Two decades ago, Nick Jones opened his first hotel in the Somerset countryside. As the loyal team celebrate, we take a few of them aside to hear their stories
Guiseppe “Pino” Bartolotta, waiter (20 years)
“On my first day at Babington House, I couldn’t find it – I asked a farmer in a tractor. My wife and I had just sold our restaurant in Bath and she’d called to see if there were any jobs. They said, ‘Can you start today or tomorrow?’. We had some things to do that day so we started the next day – December 16, 1998.
“I started as a waiter; for a while I was greeting and seating in the dining room, and now I’m in the bar. I’ve made the odd mistake – once when we had a new system a guest ordered lobster and I pressed the wrong button and accidentally ordered 12. Luckily, the chef called to say, ‘Are you sure?’. They were all laughing at me.
“Things have evolved over the years – the main restaurant used to be in what is now the log room, and the kitchen used to be downstairs. We’ve had some wonderful chefs and GMs. But it’s the same familiar place and I enjoy it. I know a lot of guests and they will ask for me. ‘Where is the Italian?’”
Becky Kingston-Wood, events & reservations manager (8 years)
“We do about 40 weddings a year at Babington House, closing to members on a Thursday afternoon. I first joined as a receptionist but I always loved weddings and would help out where I could, setting up tables or bringing chairs in.
“One of the best I’ve seen was in the summer. The bride was a wedding planner and had really gone to town. We had a martini trolley, cigars, hanging meadow arches over the tables.
“Touch wood, we haven’t had any disasters – though there was an incident where a couple used a dog as the ringbearer and the best man let it off the lead. It went running off around the grounds and we had a job to catch it. I still don’t think the bride knows.”
Adrian Oniszczuk, maintenance assistant (10 years)
“I started in 2008 as a kitchen porter and then spent three or four years in the garden. Now I’m in maintenance and every day is different. There are six of us in the team and we do everything from changing light bulbs to maintaining the swimming pools. Then there are the unexpected things; the roof used to leak in heavy rain, and once a chef pulled a water pipe off the wall. Most importantly, I met my wife here. She was a housekeeper and we met on my very first day. We’ve been married five years and we have two children.”
Karen Plunkett-Jones, Cowshed manager (15 years)
“We’re very proud here to be the original Cowshed. I’ve been manager here for 10 years but before that I was the housekeeping manager for five and a half years and I remember the early Cowshed products (just shampoo, conditioner and body lotion) being in big glass bottles. Babington House was Nick Jones’s first hotel and he couldn’t find any products he liked to go in the rooms so they were developed here, using ingredients like lavender from the garden.
“We have a lot of people who have been coming for years, I think because it’s so relaxing. It’s not a huge space but the garden view is fantastic and there’s always something to go out and pick, whether it’s flowers, apples or mint for the drinking water.”
Neil “Trigs” Smith, head chef (11 years)
“I came to Babington House as a young chef in 2007 and was lucky to work under some inspirational head chefs over the years. Ronnie Bonetti was perhaps the most influential; he helped me develop not just my taste, food knowledge and cooking skill but always pushed me to take the next step and progress through my career.
“Our cooking at Babington is centred around the walled garden. We follow the seasons and cook what is available. The daily changing menu means we can do a lot with butchery; buying whole pigs and lambs, half cows and game, prepping it how we want it and cooking it throughout the week. We’re nose-to-tail chefs and we use everything.”
Rob “Puff” Puffet, general manager (11 years)
“The early days of Babington House felt very entrepreneurial. I wasn’t here at the beginning
– I started out at 40 Greek Street and the Electric – but I remember Nick phoning up for the weekly numbers. Nowadays we’re a lot more structured but of course there are bound to be day-to-day issues.
“In 2013 we had a flood in the lodge on December 23. We were in there scrubbing with a dehumidifier on, moved furniture down from the House, went out and bought new TVs and fridges to have it ready for some VIPs who were arriving on Christmas Eve.
“Another time, a couple came back from Glastonbury festival, started running the bath and fell asleep on the bed. Next thing we knew there was water in reception. Glastonbury is good fun though, we’re always fully booked with artists and execs, and the events and bar teams throw a great after party.
“We’re not trying to win three Michelin stars: there are too many staff leaning on sofas talking to people. But we’ve got some loyal members. They used to come here to party, but it’s softened over the years. I like to think we’ve matured together.”