A butler’s tale: Bernard tells his stories of rubbing shoulders with the stars, politicians and royalty as he retires
- Credit: Archant
For its thousands of patrons, he was a welcoming face and a mine of information. But over his 25 years at Sprowston Manor, Bernard Hagon was also a much-loved butler, catering for film stars, politicians and royalty. As he retires, he tells Lauren Cope his story.
That Bernard Hagon has decided to pen an autobiography does not come as a surprise.
Over his 82 years, the Horning man has brushed shoulders with royalty, been a butler to movie stars, received the highest military honour from Russia and almost gone into business with the Kray twins.
Born in London, he grew up in a publican family and joined the Merchant Navy when he turned 15.
After stints in different liner departments, he had his first taste of life as a butler, working for Morris Minor icon William Morris, better known to some as Lord Nuffield.
'I used to have to iron the newspapers so there weren't any creases and put soap in the creases of his trousers so they were smart,' he said.
But his life soon returned to solid ground, where, following in his family's footsteps, he took over various pubs across Essex, a mixed life which saw him rub shoulders with celebrities – and face an early-hours police raid.
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It was 35 years ago that he stepped out from behind the bar and moved to Norfolk, where, after a stint working with at a boat-builders, he began a career at Sprowston Manor which would span the next quarter of a century.
Day to day he was a well-known concierge, a friendly face who had a wealth of information about the hotel and wider area.
But when particularly special guests came through the doors, the grandfather-of-three was drafted in – working as a butler to cater to guests' needs.
Over the years his clients have included the former King and Queen of Malaysia, Hollywood actor Charlton Heston, TV presenter Graham Norton, Lord and Lady Sainsbury and Harry Potter star Rupert Grint, who stayed at the hotel while filming in Norfolk.
Describing the unusual role as butler, he said: 'It's like being a gentleman's gentleman. You find out what your guest's daily routine is, if they are going in to the city, you ask them what sort of suit they would like to wear and so on. You make sure you know what they are going to like and are prepared for that.'
Mr Hagon, a keen sculptor, described Mr Norton as 'ever such a nice man' and said the pair had been together when the radio host was contacted with his first big break.
Reflecting on his 25 years, he said he had a 'wonderful, wonderful career and life' and had 'enjoyed every second' of working at Sprowston Manor.
But, after his wife Jean died last December and he began to suffer health problems of his own, Mr Hagon, who has appeared on children's television show Blue Peter, decided it was time to take a step back. 'I'm 82 now and I thought 'let's call it a day',' he said. 'I miss my wife dearly but I've had such an excellent life – if I went tomorrow I couldn't be happier with what has happened.'
Krays offered to take care of him
When visiting a London club to see whether he wanted to take it on, Mr Hagon met two men he, initially, didn't recognise.
'They were sitting with two girls in one of its suites, but I didn't know who they were,' he said.
They turned out to be the Kray twins – the notorious English gangsters who perpetrated a wave of organised crime in east London during the 1950s and 1960s.
Mr Hagon said once they were introduced, the pair said, should he take the business on, they would 'take care' of him.
'I decided to phone my dad and he knew about them,' he said. 'He said it was probably best if I didn't take the licence on.'
An important moment behind the iron curtain
A trip to Russia in 1973 saw Mr Hagon spend time with some of the country's highest ranking officers – and enjoy a chat with Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro.
After telling the Brentwood British Legion branch, at which he was treasurer, he planned to holiday in Russia, they asked him if, while there, he could lay a wreath in Red Square.
Happy to oblige, he did so – a decision which saw him given full military honours for becoming the first representative of the UK armed forces to visit the country.
During his visit, he enjoyed a trip to the Bolshoi ballet with General Kuznetvo, the supreme commander of the Russian army.
'When we sat down, everybody looked up at where we were sitting, raised their fists and cheered,' he said. 'I looked round and saw a massive man with a beard and thought he looked familiar. Then the penny dropped – it was Fidel Castro and everyone was cheering him, not me.'
Later that day, he and Castro spoke briefly and Mr Hogan said the politician 'spoke very good English' and 'was very friendly'.
Hospitality in his blood
With publicans in his family, Mr Hagon said he was destined to end up in the industry.
After leaving the Merchant Navy, he went onto run a handful of pubs in Essex.
At one, he admits 'innocently, but stupidly', decided to put guns he 'collected' up around the walls.
Unsurprisingly, the police were alerted and conducted a 4am raid, after which he secured the nickname Guy Fawkes.
When he fell on hard times, he bought a caravan with his last £100 and lived on a nearby Travellers' site for almost two years.
After, then back on his feet, he bought the Queen Anne, a now-closed London wine bar which, at the time, was one of the oldest in the country.
Thirty-five years ago, then in his 50s, Mr Hagon sold the wine bar and retired to Norfolk with wife Jean.
A family reunion
It was thanks to social media that Mr Hagon was reunited with his son after 52 years apart.
His son, Michael, was just three months old when Mr Hagon and his first wife, who later went on to remarry, separated.
The pair lost contact and it wasn't until more than five decades later than technology brought them back together, a story which attracted headlines in the national news.
Mr Hagon said: 'My wife shouted up the stairs and said someone had messaged me saying they were my son – I said to her it must be people at work messing around and playing a prank.
'But she said his name was Michael – I couldn't believe it. After he'd lost his mother and stepfather he decided to get in touch with me. I had to sit down for a minute.'
They were reunited in 2009 and Mr Hagon said they now have a 'great relationship' and, through the meeting, he now has 'three beautiful grandchildren'.