Thomas Kochs, the 41-year-old German general manager of Claridge’s, steps onto the black-and-white marble floor of the Davies penthouse and his mood visibly brightens. “I always feel incredibly positive in this room. It’s just immediate happiness.” He surveys the deep yellow walls, the antiques, the original fireplaces and Regency desk, and points to the two bedrooms, each with a four-poster bed “where you can look up at the drapes and feel you’re in heaven”.
And heaven in this particular part of Claridge’s costs an eye-watering £6,700 a night. Astonishingly, it’s occupied most of the year.
I’ve spent the last year in the hotel filming the 420 staff as they serve guests, many of whom are wealthy enough to consider Claridge’s as their second home. While the world outside the revolving doors is dominated by austerity, the hotel is a place where anything is possible. A Japanese pop star booked into the Brook penthouse (£6,900 a night) for a month. Four days before arriving she demanded a Jacuzzi. “It doesn’t have one,” says Thomas, “but it will.” The next day the bath was removed and the Jacuzzi installed.
This very British institution, in the heart of London’s Mayfair, has been welcoming visitors since 1856, when it opened its doors under the beady eye of Mrs Marianne Claridge, whose portrait hangs in the foyer. Home to several exiled monarchs during the Second World War, birthplace of Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia in 1945 (Winston Churchill ceded Suite 212 for the day and legend has it Yugoslav soil was placed under the bed), it has always attracted a wealthy and famous crowd. Spencer Tracy declared that, when he died, “I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to go to Claridge’s”.
Among the two miles of corridors and back stairs, I discovered many of the staff have worked at the hotel for years. Executive chef Martyn Nail has just celebrated his 25th year in the kitchens, while head doorman Roman Probodziak (left), who came to London as a child refugee from Poland, has doffed his top hat to guests for 36 years. Head concierge Martin Ballard didn’t even know what a hotel was when he first came to work here. “I thought I’d last five weeks, but it’s 30 years. It’s been fun saying yes to people.”
Butler Michael Lynch, always in tails, started his “life service” as a 16-year-old from a little village in Limerick in 1977 and has never worked anywhere else. His training was so thorough he didn’t see a guest for six weeks. To this day, he fully expects to unpack for a guest and polish their shoes. “I think it’s most important that what you do, you give 100 per cent.”
Some of the guests have been coming for decades. A former bookie, 85-year-old Gerry Parker has been arriving every day for breakfast for 40 years (though he never stays), and uses the hotel to post letters and receive faxes: “I’ve got the best office in London!” Jack and Norma Melchor from California have booked the Royal Suite twice a year since the 1960s. Some guests stay so often they have clothes and furniture in storage. Pepe Fanjul, a Cuban sugar magnate, has been booking into the hotel for over 60 years. On each visit, his favourite suite is re-stocked with his furniture, 25-odd suits, and nine hat boxes. When I asked him what he liked about the suite he smiled: “I know where everything is”.
You escape the sense of recession as soon as you step off the street. A £1 million chandelier by Dale Chihuly, like a Medusa’s head, hangs over exquisite urns of flowers. The fire is lit in the lobby at 6am, the clocks are hand wound and the lift is the last man-operated one in London. The Christmas puddings are made in August to a century-old secret recipe. There’s even an artist in residence, David Downton, whose job it is to paint illustrious guests. “You feel you’re walking straight into Narnia, but Claridge’s is also, very cleverly, about tradition,” says Downton. “You only have to ring the bell and two people come, but I daren’t get used to having a butler because I’ve got to go home eventually.”
One week we filmed the housekeeping staff as they prepared for the arrival of a foreign royal family who had booked the entire third floor for 16 days. Rooms were turned into kitchens, two suites cleared of furniture just for storing shopping bags, and one of the princesses requested a very soft bed with four duvets laid on the mattress.
The hotel has changed over the years. “We used to have someone employed to clean the silver, someone to clean the brass rails on the stairs and someone just to wind the clocks up, but things are a bit more fashionable now,” says Martin Ballard.
Apart from the two penthouses, rooms at the hotel cost from £250- £5,000 a night. The guests arrive in chauffeured cars, the staff on buses and tubes, and they see levels of wealth most of us only read about. When I asked Michael Lynch if he ever got jealous, he smiled gently. “Never, ever, ever. Why would I? No, I think more power to them. They’ve probably worked very hard for their money. My late mother said, ‘Be happy. Life is very short and we’re only passing through.’”
Thomas Kochs (above right) has been in charge of the hotel since January 2011. “Claridge’s isn’t just a hotel, in the sense of go to reception, get a key, go to your room, sleep and check out. People these days have everything and every year you can buy more and more. But what you can’t buy is memories. People are choosing hotels for how they want to celebrate life – weddings, bar mitzvahs, connecting, talking, living and enjoying. Memories and experiences… to be personally cared for. That’s why they come.”