Perched on a clifftop above the crashing Atlantic waves, the hotel has long been a bohemian haunt of musicians, artists and dreamers of all kinds drawn by its remote, romantic setting.
But the proliferation of pop-up campsites and new holiday homes that have sprung up since the Covid crisis hit had meant that The Druidstone was becoming overwhelmed by the number of passers-by popping in for a casual drink at the bar and a selfie on the terrace.
Unable to hire enough staff to cope and worried that the spot’s popularity was wrecking the laid-back vibe, the iconic hotel in Pembrokeshire has taken drastic action, limiting the number of people in the bar by creating a members-only club with subscription starting at £200.
There are naysayers who have taken to social media to claim the “Dru Crew” club, is an “elitist” and “backward” step but owner Angus Bell said the hotel had little choice. “Guests and locals were having to wait 45 minutes to get a drink. It’s not a money-grabbing exercise, it’s about trying to control numbers, chilling it out.”
The building was opened as a hotel by Angus’s parents, Jane and Rod Bell, in 1972. Jane became a patron of the arts, encouraging painters and poets to come to the hotel to create while Rod’s expertise as a lighting specialist helped them put on spectacular free festivals with the folk band Bellowhead and ska/jazz/pop/rock big band Wonderbrass notable visitors.
Mark Ellingham, the founder of the Rough Guides, has called it his favourite hotel – alongside the Continental in Tangier. He told the Guardian in 2007: “It is a paradise for children, grown-ups, dogs and even teenagers, who keep the bar going after everyone goes to bed, listening to rave music with the staff. It is positioned above one of the nicest beaches in the world. And run by some of the best people you could hope to find.”
Earlier this year, the chef Ravinder Bhoga recalled a delicious crab meal at the hotel for a Times piece asking where foodies liked to eat at the coast. “The rambling family-friendly pub is located right on the cliff edge and the views are hard to beat,” she said.
After Covid struck and British people were forced to – or opted to – stay in the UK for holidays, The Druidstone struggled to cope. “There are so many pop-up campsites and Airbnb places,” said Bell. “We found we were looking after other people’s guests and not ours.”
Bell, 46, said that over its 50 years, the hotel had never advertised but relied on personal recommendations. “But Facebook and Tripadvisor have changed the meaning of word of mouth,” he said.
Inevitably, some have taken to the web to criticise the move. One online reviewer said they would not pay £200 for the privilege of a drink at the hotel, adding: “So farewell lovely Druidstone.” Another, said: “So disappointing to have such a lovely place turned into an elitist members-only clique.”
The hotel’s website points out the hotel used to be a members’ club in its early days and spells out what the “Dru Cru” is.
“They are the friends who come to stay annually for the same dates, same cottages, same rooms; the local friends who support us throughout the year; our staff both past and present; the musicians, actors and artists who have performed and exhibited here over the years. The Dru Crew is the extended family who have recognised something within this place that speaks to them as a home away from home.”
It continues: “We have been increasingly anxious over the last years that we are not striking the right balance between our residents and loyal locals versus the passing trade, temporary campsite and holiday cottage visitors. Club membership again allows us to give priority to crew. All members are welcome to come for a drink, a bar meal, a sunset, a chat, whatever and may bring guests with them.”
Non-members will still be able to book a table in the restaurant if there is room and tickets for events. But they cannot use the bar, the terrace, the grounds or car park.
The scheme was launched this summer It has set the limit at 500 members and already has 350. Bell said if locals could not afford the fee, the hotel tried to help. Some were paying in kind, for example by trading goods they had made.
Bell said he hoped the club would lead to fewer visitors in the summer and more in the winter and is insisted he was confident the right choice had been made. “We’re learning to say, no, learning what to do to keep staff and guests happy and make sure we are less stressed.”