Ghost hunter

Ghost-hunting former doorman Ron Hands at the Royal Bath Hotel's old stables.  Picture Hattie Miles

By Jeremy Miles   

 It’s mid afternoon and, at a glance, the old ballroom at Bournemouth’s historic Royal Bath Hotel seems remarkably normal. But this is a room with some strange tales to tell. These days it is known as the De Vere Suite and is generally used for conferences and wedding receptions. The only spirits you are likely to see come out of bottles marked whisky and gin. Travel back in time however and it was a very different place - the lavishly panelled Kings Hall.

In the roaring 20s it was a magnet for bright young things who spent wild nights drinking champagne and dancing the Charleston on its sprung floor. 

Long before that however it may well have been a meeting place for the hotel’s many celebrity guests who included everyone from Oscar Wilde to Sarah Bernhardt, the great Victorian actor-manager Sir Henry Irving and his agent Bram Stoker, creator of Dracula. 

No wonder the very fabric of the De Vere Suite seems to contain the vestiges of long lost memories.  

For one-time Royal Bath doorman  Ron Hands - indomitable front-of-house presence at the hotel for a decade in the 1980s and 1990s - it is simply the place where he came face to face with a ghost.

 Seventy nine year-old Ron is a down to earth sort of fellow. Not the kind of person who tends to believe in apparitions. But he still shudders as he recalls his 3am encounter with a man, at least he thinks it was a man,  who walked silently across the top of the grand staircase in front of him and vanished through a solid wall.

He shakes his head as he tells me.  “ I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now.  But I swear I saw it happen. I thought it was one the night porters. I remember calling  out ‘Are you all right Bob?’ but the figure just sort of stood and looked at me and then walked into the wall and disappeared.” Bob, he later discovered, hadn’t been anywhere near the De Vere Suite.

Was he scared? Ron glances around the room one more time. “Let’s just say that when I came in here the following night I didn’t hang around,” he chuckles.

Now the story of the restless De Vere spirit may well become part of a new ghost walk that is being discussed at the hotel and could see Ron returning to his old stamping ground 15 years after his retirement. He takes me on a short tour including a visit to the site of the hotel’s Victorian coach house and stable block. “People have reported seeing a coachman here and even the sound of hooves,” he tells me. 

 The hotel originally dates back to the 1830s - it opened on Queen Victoria’s Coronation Day in 1838. With its beautiful sea views from Bournemouth’s East Cliff it has been one of the great attractions of the seaside town ever since .

Initially simply known as the Bath Hotel, it became ‘Royal’ in 1880 just four years after being bought by traveller, art collector, philanthropist and fervent social climber Merton Russell-Cotes and his wife Annie. 

It was the perfect acquisition for the celebrity-obsessed Russell-Cotes who would go on to be knighted, become Mayor of Bournemouth and build the magnificent if somewhat eccentric East Cliff Hall (now the Russell-Cotes Gallery and Museum) on the cliff next door. 

The rich, famous and well-connected had always flocked to the Bath Hotel. Rival Victorian Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone both spent time there believing that the clean Bournemouth air would be good for their health. Disraeli, who was suffering from gout, lived there for three months in 1874-1875  and even held three Cabinet meetings at the hotel.

Gladstone used the Royal Bath as a base while suffering from his final illness in 1898. Discovering that his condition was terminal, he decided to travel home to Wales to die and made his last public statement when boarding the train from Bournemouth.

 He is reported to have told the assembled crowds: “God bless you all, and this place and the land we love.”  Russell-Cotes granddaughter sold  the hotel to current owners, the De Vere hotel group in 1963

Ron has memories of a very different generation of celebrities and public figures including his own clutch of present and former Prime Ministers like  Tory rivals Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath.

Those two didn’t agree on much but both contributed to a massive autograph collection established by Ron to raise money in memory of his late wife, Mary, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1989. Over the next 20 years Ron raised more than £100,000 for the Mary Hands Trust by auctioning his autographs and staging a series of fund-raising events. The proceeds were used to buy lifesaving hospital equipment.

During his years on the door at the Royal Bath he met celebrities like Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Jason Donovan, Les Dawson, Barbara Windsor, Max Bygraves, Freddie Starr, Charlie Drake, the boxer Nigel Benn and countless others. Many contributed, directly or indirectly, to his charity.

Ron has happy memories of curious encounters with the rich and famous including having to smuggle Bob Monkhouse, Gloria Gaynor and Gene Pitney into the hotel when they were surprise cabaret entertainers at a conference.

 Then there was the day that he had to turn rock star Sting away from the dining room because he was wearing jeans. “We were a Five Star hotel in those days and there was a strict no jeans rule. He was lovely about it.  He just said ‘Don’t worry Ron, I’ll go down to the pier and have a burger.’ He couldn’t have been nicer.”

Not everyone is so understanding about hotel rules though. Shirley Bassey who had already demanded an extra room for her clothes, was less than impressed to discover that she was expected to check out by 11 in the morning. “Can you imagine what she said?” says Ron looking heavenwards.

He also has memories of difficult moments like placating a well known actor who had asked a very new girl on reception to get him the number of a local escort agency only to be presented with the contact details for a nearby Ford dealership. Then there was the pop group whose behaviour was so outrageous that they had to be found alternative accommodation. 

Most of the time though the stars of stage and screen turned out to be  relatively unremarkable. “You soon learn that if you expect them to be as funny or entertaining as they are on the telly - likely to be disappointed. Most of them are just normal people.” 

There are of course one or two exceptions. Ron recalls finding the comedian Freddie Starr loping around the lobby pretending to be Quasimodo. “He was as mad as a hatter. Just the same in real life as he was on  TV.”

During his years at the Royal Bath Ron had to deal with many challenging situations. Few were more unsettling than the day a protestor hurled a mock bomb into the hotel entrance  during the 1986 Conservative Party Conference.

It was just two years after the Brighton bombing and the Royal Bath was packed with senior politicians.  Ron was one of the first on the scene. “There was this Tesco bag and it was ticking. The policemen nearly wet their trousers.  It was seven in the morning and we had to get everyone out of the hotel. I remember hammering on one door and this man shouted: ‘I’m in the middle of cleaning my teeth’.  I replied. ‘And if you don’t get out Sir you won’t have any teeth to clean because there’s a bomb outside.’ That did the trick.”   

© Jeremy Miles 2022