Druidstone made into Preseli paradise

Ian Herbert looks at the life of a Welsh hotelier who promoted the arts on the cliffs of Pembrokeshire

Jane Bell, who died in August, did not seek acclaim for Druidstone, the idiosyncratic hotel she developed on a clifftop at the sea’s edge in Pembrokeshire and to which there are still no signposts. But it came anyway, in the words of the many writers who have stumbled upon it across the course of 40 years.

Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides, has often cited it as his perfect hotel; Craig Brown described it as possibly the oddest and most ramshackle such establishment and yet also the most delightful in British Isles; and Bob Marshall-Andrews, the barrister and former Labour MP, defined it on Radio 4’s Any Questions as his “paradise on earth,” even if you did need your heel to double up as a bath plug, as he put it. But the odd missing plug, exploding bedspring or table lacking equilibrium has always been an acceptable price to pay for “avoiding Conde Nast style-victims on holiday”, as Ellingham defined it. Some imperfections were detailed when the Good Food Guide first listed Druidstone in 1974 – the hotel has been in the guide ever since and is its 10th-oldest continuous listing – and Bell told the publishers that “your criticisms have encouraged the type of people that we usually appeal to”.

That appeal lay in the community which she fostered after turning the 19th Century family house she inherited into a hotel possessed of extraordinary natural advantages, with its clifftop location overlooking sweeping sands, breaking waves and divine sunsets. Bell timetabled room allocations to build friendships. Judges, poets, politicians and actors were among those who made the discovery and returned year after year with their own children, who also formed lifelong friendships as they charted those challenging years through adolescence from the safety of Druidstone’s walled garden and cellar bar.

Bell had always belonged at the Pembrokeshire coast – indeed, her mother was at the beach when she went into labour with her. She was five when her parents moved with her and two siblings from the county town of Haverfordwest, to the house on the cliff in the hamlet of Druidstone Haven. Her father was a surgeon and her mother established cottage lets.

After primary education in Saundersfoot, Jane attended boarding school in Dorset, and though at 18 she returned to the coast and developed her talents as an accomplished horsewoman, in her early 20s she went to live in London. Her career interests there brought her art gallery and hotel work, though professional life – and her life’s mission – began when her parents handed over the keys to Druidstone as a gift on the day of her wedding in 1972, to Rod Bell, whom she had met in London. The establishment rapidly emerged as a major force in Welsh arts and youth work.

Her husband’s background as a lighting specialist enabled Druidstone to stage free music festivals which became legendary, with bands performing against a backdrop of sunset and ocean. The contemporary folk band Bellowhead and multi-instrumental ska-jazz big band Wonderbrass count Bell and Druidstone as a significant part of their ascent to an international stage. Bell’s greatest passion was theatre and she also became an important patron to those seeking the creative space Druidstone offered them. High Jinks Theatre and Spectacle were among the companies to benefit and Bell’s equally significant critical input to their work led to the Welsh Arts Council appointing her to its drama committee.

Something was still missing, though. Always aware of her own good fortune, Bell felt the absence of young people in the hotel’s off-season to be a lost opportunity. By chance, she encountered Vivienne Bowen Morgan, the Prince’s Trust’s regional organiser for neighbouring Carmarthenshire; the product of their conversations was “Druidstone Plus”, a project which permitted large organisations such as the Ministry of Defence, the Inland Revenue, and Ford to use the Trust’s resources for a week of team-building in return for them mentoring groups of the Trust’s young people for a week, at Druidstone. Thousands of young people from the most deprived areas of Llanelli, whose concrete jungles had a profound effect on Bell when she saw them, and also from London’s East End, benefited over the 10 years of this partnership.

There were other beneficiaries of Bell’s vision of Druidstone as a fulcrum of the arts and good works. Many artists, including Grahame Hurd-Wood and the children’s writer and illustrator Jackie Morris, have exhibited and sold their work there – with no commission asked – and built reputations on Bell’s generosity and enthusiasm. Her environmentalist instinct drew her to the campaign against radar installation off the coast at the nearby St David’s and the Liquefied Natural Gas facility at Milford Haven.

Yet it is the force of personality which melded the community of guests for which she will most be remembered. Her death, from pancreatic cancer, brought many of them together at Druidstone, though her instructions were that the celebration should be for the four decades of a place she made a home to so many. Continuity rather than change was always Bell’s mantra. She leaves her husband, Rod, son Angus, daughter-in-law Beth, and grand-daughter Seren. The Druidstone spirit lives on.

Jane Bell, hotelier, arts and music patron: born Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire 14 March 1944; married 1972 Rod Bell (one son); died Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire 12 August 2012. This obituary first appeared in The Independent

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