I’m presuming the man with the camera round his neck and spiral bound notepad in his hand is from the Shropshire Star. Here’s a photo of him anyway, taking photos of diners in the new Premier Inn. I’m sitting in the bar watching him. He goes by, sees me looking and says ‘hi’. He’s running late. He’s meant to be in Telford. It’s one of those nights. I ask if he’s from the Star and he says ‘yes’.
I’m relieved to hear it because seriously I was beginning to wonder where I’d landed. I came through the bus station, turned the corner, hit a bit of lawn where once was gravel and a flight of stone steps where once was graffiti and entered through a sliding door into – into what? Piped music. Sinking armchairs and leather-looking sofas. Muted lighting. A handful of people around a bar, a murmur of voices at tables in a dining-room. And all this on a stretch of street where usually only traffic happens
Only a moment ago I was in Shrewsbury, but now I could be in Oxford, Ipswich or Edinburgh. I could be in Canada. This could be the first Premier Inn on the far side of the moon - or so I think until I notice an enormous photograph of Darwin’s statue outside the library. Phew. How I could have missed it I don’t know. I mean, it’s right in front of me. And just to reinforce that this really is still Shrewsbury, I turn around and there’s my daughter’s neighbour drinking with a friend.
There may be no balloons on the door or banners stretched across the front of the building [at least I didn’t notice them], but this is opening night for Shrewsbury’s town centre Premier Inn. Shall I tell you what I like most about it so far? I like the sense of everything being new. Newly-minted staff move effortlessly across newly-carpeted floors, clearing away brand-new empties, smiling at brand-new customers, putting chairs back in place and tidying up. They do this with an ease that suggests they’ve been practicing for weeks. I ask the barman for a pint of milk. ‘Would that be with ice?’ he asks without batting an eyelid. I set up a tab. Who knows how many milks I’ll have downed before the night it out.
When I was eight, I watched as week after week the library in my hometown was being built. On opening day I was the first to enrol - a child from a decidedly unbookish family parked outside the new library on her little yellow scooter waiting for the doors to open. Now here I am all these years later having watched the Premier Inn go up on the old Telephone House site, getting in on opening day for no other reason than that I’m curious. Last time it was books that brought me in. This time it’s My Tonight From Shrewsbury.
Oh, and Batman. I’m looking for Batman. I photographed him on Pride Hill the other week raising funds for charity, and am reliably informed that his day-to-day persona is as Manager of the Premier Inn. So I’m here to find out if that’s true or not.
A tall thin man goes by. Could this be him? He asks if I’m all right. I answer yes. Is he the Manager, I ask. He says he’s a part of the training team. Another man comes to the bar, wearing a badge and looking official and important. He’s tall enough to be Batman most definitely, so I ask if that’s who he is and he laughs and says no, that’s Darren. At least, I think that was his name.
I retire with my milk to an empty sofa by the window. From here I can see restaurant, bar and cars going by. Voices in the dining room are discreet – a murmur of sound rather than a roar. I had the misfortune once to go into a Premier Inn in another part of the country and it was packed with screaming kids. Nothing like that here.
It’s time to eat. I order food. I wait. I eat. I drink more milk. I go to the loo. Nice toilet - grey slate floor tiles, raised white hand basins, nice tiling on walls, aluminium trims on everything. Can’t think of anything else to say. Back at the table, the meal is quickly finished. Then it’s off to reception to ask to see a room. Not that I want to stay, but it’s nice to know what’s available.
Everything is immaculate, as you’d expect on its first day. Here’s a mattress that’s not been slept on yet, bed linen that awaits its first human contact, a bath that doesn’t know what it’s like to be filled. There are even feather pillows for in case guests don’t happen to like foam.
The nice tall man who’s shown me the room [who also isn’t Batman, by the way] tells me about breakfast deals, eat-as-much-as-you-can deals and weekend breaks. Already the hotel is fully booked up for this coming August’s Flower Show. And in a couple of weeks’ time it will be completely taken over by some regimental reunion. Sounds like it’s off to a flying start.
It’s easy to pick on Premier Inns for being the same everywhere you go. [And for being purple. The purpleness is everywhere]. What stands out about this one though is the friendliness of its staff and their willingness to please. When I ask if breakfasts are of organic products locally sourced, the tall man says, ‘I wish,’ and sounds as if he means it. And I know it's the first day, so they're bound to be keen, but I still appreciate being asked repeatedly if everything is all right.
When I leave, I still haven’t seen Batman. That’s my only gripe. But if you don’t persist, you don’t get – and I’ve only asked once and then given up. Certainly I won't ask now. Back home again, I’m too tired. Nothing else to say but goodnight.