If you can’t actually be at Gilpin Hotel in the Lake District, then being transported there is the next best thing.

Instead of a dry, official history, owner John Cunliffe’s memoir charts how idyllic memories of holidaying at Gilpin with his grandmother just after the war turned into a slightly eccentric passion, and finally a thriving business.

Many visitors have been called back to this enchanting spot, but none so powerfully as that small boy, who, following a career in the hotel business spanning New York,  Jamaica and the City of London, could eventually, with his wife Chris, buy back Gilpin and create something truly special.

Honest, funny and always clear-eyed about the sheer hard work that goes into this kind of obsession, and full of insights into the unique challenges of sustaining that rarest of spots – a great family-run hotel – Slightly Perfect does justice to Gilpin and a life in hospitality.

Olivia Cole
Literary Editor, British GQ 


It’s 1987, and John and Chris Cunliffe’s first hotel, the Hole in the Wall in Bath, has turned into a disaster.

Fed up with corporate hospitality, John had left a successful career within the Forte empire, holding senior positions in hotels around the world, then in charge of catering and banquets for some of London’s most venerable institutions.

They had bought an established small hotel in a tourist hotspot popular with Americans – but it was plagued with problems. The Americans bombed Libya. Business plummeted. The roof leaked. Business people stopped doing lunch. Tourists preferred pizzas and burgers. There were staff problems. The accounts were a mess.

Then Chris sees a small ad in Caterer & Hotelkeeper. ‘John. Gilpin Lodge is for sale. We need to get out of this place. It’s been wrong since day one. Get up to Windermere today. Get the accounts. See the rooms. You’ve always wanted a hotel in the Lakes. They don’t grow on trees. You know the place. It’s in your blood. Just go and get us out of this mess.’

It’s a pivotal moment in Slightly Perfect, and within months Gilpin Lodge, the Lake District house once owned by his grandmother, where John had spent happy childhood summers, is theirs, and so begins a much-loved lifelong project.

This is a warm, entertaining and honest account of one marriage, one family, and one industry – spanning 50 years.

The story starts as Chris and John meet at hotel and catering management college in London. On graduation, John heads to New York’s Waldorf Astoria for his first job. Chris needs a Green Card to work in the USA, but the rules change. Their wedding is brought forward and she joins him. But their American tale is dramatically cut short.

Back to London and Chris joins Forte & Co’s head office dealing with recruitment for the international hotels division, while John works at Browns Hotel in Dover Street. A brief spell in the Lakes follows, and they start a family before returning to London where Chris continues to climb the Forte ladder. John joins her in the company as Catering Manager at City caterers Ring & Brymer. He then moves to the world-famous Café Royal.

The next stop is Cyprus in the run-up to the Turkish invasion, then yet another move to Jamaica, where John opens a new hotel, before another dramatic exit… Returning to London, John manages Grosvenor House Hotel’s apartments, a Mayfair home to wealthy widows, obscure colonial Royals and Middle Eastern playboys. He then returns to Ring & Brymer and we see a fascinating portrait of a world of Livery Company banquets, Guildhall dinners and Downing Street functions in the 70s and 80s. Chris meanwhile juggles motherhood with running catering services for the London Borough of Bromley, responsible for 120 schools and over 600 staff.

And so The Hole in the Wall leads to part two of Slightly Perfect: a story of a family business and a quest for perfection, as John and Chris turn a tired bed and breakfast into something altogether different.

With 80-hour weeks, no holidays or even a proper home, and Chris in the kitchen as head chef, the Cunliffes constantly find new ways to add more rooms, improve food, attract new custom, grapple with computers, and develop their ‘brand’. Readers gain a real insight into the business of hospitality and what drives success.

This is no Fawlty Towers memoir, but there are trials and tribulations, with ignorant banks, failed septic tanks, erratic builders, litigious staff, and a mystery fire. It’s also a family story. Eldest son Barney joins the business with his wife Zoë; they search for a new chef on TV and win accolades, and younger son Ben helps steer Gilpin’s stunning developments.

As John Cunliffe says: “Slightly Perfect is essentially a love story, but in a non-soppy sense. Love of the Lake District, of Gilpin and of the Lake House, of hotels as places to be enjoyed, of my own family and of an extended family of people who have helped to make Gilpin – and who still do.”

John as a small boy.

A little bit later!

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Slightly Perfect: Lakeland Book of the Year 2020 Winner

Slightly Perfect won its category and second overall in the highly regarded literary awards. Slightly Perfect by John Cunliffe was the winner of the People & Business category at the 2020 Lakeland Book of the Year awards, and went on to be one of two books in close contention for the overall Hunter Davies Lakeland Book of the Year prize.

The awards founder and judge, Hunter Davies, described Slightly Perfect as “very funny, enjoyable, honest and revealing”, adding that he and his fellow judges had had a hard time choosing between the two frontrunners for the overall competition winner. The winner of the overall award for 2020 was The Lake District in 101 Maps and Infographics by David Felton, Evelyn Sinclair and Andrew Chapman, with Slightly Perfect coming a close second. There were 68 books entered for this year’s awards, which were whittled down to a shortlist of 18 finalists across six categories by judges Hunter Davies, Fiona Armstrong and Eric Robson. Because of Covid-19 restrictions and for the first time in its 36 years, the 2020 awards ceremony was held online.

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