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As a youngster, Ursula Offord was sure she’d ‘never have a cleaning job’. But that’s exactly the opposite of what happened
One of the very best bits of this role as editor is that the ‘job’ often doesn’t feel like work at all, writes Jan Raycroft. What’s not to like about being able to chat and gossip with our brilliant housekeepers? It was certainly the case with Ursula Offord, executive head housekeeper at Foxhills Club & Resort in Surrey. Ursula is younger than me, but her chirpy, uplifting voice sounds just like my late Irish granny! It was easy to recognise that warm and welcoming Waterford accent – and no doubt visitors to Foxhills are just as charmed. But it’s what Ursula and her team achieve there that really makes the difference for guests.
Q Ursula! Now we’ve realised we’re almost family courtesy of the Surrey and Middlesex Irish tribe, let’s get down to business. How did you get into housekeeping? Ha, ha! The truth is that from the start I’ve told everyone, including hotel general managers, that I didn’t want a cleaning role. The dream growing up was to be an air hostess because that seemed the most glamorous way to work with people, and I’d say: ‘I’ll never be in a cleaning job’. But then I joined Foxhills back in the 1990s as a house maid and discovered that passion for housekeeping. I’ve been there ever since and now I think of it as ‘my rooms, my place, my people’.
Q We know the guests love the service you and your housekeeping team provides, and it’s really those staff you’re talking about as ‘my people’, isn’t it? Yes, they are fantastic and some of them have worked with me for many years. They feel like family and have included many people originally from Nepal and a few from the likes of Jamaica and Poland. I think there’s a family ethos that carries through into their work. But whether the people here have come from ‘just round the corner’ or thousands of miles we’ve all looked out for each other like family. I always say: ‘My staff do my job for me’ and that’s the truth at Foxhills. I’ve been very lucky. And it’s not Irish ‘Blarney’ to say the same applies to the hotel owners. Our CEO Marc Hayton and his family have owned Foxhills for some 40 years and love what we do here as much as any of us.
Q You, and they, must have had some memorable experiences at Foxhills. What sticks in the memory? The 2012 London Olympics was amazing. We looked after some of the top people attending. It was a fantastic time. But, to tell the truth, what I really love most is how Foxhills members return as guests, time after time. A couple might come with young children, and then those children grow up and bring their own babies for us to meet.
Q That family thing really is important to you, isn’t it? Tell us more about your own one. I’m married to Paul, and we have five children and nine grandchildren. He’s a now retired executive head chef and has had some very prestigious jobs of his own. We met while I was waitressing at a Royal Commonwealth Society event. Perhaps we both fell for each other’s accents because I think of him as a ‘thoroughbred English gentleman’. Just like going into housekeeping, it was a good choice as he’s not only a family man but has been brilliant with the children, sharing responsibility 50-50. Obviously he’s more than a good cook but keeps an eye out when we’re shopping together. I like to be speedy and chuck anything in the basket while he will check all the details and put things back, saying ‘Now look, this is going out of date tomorrow!’
Q But it’s not the only ‘shopping hazard’ is it? No! I own up to being addicted to handbags. How many have I got? Perhaps 50, including ones I’ve just had to buy but then hardly use. When we’re out shopping and my husband sees a handbag shop coming up along the street I can tell he’s thinking ‘Oh no, here we go again’. But among the bags I do use are ones staff have brought me back from their trips home, and that’s lovely.
Q What about other hobbies? I suppose I should say I love cleaning my own home, which is true enough. But something that’s developed over time is an interest in gardening. If you’d have told me years back that would happen I’d have shaken my head. It’s a bit like that idea I’d never have a job that involved cleaning.
Surrey’s premier club and resort is currently celebrating 40 years since the Hayton family purchased the estate. Marc Hayton’s father, Ian, who passed away in 2010, was among the early pioneers of the family-style country club in the UK and with his wife, Pamela, developed the manor house of Foxhills in Ottershaw beyond a golf club into a hotel, club and resort which now welcomes thousands of guests every year.
It’s set in 400 acres of stunning countryside and the Haytons spent those decades adding more rooms whilst diversifying to meet the rapidly changing leisure consumers. More than £35 million of investment over the 40 years means the resort now boasts 66 bedrooms, five pools, 11 tennis courts, three golf courses, children’s soft play, three restaurants, a gym, spa and yoga cabin, and offers more than 200 weekly activities for its members and hotel guests.
Further investment has been secured for 2024 with plans recently revealed for the addition of Padel Tennis and Pickleball courts, ensuring the club can deliver facilities for two of the fastest growing sports in the UK. It has been frequented by many a celebrity and dignitaries over the decades, from David Cameron to Omar Sharif and Sylvester Stallone, who was a long-term guest of the hotel. The estate has also starred in top TV shows such as Downton Abbey and Spooks.
Golf remains at the heart of Foxhills’ heritage and over 66,000 rounds are played every year across three award-winning courses. Its scholarship programme, The Foxhills Foundation – the oldest in the country – has produced some of the country’s top golfers including Anthony Wall and Paul Casey. The resort now employs over 400 people, yet its family ethos and independent spirit shines through. Pamela Hayton recalls: “When your husband comes home and says he’s just bought a 19th century mansion and would like you to decorate and furnish it, you’re likely rendered speechless. I was initially thrilled, then the panic set in!”
She set about individually styling each room to provide ‘authentic charm with a home from home feel’. The rooms at Foxhills are now classic and contemporary in design but retain the unmistakable stamp of Pamela’s original vision. Marc Hayton is now CEO of the Foxhills Collection with Tej Walia taking over as managing director this year.