They say there are just six degrees of separation between everyone in the world, which means we only need trace back through half a dozen acquaintances to find someone who’s met Nelson Mandela, danced with Beyonce or shot the breeze with Brad Pitt.
But guests at a hotel near Newmarket may find themselves just one step away from some of the biggest celebrities in the world and treated, quite literally, like royalty, thanks to a certain member of staff.
Part of The House Collection, which includes Poets House in Ely, Paddocks House in Six Mile Bottom aims to offer a true Downton-style service to all its guests, whether you’re staying for a week or just popping in for afternoon tea.
This includes being attended to by their head butler, George Telford, who has spent over 30 years living alongside Hollywood’s elite.
“Tom Hanks is a marvellous guy, and such a gentleman. He is a father figure before anything else, and I’ve great admiration for him,” says George, speaking to me in the grand dining room at Paddocks House.
“Looking after Robbie Williams was a nightmare, because he sleeps all day and he’s out all night. But he’s a lovely guy, and he’s quietened down a lot since his daughter was born.”
Charming, polite and with frequent flashes of wicked humour, George, 59, is exactly who you’d want to keep an eye on things. In fact, after half an hour in his company, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without him.
Born in Glasgow, George left school to become a butler at 15 to pursue a dream harboured from an early age. “I’ve wanted to be a butler since I was nine years old,” he explains.
“I remember we had someone visit the school, a careers officer, who spoke to individual pupils about what they wanted to be when they left school. You had your plumber, your electrician, your policeman… but I wanted to become a butler. When I said that to the careers officer, he said, ‘Ok, but besides that what do you want to be?’ Nobody would believe me.”
Asked what first inspired him, he replies: “I was influenced by the programme Upstairs, Downstairs. I’m Glaswegian by birth, and Gordon Jackson also came from Scotland, and he played the head of the household at Eaton Place. He ran that household military fashion as a butler, and I wanted to be him. By 14, I still wanted to be a butler.”
At 15 George left school to work at one of Glasgow’s largest hotels, before setting out for London. “I headed to London at 15-and-a-half, not knowing what I was looking for, but hoping to pursue my career as a butler,” George narrates. “I found out that Mayfair was were butlers,” he pauses, “’hung about’, so to speak. I was very fortunate, standing outside with a doorman one day, to be introduced to a couple of butlers, one of which was ‘Backstairs Billy’, who became my mentor.”
Also known as William Tallon, ‘Backstairs Billy’ was the nickname given to the Queen Mother’s long-serving butler; a colourful character who made the papers many times but always had the trust of his distinguished employer.
“He got the name because he used to sneak down the back stairs in the evenings and steal the Queen Mother’s gin,” says George with a twinkle. “But she trusted him more than her own daughter, and I remember, at the 100th birthday celebrations, when The Queen offered the Queen Mother her hand to walk her to the gate at Clarence House to greet the well-wishers, the Queen Mother refused and took the hand of her faithful butler instead.
“He was a very busy man all his life, but he died an alcoholic and recluse, unfortunately.”
George has also served Princess Anne – “one of the hardest-working royals” – and The Queen herself, in her jubilee year. From British royalty, George moved on to showbiz royalty, and was working on private yachts off the Greek and Turkish coast when he was snapped up by none other than Tom Hanks.
“Whilst on the yachts I was fortunate enough to meet some of the top celebrities of the world, one of which was the fabulous Tom Hanks,” says George. “He invited me to his home to do a surprise party in Los Angeles for his son. I took up his invitation and ended up staying with Tom for nearly four years.”
Working in LA proved quite an eye-opener, as George explains: “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. People do not open their door in LA unless they’ve got a full face of makeup because they’re scared that the press might be outside. But for the film stars, if they’re not photographed once a week, people forget them. It’s very false over there.”
It was once back in the UK, working again in hotels, that George met his ultimate idol: Sir Paul McCartney. “He is the only person I’ve been star-struck with,” smiles George. “I grew up with The Beatles, so seeing Paul coming up the stairs of the Blythswood Hotel in Glasgow and saying, ‘Hello, George’, made me really proud.”
Now, you’ll find George ensuring everything runs like clockwork at Paddocks House, which opened after refurbishment in January this year. “I decided I wanted to slow down a bit and relax, but still be the person I am, so I joined the House Collection – and I love it,” George says. “It’s exciting watching a company from the beginning and growing up with it.”
He’ll be on hand 24/7 to arrange dinner, bring you breakfast on a tray with the morning papers, and even run you a bubble bath if you so wish, all as part of the service. As I’m leaving, I overhear one guest asking: “Do you ever sleep, George?” to which he replies, with a composed smile, “No”.