Sue Lloyd-Roberts sadly passed away in 2015.
There is one, small clue to the identity of the chatelaine of Ca’n Reus guesthouse – a barely discernible, yet telltale lisp in an accent so refined it could etch crystal. And perhaps, just perhaps, if you’re a newsaholic fan of TV current affairs programmes, there’s a lingering hint of familiarity about the name and face.But, as with so many things she does, a clandestine aura surrounds Sue Lloyd-Roberts. For the BBC’s Human Rights correspondent, it’s almost an occupational necessity and at odds with the media celebrity of some of her peers, notably Jeremy Paxman, Natasha Kaplinsky and Sir Trevor McDonald.
“I’m not a traditional TV reporter,” she explains. “I don’t cover big events, like wars, so I’m not on the screen that often. And when I am, it could be months before viewers clap eyes on me again.”
Besides, to slip across international borders covertly into the heartlands of some of the globe’s vilest regimes and unmask their grotesque crimes, requires a high degree of stealth – not to say resolve and courage – that James Bond would envy. Over 20 years, Sue’s compelling exposes have shaken an unsuspecting world out of its complacency. Without her, few would care a jot about children labouring in Indian sweatshops, starving hoards in Zimbabwe, paedophile tourism in Sri Lanka or how orphaned tots can be bought for a fistful of dollars from eastern European gangsters. Nor would viewers have learned how tens of thousands are banged up in Russia’s new Siberian gulags, of Beijing’s grinding repression of Tibetans or the macabre trade in human organs that flourishes across the Middle East.Apart from landing her a seven-year jail sentence in absentia in China and deportation from Iran for lifting the lid on the hideous barbarity of life under the regime’s crazy clerics, Sue has won admiration and professional respect, plus an avalanche of prestigious awards, including an MBE.
But her family – especially her two children from her first marriage – friends and media colleagues believed one of Sue’s recent, great adventures was the most foolhardy yet: She became the landlady of a bespoke guesthouse in Mallorca. “They thought I was mad – and still think I am,” she says, surveying the neat, terraced garden at the rear of Ca’n Reus, the chic, nine-bedroom guesthouse she and her second husband, BBC news producer Nick Guthrie, bought nearly five years ago in the exquisite village of Fornalutx.Once the 18th Century townhouse of a Spanish merchant, made rich from wheeler-dealings in the fruits of the local lemon, orange and olive groves, today Ca’n Reus is one of growing cluster of exclusive, boutique B&Bs catering to the whims of discerning travellers, seduced by the alternative Mallorca’s rural tranquillity and scenic grandeur.
A few years ago the Guthries acquired the house next door as a holiday home, so they could indulge in their passion for trekking in the foothill of the spectacular Sierra Tramuntanas. And when the guesthouse, packed with ancient curios and rustic furnishings, came on the market in 2003, they snapped it up for the privileged price of around a million euros.
Sue, a former ITN newscaster, recalls, “I bought it to escape and rediscover my life. I’d lived and worked under terrific pressure for so long I was beginning to forget what it was all about.” “Probably the turning point came when I found myself breaking into tears alongside the tragic people I was interviewing.”Together, Sue and Nick sank practically every penny they had into the business, including the proceeds from a comfy des res in north London and a holiday cottage in Wales, Sue’s ancestral and spiritual home.
“I don’t want to give the impression that we’re rich,” she explains. “We’re not. Every investment we had, everything I’d ever earned – all of it went into Ca’n Reus, including a huge business loan.”
“My brother, who’s something important in the City, said to me, ‘What on earth are you doing! You’ve never run a small business and you know absolutely nothing about economics.’ And I replied, ‘Well, there’s only one rule: you have to have more coming in than going out’.”
Sue admits it didn’t begin auspiciously, explaining, “There’s no doubt that at the start we were taken advantage of a lot. For instance, my predecessor, who sold us the business, said it would run itself, but that was a big lie.”
“A year later I was much cannier. Now I always put things out to tender and get lots of estimates. And I’ve learned to manage the finance far better.”
To gain a more equitable footing with local tradesmen, Sue, an Oxbridge graduate in French and Italian, added Castillian Spanish and Mallorcan Catalan to her repertoire of linguistic skills. However, she’s at pains to point out she and Nick are not in it for the money. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get rich here, but it’s not about that,” she says, philosophically. “It’s about living in a way we want to.” “Here it’s civilized. It’s light years away from riding to work on the Tube and facing the ugliness of living in London, the crowds, the dirt, the road rage, the fury of it all.”
“Now I feel I’m back in a world I knew in the 1950s.”
“There are so many silly, little reminders, like no litter, because people don’t eat in the street, and everyone takes real pride in their surroundings. And it’s such fun living here – everyone we meet has such brio and enthusiasm.”
If fun is the name of the Mallorca B&B game for the Guthries – Sue always reverts to her married name in the business and won’t capitalize on her TV kudos – then they’re having the proverbial ball.
Each is totally immersed in running Ca’n Reus – aided and abetted by three Romanian émigrés – and, when it comes to dealing with vagaries of guests’ demands, a newshound’s experience can be a blessing.
Sue says, “My job taught me to be something of a diplomat in dealing with people, so it’s an advantage to be able to use the skill as an hotelier. It’s no strain, either, because I really love it and the guests are very appreciative.”
Twice a week, Nick – who commutes between his London office and their Mediterranean idyll – and Sue snatch an opportunity to commandeer the kitchen and cook a lavish dinner. It’s as much a culinary odyssey for them as a bonus for guests.Nick’s speciality is chicken, casseroled with olives and herbs; Sue delights in preparing fish, bought that very day from the slab at Oliveras market, in tantalising ways probably only the Mallorcans could have conjured.
Both embrace local gastronomy to the full, serving only local, mainly organic produce and wines, like the rich tintos from Jose Ferrer vineyards in Binissalem, the spicy reds of Macia Batle, from next-door Santa Maria, and the crisp, dry whites of the Santa Catalina bodega.
Occasionally the outside world beckons and Sue temporarily forsakes the languid bliss of Mallorca for yet another assignment as the BBC’s roving, Human Rights correspondent.
She will set off, single-handed, with a camcorder her only companion – Sue trailblazed the art of undercover reporting, minus a film crew – often putting her life on the line to expose repression and tyranny, wherever it deserves unmasking.
Shortly, she confides, she’s returning covertly to Africa, but what’s no secret is that, come hellholes or famines, she will be back to her dream island at the first, possible opportunity.
“Mallorca is my home now,” adds Sue. “The place has given me a new perspective on life. I feel reborn – and you don’t forget that feeling…ever.”
Ca’n Reus Hotel,
Carrer de l’Auba 26,
Tel. + 34 971 631 174