From chic stopover for the well heeled motoring grand tourists of the 1930s, to a key destination for ravers, Askers Roadhouse Hotel had led a chequered career by the time it was consumed by fire soon after an infamous 29-hour rave in the early 1990s.
But its greatest claim to fame – a visit by the Beatles – has been shrouded in mystery (or spurious detail), at least as far as the internet is concerned. A wealth of misinformation has been copied and repeated so often it’s in danger of becoming that curse of the modern age, the factoid: unreliable information reported so frequently it becomes accepted as true.
In actual fact, when the Fab Four stopped for lunch at Askers on Wednesday 13 November 1963 it was the first time they had set foot in Dorset as a group. They were on their way from Portsmouth – where they had been forced to postpone a show the night before when Paul McCartney fell ill with gastric flu – to their concert in Plymouth that night.
Although the nation was in the grip of full blown Beatlemania and the group was halfway through a tour that would see their hit single She Loves You returned to the top of the charts for a second time by the end of the month, news that the biggest band in the land would be stopping at Askers was kept fairly quiet.
However, a report in the Bournemouth Echo revealed the boys dined on grilled steak and chips, except Paul who had a lightly poached egg on toast, and afterwards signed autographs for fellow diners and had their photos taken with the owner, a Mr R L Robbins, and his wife. Their daughters, Elizabeth, 14 and Sally, 11, were doubtless bitterly disappointed to be away at the time – at school in Bournemouth.
After meeting a honeymoon couple en route to Torquay and posing with the bride as the husband took photos The Beatles left Dorset in their Austin Princess limousine through Charmouth and Lyme Regis.
To keep them amused on the road the group had been given cine cameras and footage shot at Askers later turned up during a montage soundtracked by their song It Won’t Be Long in the 1995 Anthology documentary series. In a final footnote to the episode, in 2009 a set of photos taken at Askers and given by Mrs Robbins to a friend she knew was a Beatles fan, was offered for sale at auction by Dukes of Dorchester. They sold for £460, far exceeding the estimate of £30-£60, but much of confusion surrounding the story behind those photos can be traced back to the reporting of that sale.
When it opened in 1931 Askers was marketed with a colourful and stylish brochure influenced by the prevailing art deco style and aimed squarely at motorists who might be touring West Dorset. More prosaic perhaps but not without charm are two 1930s art postcards featuring drawings of the dining room and outside by Walter M Keesey and a third, much more dramatic, card by renowned transport poster artist Leslie Carr showing a touring car sweeping into the hotel forecourt at night, the epitome of swanky modernity.
Something of a local landmark near Askerswell, on the north side of the A35 heading east from Bridport to Dorchester, the hotel offered camping facilities during and after World War 2 and, in the 1950s, played host to ‘Hamfests’ organised for local amateur radio enthusiasts by Alf Barrett. The lights of Askers must have been a welcome sight on the snow filled night of 22 December 1962 when the hotel provided shelter for dozens of motorists and bus passengers marooned by the weather.
From the 1940s onwards Askers enjoyed a formidable reputation for live music and dances – big bands in the early days and by the 1960s local groups such as the Skyliners and the Roland Halliday Band. In the 1970s – and renamed the Askers Motel – it regularly played host to the Pete Wilson Showband, a Weymouth band fronted by Pete and Esme Wilson who played throughout the region and last year, following Esme’s death, were remembered at a special event at the Pavilion hosted by their daughter Julie Storey.
Although still known to locals as Askers, after another name change – to Four Winds Motel – the musical connection continued and groups including The Troggs, Herman’s Hermits and Racey, all well past their hit-making heydays, stayed there.
A further change of ownership resulted in a reversion to its previous name and a moment’s notoriety as a venue for raves, most notably the weekend-long Eternity party held for the ITV Telethon in May 1990 and other raves immortalised on the Askers Acid mixtape, some of which were raided by police. This served to accelerate a nationwide clampdown that eventually resulted in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act which granted police powers to shut down events featuring music ‘characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’.
By then, though, the hotel had burned down, its charred remains becoming a local landmark; it was listed on some bus timetables as the ‘Askerswell Ruin’.
The bus stop has since moved west to Chilcombe Lane, leaving little reason for travellers of any kind to stop at Askers as nature very gradually retakes possession of the site.
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine