastern Europeans were doing jobs that local people could be doing, lamenting that in his own unemployment-plagued south Wales constituency, hoteliers preferred to hire Latvians and Estonians over Welsh folk.
But judging from the rather hysterical over-reaction to his words, you’d have thought he’d made some off-colour joke about all Eastern European hotel staff being like Manuel, the inept Spanish waiter in Fawlty Towers. Sadly, the Conservatives have led the charge, with Nadhim Zahawi, a Tory MP, accusing Mr Bryant of using “xenophobic rhetoric” to distract from Labour’s role in creating an “open door” policy for migrants in the first place.
Quite why the two main political parties are choosing to bicker on this point, I do no know. Yet Mrs Hunter touches on an additional point, one that is quite aside from the immigration debate. Namely, that in an era when “locally-sourced” is such a buzzword in the hospitality trade, why shouldn’t this extend to the staff that greet you at reception or serve you your dinner? After all, we go on holiday to experience new cultures and surroundings, and that includes the people we meet as well as the food we eat.
“We do always prefer people who live close, partly just because it’s easier for them to get to work,” Mrs Hunter told me today, when I rang to ask her about the Bryant affair. “Only two weeks ago, for example, we had two feet of snow, so the nearer people live the better.
“But it also means that staff can talk to visitors about the area and recommend places to go, because they’ve been there themselves.”
Lest any employment lawyers be reading this, by the way, Pen-y-Dyffryn is well aware of its obligations as an equal opportunities employer. Mrs Hunter recently took on a Polish employee as well, and emphasises that when it comes to choosing between similarly qualified candidates, the question is more whether they can get to work easily, not which country they’re from. The hotel also employers several Welsh speakers, and on a point of fascinating historical fact, the Reverend Robert Williams, who lived in Pen-y-Dyffryn in the 1860s when it was a rectory, was a noted scholar of Celtic who wrote the first Cornish dictionary.
Okay, fair enough, I admit I nicked that last bit from the Wikipedia entry about Rhydycroesau, the village that Pen-y-Dyffryn is part of. But speaking personally, that just the kind of local titbit I like to be fed when checking into a hotel with the missus in that elusive search for an “authentic” country weekend. And much as I appreciate our polite, English-fluent Latvians and Estonians, it’s perhaps the sort of thing that someone from the area is more likely to know.