FACE TO FACE with DON BIRCH
In her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to Don Birch, who, as co-owner of one of north Norfolk's finest hotels, has his feet firmly on the ground.
In her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to Don Birch, who, as co-owner of one of north Norfolk's finest hotels, has his feet firmly on the ground. But before embarking on a career as an hotelier, a high-flying job with a well-known travel company saw Don travel all over the world - from the Great Wall of China to the wilds of the Amazon River . . .
Born in Chatham, Kent, in 1959, Don moved to his father's home city of Liverpool at the age of 11.
His student years at the University of Bradford saw him take summer jobs working in a shampoo factory in Krakow, Poland, and on a collective farm in Czechoslovakia, and, after graduating with a degree in politics and geography, he joined Thomas Cook as a management trainee.
Don then worked as a marketing executive for budget airline Flybe - spending weekdays at the Europa Hotel, Belfast, during the height of the Troubles - before travelling the world as a sales manager for British Airways.
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Fifteen years ago, Don and partner Lindsay - then a manager of a Cambridgeshire hotel - decided to move to north Norfolk, and bought the 11-bedroom Beechwood Hotel at North Walsham.
The couple immediately set about transforming the former doctors' surgery, adding a bar, trebling the size of the restaurant, and, with Lindsay in charge of interior design, increasing the number of rooms to 17.
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Priding themselves on providing guests with a country house-style experience and serving up only locally-sourced produce, they have since won a string of awards - with the Beechwood being named Visit Britain small hotel of the year in 2003.
The hotel, which was once a regular haunt for crime grand dame Agatha Christie, has become a popular bolthole for celebrities wanting to escape city life, with recent guests including soap stars and a rock legend.
When not working, Don, who lives with Lindsay in a house opposite the Beechwood, enjoys walking rescue dog Harry, going to the theatre and visiting art galleries.
What is the best thing about your job?
I work with some fantastic people, helping to give guests some quality leisure time and touching people at very emotional times of their lives, such as on their wedding day or on a special anniversary.
And the worst?
This job can play havoc with your social life, so you have to make sure you still see your friends.
What is the one possession you would save if your house was on fire?
My memory suitcase - it's an old case I put things in, like holiday photos, diaries from when I was a student, theatre programmes and old letters.
Where do you go to unwind?
The Suffolk coast: Walberswick, Orford or Snape.
What is your favourite Norfolk building?
The Forum - I love Norwich and I think here's a modern building in the middle of a medieval city and it's sensational.
Have you ever done anything outrageous?
Nothing too outrageous, but I am quite daring when it comes to going up and speaking to famous people and I've had some amazing one-to-one conversations. Particularly memorable people I've met include Jose Carreras at the closing ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics, Julie Andrews, Anthony Minghella and Sir Digby Jones when he was chairman of the Confederation of British Industry.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I'd be slim!
What is your proudest moment?
When Lindsay and I were invited to Buckingham Palace to have drinks with the Queen after winning the Hotel of the Year award. It was an amazing experience.
Who do you most admire?
Without in any way being political, I admire our MP, Norman Lamb. He had what most people thought was an impossible dream - to be an MP in a constituency held solidly by another party for nearly 50 years. What he achieved in winning the seat shows that, if you work very hard and have a little luck, you can achieve amazing goals.
Do you have any fears or phobias?
I'm not too fond of snakes.
What makes you angry?
People not caring for the environment; it annoys me when people make a lot of unnecessary journeys. Although we fly, we try to use the car as little as possible and we take the train whenever we can.
Favourite book, film and TV programme? The wartime novel Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky is my favourite book; I think the film Saving Private Ryan vividly brings home how terrible war is, and, although I don't watch much television, I do try to catch Look East if I can.