Aug 2014 Journal

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London’s ‘Borscht Belt’ - Jewish hotels in Bournemouth

In 1956 I met my wife-to-be in the Ambassador Hotel in Bournemouth, one of the eight Jewish hotels there at the time. There was the Cumberland, Majestic, Langham, Normandie, East Cliff Court and East Cliff Manor. There was also, if you were very rich, the Green Park, the first Jewish hotel that had en-suite bathrooms.
These hotels were not just Jewish, they were kosher and under Kashrut supervision, serving good heimishe food: chicken soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish, salt beef, latkes, and loads and loads of chicken! Each had its own ‘synagogue’, with services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, usually conducted by a rabbi.
The Kiddush was magnificent; the tables overflowed with the amount of food offered. In fact, food was overflowing everywhere. Breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner - and not forgetting the midnight repast! We Jews can eat but we don’t drink. At the Normandie, the bar takings were £2,000 per annum. At the Spider’s Web, a hotel near Bushey Heath often frequented by us younger Jews, the takings were £1,500 per weekend!
Most Bournemouth hotels had swimming pools and gardens; some even had putting greens. Entertainment was put on most evenings. The Ambassador was probably the favourite hotel among Continental Jews because of its ebullient German manager/MC, Mr Rubinstein. (I don’t know Mr Rubinstein’s first name. It was very formal in those days – first names were used only for family members and your very closest friends. I called him Mr Rubinstein; my parents, who also went to the Ambassador, called him Herr Rubinstein!) Famous stars appearing in London’s theatre-land like Howard Keel from Oklahoma and Dolores Gray from Annie Get Your Gun were driven down to the Ambassador to entertain us.
But the real attraction was for the older visitors to make new friends, or meet up with old ones, and for the younger ones to meet members of the opposite sex. There was a dance or a quiz in one of the hotels every evening. I remember the first time I danced with my future wife was not at the Ambassador but across the road, at the Langham. The Cumberland was, I suppose, the most fashionable of the hotels for us youngsters. It was really difficult to get in to one of their dances, they were so crowded. Not much drinking went on. A beer for us chaps and, perhaps, a naughty Babycham for the girls!
The poshest hotel, as I mentioned, was the Green Park. The Bentleys and Jaguars outside were mind-blowing. I had just graduated from Oxford. I didn’t know there was so much money around so soon after the war. Not being religious, I was also amused by the number of men who slid out of their hotels after their Friday-night meal to stroll up and down the East Cliff, on which all these hotels stood, smoking their cigarettes furtively and walking, in typical Jewish fashion, with their hands on their bottoms! I feel great nostalgia about Bournemouth’s East Cliff. I stole my first kiss there and also, being Austrian-born, yodelled to my new girlfriend. She must have thought me mad but, realising there were far more girls there than boys, she stuck with me – for 55 years now!
As with the ‘Borscht Belt’, the Catskill Mountains just outside New York, all good things had to come to an end. Jewish families were discovering foreign air travel. Here in the UK, the younger ones tended to go to Majorca or the Costa Brava while the older ones were flying to the South of France, the Italian Riviera and, of course, to the countries from which they’d fled.
The heyday of the hotels was the 40s through to the 70s, though some lingered longer. The Green Park closed in 1986; the Ambassador (later the New Ambassador) lasted till 2005. The only hotel that remains - but only just! - is the Normandie, which is currently closed but will open for High Days and Holy Days. (I noticed that the Langham, now called the Queens, did offer kosher deals for the Jewish holidays too.)
The ‘Borscht Belt’ has gone; so have the Bournemouth Jewish hotels. My wife and I visited Bournemouth a few weeks ago. It was upsetting. The Ambassador is now the Britannia – horrible! Except for the Langham, the others have all kept their names but they’re nothing like they were. However, we can take comfort that the East Cliff is still there - as are our memories of that kiss and my yodelling!

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips

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