THE TEN BEST HOTEL CONVERSIONS IN BRITAIN
by Adrian Mourby (April 2014)
Purpose-built hotels are a late nineteenth-century phenomenon. Before the word “hotel” became respectable in Britain we had public houses and coaching inns. In the twentieth century many of these were upgraded to become hotels. But many of our finest hotels today are conversions of stately homes and gentlemen’s town houses. It’s no exaggeration to say that the hotel, once a dubious place reserved for commercial travellers, saved many British country houses - and Georgian town houses - from dereliction and demolition. But many other kinds of buildings have been converted into hotels in this country. In my selection below you’ll find forts, castles and churches, a lunatic asylum, an orphanage and bawdy house. A good number of them are part of the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin chains. In fact an entire editor’s pick could be devoted to just Hotel du Vin and Malmaison, companies that specialise in converting unusual buildings to hotel use. This, then is a celebration of some of the best - and certainly some of the strangest - buildings ever converted to hotel use in Britain. But there are more out there; and as our appetite for staying in hotels grows, there are likely to be even more imaginative conversions coming up soon. The hotel is no longer a dubious place on the edges of society. It’s where grown-ups go to play.
Showing below are all 9 records in "THE TEN BEST HOTEL CONVERSIONS IN BRITAIN"
2 Whitehall Court, London
The Royal Horseguards Hotel is an amalgam of two buildings on the Thames embankment. The National Liberal Club, a glorious home-from-home for politicians like Gladstone, Churchill and Lloyd George was opened in the north end of this Thames terrace in 1887. It still boasts the largest freestanding marble staircase in Europe and the splendid Gladstone Library. This building is connected to what was originally the club’s own apartment block, now a new hotel of 282 rooms owned by the GLH group. Guests can pass between the two buildings via a small door on the ground floor. Inside the new hotel a huge amount of work has been done to create a truly twenty-first century space with a piano bar named Equus (after the Royal Horseguards regiment who are based nearby) and a fine dining restaurant called One Twenty One Two, after the old telephone number for Scotland Yard (London 1212) which had offices on the eighth floor of this block. MI6 spymasters were also based here during World War I. If you enter the hotel from its more modest entrance on Whitehall Place you can see that a modern hotel lobby has been cleverly crafted from ground floor space in the old apartment block. Personally I prefer arriving through the main portal of the National Liberal Club, a much grander affair lined with original Victorian tilework and portraits of Gladstone,Churchill and Lord Roseberry. Given Winston’s axiom that he was easily satisfied with the very best, I think we can assume that he’d been impressed by this most unusual hotel conversion.
278 West George Street, Glasgow
On the slopes of West George Street stands one of the most remarkable hotels anywhere in Britain. Malmaison, a company which takes the idea of imaginative conversions and runs away with it, have here converted a church. But St Jude’s was no normal Episcopalian Scots church. It was built in 1838 by the architect John Stephen of Scott, Stephen and Gale. Stephen was a proponent of Greek Revival style. The growth of Edinburgh as “The New Athens” had made this angular style very popular in Scotland but it is also found in Germany (The Brandenburg Gate) and in the US (the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia). In Glasgow John Stephen went a bit over the top with a very tall, striking entrance that seems to prefigure Hollywood’s view of Cleopatra’s Egypt. As a result reception is twice normal height with a new wrought-iron staircase that tells the story of Napoleon and Josephine (owners of the first Château de Malmaison outside Paris). The church’s crypt is now the hotel brasserie while its champagne bar occupies a roofed-over gap between the original church and its extension. Here, in a typically whimsical Malmaison touch, large models of WWI aircraft hang overhead for no good reason except that it's fun. Not surprisingly staying at the Glasgow Malmaison is a unique experience. What other hotel has a suite named The Big Yin after Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly?
11 Bistro Place, Edinburgh
This distinctive hotel in Bristo Place occupies part of the old Edinburgh Bedlam Mental Institute, constructed in 1743. In its sad heyday it housed almost 500 adults and 180 children in less-than-luxurious conditions. Next door stood the New North Free Church, which has also been recently converted and is now the Bedlam Theatre run by the prolific Edinburgh University Theatre Company. The theme of Bedlam continues inside the hotel. From the outside it looks like part of a row of old terraced housing but down a long stone passageway you’ll come to two distinctive dining rooms: Bedlam (which retains its original eighteenth-century domed ceiling) and Burke & Hare, which celebrates two notorious Edinburgh grave robbers in one of Hotel du Vin’s disinctive trompe d’oeil murals. The hotel has 47 bedrooms with the quieter suites spread around the courtyard. All the usual stylistic hallmarks of Hotel du Vin are here: leather armchairs, freestanding baths, huge beds with high-thread-count linen, exposed brickwork and moody lighting. There’s even the occasional mezzanine and discreet touches of tartan to remind us that we are in Scotland.
High Street, Tuddenham, Tuddenham
Watermills became popular for conversion into houses in the early twentieth century because they usually had large rooms and a picturesque stream running nearby. A number of these conversions are now also hotels, most notably Tuddenham Mill, a seventeeth-century water mill on the Suffolk/Cambridge border. With its white clapboard upper storeys, overhanging winch housing and tall brick chimney this looks like a mill that Constable might have painted. Inside, the low wooden beams in the dining room testify to the mill’s authenticity and the original mill wheel, once used for milling flour, is a prominent feature of the bar. The rest of the hotel is modern, carved out of the existing structure to create spacious white rooms with high ceilings. For the full rural effect, book the Mill Room or Mill Room East where the bathtubs have views of the millpond through picture windows.
1 Tower Place, Edinburgh
Malmaison Edinburgh is situated in an old Former Seamen's Mission in the city’s port of Leith. While this castellated Victorian building – half chateau, half fortress – looks very quaint now, at the beginning of the twentieth century it was in the middle of a notorious dockland slum. Known as the “Angel Hotel”, the Seaman’s Mission was virtually a brothel for many years. With a knowing nod and wink to this, the hotel has been completely refurbished using a lot of black and red, the traditional colours for bordellos, and there is a red light running round reception. Do not worry. The area round the hotel is now very chic and upmarket. So much so that the Royal Yacht Britannia is moored nearby. Book into Room 322 if you want to enjoy one of the sweet little French turrets that crown the buildings, and if you ask very nicely at reception they may take you up on the roof. There are some great views all the way back to Auld Reekie and out into the Firth of Forth.
89 The Mount, York
This eighteenth-century building set back on The Mount, one of York’s best addresses, was originally a family home. Later it was used as an orphanage before passing into the imaginative hands of Hotel du Vin. The company has retained the distinctive floor-to-ceiling Georgian windows that would have looked out on gardens and on visitors arriving in pony and trap, and also the ancient floorboards. But what is truly remarkable is how Hotel du Vin has managed to hide 44 predominantly modern bedrooms behind this modest Jane Austenesque facade. Jane would probably not understand phrases like “bathroom” let alone "stand-alone roll-tops" and "monsoon showers" but I hope she'd approve of the comfort. Do ask to be shown the two meeting rooms – Abbey Well and Ouse – where you’ll get the best feel for the lightness and spaciousness of Georgian architecture. Ask to see the wine list too if you have time to browse all 38 pages. The rest of the hotel is modern in a very Hotel du Vin kind of way: leather bar stools with chrome foot bars, a shiny zinc bar and a typically Anglo-French feel to the decor throughout.
The Departure Lounge, Canal Side, Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth
Without a doubt the most unusual hotel conversion in Britain is Spitbank Fort, built as part of the seventeenth-century sea defences for Portsmouth Harbour. Today it is a private circular island in the Solent. Work on the fort was ordered in 1861 by Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, but not completed until 1878 by which time Palmerston was dead and his fortresses had gained the epithet Palmerston’s Follies because no one could see the point of them. In 1898 the sea-battered fortress was given the function of defending Portsmouth harbour against light craft and fitted out with searchlights and two smaller guns, but it never saw action. In 1962 the Ministry of Defence declared it surplus to requirement and Spitbank was sold off, eventually becoming a hotel that can only be reached by boat and (indirectly) helicopter. Although much of the fort’s original circular layout has been retained, the interior contains such un-Victorian features as a sauna and games room, a rooftop hot pool and firepit and nine luxury bedroom suites.
Worcester Road, Wood Norton, Evesham
This Grade II listed Victorian country house was built for Prince Philippe d'Orléans, great-grandson Louis Philippe, the last King of the French who had abdicated in 1848. Prince Philippe died in 1926 as the last claimant to the French throne. Because it was hidden away within acres of remote woodland on a hill facing south towards the continent, the BBC bought Wood Norton in 1939 and used it as a monitoring station during World War II. Sadly they accidentally burned down much of the Prince’s original upper storey in the process. Later Wood Norton became an alternative broadcasting centre if London were to be destroyed first by V2 rockets and then by nuclear warfare. The BBC also used it as a training centre. When I received my BBC training in 1979 I was shown the bunker in the grounds where, in the event of nuclear armageddon a skeleton staff would play old episodes of The Archers for the benefit of those few survivors out there in post-holocaust Britain. After the BBC sold off Wood Norton in the 1990s it functioned as a hotel for a few years but a lot of renovation was needed. In 2012 it reopened restored to the kind of Orleanist splendour in which Prince Philippe would feel at home.
Langley on Tyne, Hexham
You’ll find a lot of hotels with names including “Castle” in Britain but none that looks quite so much like the castles of our medieval imagination as Langley. Langley Castle was built in the fourteenth century as a “tower house”, a defensive fort that could also be lived in. The builder was Sir Thomas de Lucy who lived in dangerous times. This four-storey block was ferociously attacked by the forces of Henry IV when he was fighting the Dukes of Northumberland (see Henry IV Part I). After that siege it remained a ruin until it was bought and restored by the nineteenth-century historian, Cadwallader Bates. During World War II it was requisitioned as a barracks and then used as a girls’ school before being converted into a luxury hotel within a ten-acre woodland estate. Some of the feature rooms in the main Castle have spa baths and window seats set into the seven-foot deep walls and four-poster beds are de rigeur, some with quasi-medieval canopies.
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