Some say Andy Warhol invented everything that defines us today: ephemeral celebrity, art as a product and an all-round obsession with documenting the mundanity of everyday life. In design circles he is considered responsible for a revived obsession with art deco. Before he started collecting pieces in the Seventies, the Thirties was an unappreciated era for design – which, today, seems odd. Who can resist the layered, sleek glister and gloss of modernism immersed in gimlet exuberance?
Certainly none of the guests at Burgh Island Hotel in south Devon, the recently refurbished art deco landmark that not only looks like the setting for an Agatha Christie film, but served as the inspiration for And Then There Were None, was a filming location for the television adaptation of Evil Under the Sun, and has a cottage – now a beach house available from £560 per night – that belonged to the celebrated author.
I visited Burgh Island Hotel in the dying embers of the summer season, when locals were still rinsing out the last few hours of sunshine on the beach. I arrived at high tide, when Burgh Island really is an island, reachable only by sea tractor – an elevated amphibious vehicle styled like a piece of Mad Max hardware pimped out with red, white and blue bunting, as though for a church fête.
Apart from the seaplanes of the Maldives and the motorboats of Venice, I can think of no more fun way to arrive at a hotel.
I’ve wanted to visit Burgh Island for a long time, but it’s not really aimed at me – archetypal metropolitan liberal elite ponce that I am. Previous guests have included Noël Coward, Winston Churchill and Josephine Baker. In 2019 the clientele is predominantly groups of best friends and couples here for A Special Occasion. And make no mistake, this isn’t a cheap holiday – you could have a week in Spain for the price of a weekend here, but that hasn’t stopped guests booking more than a decade in advance.
Everyone on my visit was having a big band whale of a time in a bow tie or posh frock, revelling in faux nostalgia: widowed mothers dancing with their daughters and anniversary groups sinking champagne from lovely ornate glass flutes. There was also a couple in their early 30s who wanted to take breakfast on the terrace, but were warned that minatory seagulls would snatch their eggs Benedict.
It would be easy to dismiss Burgh Island as an art deco theme park for adults. So I will. This isn’t the cool and polished deco of Claridge’s or the Orient Express: this place is about murder mystery weekends and holidays with friends you met on a cruise. It’s unpretentious, staffed by quirky characters who may have been here since George Formby was a regular, and offers the opportunity for some dress-up escapism. There’s also enough to keep you occupied away from the vintage objets. As well as a 14th-century pub – the Pilchard Inn – there are some lovely scenic walks and a natural seawater bathing pool.
The design and restoration are more hit than miss. The Palm Court Lounge and the Grand Ballroom look the part, with a dramatic stained-glass dome on the ceiling of the former. The more casual dining and breakfast room, the Nettlefold, is fairly spartan, albeit with one end styled to resemble the rear cabin of a galleon. All are more handsome than the upstairs hallways, which have an institutional feel.
Each of the 25 bedrooms is different, with the kind of interiors you’d find on the cusp of 1930. Personally, I’d trade authenticity for an actual shower.
I wondered, while nibbling on a plate of hors d’oeuvres in the bar, whether everything here was intended to be retro. Was the daub of salmon mousse on a diamond cut of cucumber ironic? In the Nettlefold, the spaghetti vongole was better than the crustacea, and in the Grand Ballroom, ham hock with breadcrumbed hen’s egg, followed by duck breast and something camp involving chocolate fondant and popcorn, looked and tasted like an upmarket wedding banquet. I wouldn’t come here just for the food, but a Nuno Mendes tasting menu is never going to fit with a dinner’n’ dance. And I, for one, am partial to scampi and chips for a pub lunch.
Burgh Island represents a typically British deco, lacking the Busby Berkeley dreamscape of, say, the Chrysler Building. Instead it looks like it might be the result of a house clearance after the death of a wealthy great aunt with good taste in Rye. It’s a tiny bit twee – more Miss Marple after a few sherries than the brilliantined Hercule Poirot – but everyone coming to Burgh Island really wants it, and wants to dress up for it too.
Rooms from £295 per night, with dinner and breakfast. There are no accessible rooms. Mark C O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Great Western Railway (gwr.com), which travels up to 24 times a day from London to Plymouth with a journey time of 3hr 15min; fares from £21.50.