A family gathering at Knipe Tarn (which will later become Gilpin Lake House).
My Dad messing about on Knipe Tarn with cousins…
…still messing about!
My darling Chris relaxing with friends after work on the RMS Transvaal Castle.
A telegram to Chris from New York, hastily arranging our wedding so she could join me in the US.
Working at the New York Waldorf Astoria.
A day off at Jones Beach, Long Island. The ban on socks with sandals had not yet been invented!
Coverage in the renowned Hotel and Caterer of our opening the Beech Hill Hotel on Lake Windermere.
Lots of hard work, sunshine and stress in Cyprus and Jamaica – while Barney and Ben relax in the bath!
The Jamaica Daily Gleaner announcing the opening of the Pegasus for Forte.
It was a profound privilege to be involved in the catering at 10 Downing Street [first image] … I was particularly involved when Margaret Thatcher was PM, and I made it my business to be at Number Ten as often as I could be when Ring & Brymer was on duty. She was a charming “client” who showed personal interest in the arrangements, menus and staffing and knew all our senior people by name.
She approached me after one particularly busy cocktail party and said, ‘Mr Cunliffe. I am worried about the carpet. There have been a lot of people smoking this evening. I know it’s not my carpet,’ she smiled, ‘but I regard myself as the guardian of Number Ten while I am in office, which will I hope be for a very long time.’ She laughed. So she and I crawled around together on the carpet looking for cigarette burns and butts. When she found a stub, she handed it to me.
Quite right. Delegation!
Receiving the Freedom of the City of London – which gives me the right to drive sheep and cattle over London Bridge…
His Holiness Pope John Paul II arriving at Coventry. 300,000 people turned out for the first mass, but we had expected, and catered for, 700,000… Result? My fall from grace!
Coverage of Chris’s appointment as head of Bromley’s school meals service. I was a fan!
Gilpin Lodge as it was when we first bought it.
Gilpin’s first Head Chef and her boys.
Our first award at Gilpin: the AA Award for Best Newcomer in Northern England.
A serious planning meeting with Ben, Chris and Barney.
Accepted at last into Relais & Châteaux – attending the annual conference in Monaco.
The ‘Long sufferers’ day out at Cartmel Races – Richard, Gill, me, Claire, Chris, Janine, Tina, Paula, Suzi, Sarah.
Knipe Tarn is converted into Gilpin Lake House, reuniting with Gilpin Lodge to become Gilpin Hotel & Lake House.
One of five new Spa Lodges at Gilpin Hotel.
Gilpin Spice – another project finished, and granddaughter Xiá, second from right, in training.
We’ve come a long way… a present from David Attenborough’s Dynasties cameraman Lindsay Mccrae. After he and Becky married at the Lake House in 2016, they had this sign made and he took this photo for us whe filming emperor penguins in Antarctica.
If you can’t actually be at Gilpin Hotel in the Lake District, then being transported there is the next best thing.
Instead of a dry, official history, owner John Cunliffe’s memoir charts how idyllic memories of holidaying at Gilpin with his grandmother just after the war turned into a slightly eccentric passion, and finally a thriving business.
Many visitors have been called back to this enchanting spot, but none so powerfully as that small boy, who,
following a career in the hotel business spanning New York, Jamaica and the City of London, could eventually, with his wife Chris, buy back Gilpin and create something truly special.
Honest, funny and always clear-eyed about the sheer hard work that goes into this kind of obsession, and full of insights into the unique challenges of sustaining that rarest of spots – a great family-run hotel – Slightly Perfect does justice to Gilpin and a life in hospitality.
Literary Editor, British GQ
It’s 1987, and John and Chris Cunliffe’s first hotel, the Hole in the Wall in Bath, has turned into a disaster.
Fed up with corporate hospitality, John had left a successful career within the Forte empire, holding senior positions in hotels around the world, then in charge of catering and banquets for some of London’s most venerable institutions.
They had bought an established small hotel in a tourist hotspot popular with Americans – but it was plagued with problems. The Americans bombed Libya. Business plummeted. The roof leaked. Business people stopped doing lunch. Tourists preferred pizzas and burgers. There were staff problems. The accounts were a mess.
Then Chris sees a small ad in Caterer & Hotelkeeper. ‘John. Gilpin Lodge is for sale. We need to get out of this place. It’s been wrong since day one. Get up to Windermere today. Get the accounts. See the rooms. You’ve always wanted a hotel in the Lakes. They don’t grow on trees. You know the place. It’s in your blood. Just go and get us out of this mess.’
It’s a pivotal moment in Slightly Perfect, and within months Gilpin Lodge, the Lake District house once owned by his grandmother, where John had spent happy childhood summers, is theirs, and so begins a much-loved lifelong project.
This is a warm, entertaining and honest account of one marriage, one family, and one industry – spanning 50 years.
The story starts as Chris and John meet at hotel and catering management college in London. On graduation, John heads to New York’s Waldorf Astoria for his first job. Chris needs a Green Card to work in the USA, but the rules change. Their wedding is brought forward and she joins him. But their American tale is dramatically cut short.
Back to London and Chris joins Forte & Co’s head office dealing with recruitment for the international hotels division, while John works at Browns Hotel in Dover Street. A brief spell in the Lakes follows, and they start a family before returning to London where Chris continues to climb the Forte ladder. John joins her in the company as Catering Manager at City caterers Ring & Brymer. He then moves to the world-famous Café Royal.
The next stop is Cyprus in the run-up to the Turkish invasion, then yet another move to Jamaica, where John opens a new hotel, before another dramatic exit… Returning to London, John manages Grosvenor House Hotel’s apartments, a Mayfair home to wealthy widows, obscure colonial Royals and Middle Eastern playboys. He then returns to Ring & Brymer and we see a fascinating portrait of a world of Livery Company banquets, Guildhall dinners and Downing Street functions in the 70s and 80s. Chris meanwhile juggles motherhood with running catering services for the London Borough of Bromley, responsible for 120 schools and over 600 staff.
And so The Hole in the Wall leads to part two of Slightly Perfect: a story of a family business and a quest for perfection, as John and Chris turn a tired bed and breakfast into something altogether different.
With 80-hour weeks, no holidays or even a proper home, and Chris in the kitchen as head chef, the Cunliffes constantly find new ways to add more rooms, improve food, attract new custom, grapple with computers, and develop their ‘brand’. Readers gain a real insight into the business of hospitality and what drives success.
This is no Fawlty Towers memoir, but there are trials and tribulations, with ignorant banks, failed septic tanks, erratic builders, litigious staff, and a mystery fire. It’s also a family story. Eldest son Barney joins the business with his wife Zoë; they search for a new chef on TV and win accolades, and younger son Ben helps steer Gilpin’s stunning developments.
As John Cunliffe says: “Slightly Perfect is essentially a love story, but in a non-soppy sense. Love of the Lake District, of Gilpin and of the Lake House, of hotels as places to be enjoyed, of my own family and of an extended family of people who have helped to make Gilpin – and who still do.”
John as a small boy.
A little bit later!
Slightly Perfect: Recognised in the Lakeland Book of the Year 2020
Slightly Perfect won its category and second overall in the highly regarded literary awards. Slightly Perfect by John Cunliffe was the winner
of the People & Business category at the 2020 Lakeland Book of the Year awards, and went on to be one of two books in close contention for the overall Hunter Davies Lakeland Book of the Year prize.
The awards founder and judge, Hunter Davies, described Slightly Perfect as “very funny, enjoyable, honest and revealing”, adding that he and his fellow judges had had a hard time choosing between the two frontrunners for the overall competition winner. The winner of the overall award for 2020 was The Lake
District in 101 Maps and Infographics by David Felton, Evelyn Sinclair and Andrew Chapman, with Slightly Perfect coming a close second. There were 68 books entered for this year’s awards, which were whittled down to a shortlist of 18 finalists across six categories by judges Hunter Davies, Fiona Armstrong and Eric Robson. Because of Covid-19 restrictions and for the first time in its 36 years, the 2020 awards ceremony was held online.
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