Adrian Mourby

Back to Inspirations
Once upon a time summer time in Britain was synonymous with coastline for most of us. From June till the end of August steam trains delivered families to busy seaside railway stations all over Britain. I remember that the first sight of the Irish Sea, North Sea or English Channel. It was always momentous, regardless of how cold the water later proved to be. Or indeed how dowdy our boarding houses. How things have changed! Today Britain's coastline contains some of our glamorous hotels.

But I also remember how back in the 1970s cheap flights to Spain sent the British seaside resort into a decline. Fortunately, the twenty-first century has seen a resurrection of the seaside holiday. Global warming has probably helped – who has not seen pictures of British beaches packed on sunny Bank Holidays? but so has the excellence of several coastal hotels that become resorts in their own right.

So here is my selection – from Scotland (but not quite John O'Groats) to Cornwall (actually quite close to Land's End). Oh, it's going to be a wonderful summer.
The Grand Hotel

Eastbourne became fashionable in the 1780s when George III sent four of his children on a sea-bathing holiday here, but it was in the nineteenth century that tourism really took off. Statues to the Dukes of Devonshire in the town attest to the impact of the entrepreneurial Cavendish family on this corner of the English coastline. Successive dukes divided their Compton Estate between a golf course and extending the resort we see today. Eastbourne was built quickly – and almost from scratch - in a series of sea-facing terraces that wouldn't have looked out of place in Cheltenham or Bath. And at the southwestern end of the new town, a grand hotel was constructed.

The Grand was designed by William Earp and built at the huge cost of £50,000. It opened in 1875 and absolutely confirmed Eastbourne's place on the Victorian holiday map. This was a massive building whose dimensions and lofty public spaces spoke of empire. The dukes of Devonshire always stayed at the hotel when in Eastbourne and entertained the royal family here too, so it had to be good.

Today the Grand still impresses. Its gardens that once looked onto the English Channel have been turned into a car park, and reception has been moved from Compton Street to the old garden entrance, but the Victorian dimensions of the façade remain unchanged. Inside there has been some partitioning to create smaller drawing rooms off the bar, but the dining room is as impressive as it ever was in Queen Victoria's time. This is a Titanic of dining rooms but without the tragic implications of that comparison. Entering today you might wonder if the Grand could ever manage to fill it to capacity, but when the hotel is full at weekends it actually has to use the Concourse – a long sun lounge running parallel to the dining room- as its overspill area.

The beach at Eastbourne retains its brightly painted bathing huts and has an old Martello Tower designed to repel Napoleon (had he ever invaded). It also boasts a traditional pier and a bandstand where evening concerts are still given. This is a traditional English seaside hotel in a traditional seaside resort.

One of the most unusual stories about this hotel concerns the composer Claude Debussy, who in 1905 stayed at the Grand for five weeks while correcting the proofs of his symphonic masterpiece 'La Mer'. Debussy took a room overlooking the English Channel and hired a Blüthner baby grand piano, which he had brought round to the suite where he was staying with his mistress. (Today Heritage, the piano dealer in Terminus Road, has been converted into a Superdrug). Debussy liked this particular grand piano so much that when he returned to France he paid to take it back with him. Today it is on display at Musée Labenche in Brive-la-Gaillarde as “Debussy's piano”.

Airds Hotel & Restaurant

Airds on the west coast of Scotland is small whitewashed hotel that looks on to Loch Linhe, the only "sea loch" on the Great Glen Fault that slices Scotland diagonally in two.

Airds began life in the nineteenth century as an inn on the road to Port Appin. Today travellers can still cross to the islands of Lismore, Mull, Eigg and Rum from here. From humble beginnings as a place where cattle drovers could get some rural R&R, Airds has established itself in the 21st century as a major Scottish restaurant with rooms. In the summer its garden, which runs all the way down to the loch, is full of visitors eating cream teas. Then in winter Airds becomes a seacoast hideaway as snow settles on the peaks of the dramatic Morvern peninsula opposite.

Guests have a choice of eleven bedrooms and can enjoy any number of tranquil summer walks from Airds. At low tide it is possible to walk across to the lighthouse island in front of the hotel, and seven miles north along the coast – rearing up on its own craggy island - stands Castle Stalker. This dramatic fourteenth century tower-house famously appeared in the closing scenes of the British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Castle Stalker was built by the Stewarts, relatives of King James IV of Scotland, but in 1620 passed to the Clan Campbell as the result of a drunken bet. The Campbells abandoned the castle after its roof fell apart in the 1840s but it was restored at the beginning of the twentieth century and is now open to the public at selected times during the summer.

Some people come to Airds for the food and others for the view, but no one rushes away. This is a hotel to be savoured on dark winter nights around the drawing room's two fireplaces, and also enjoyed alfresco on the long mellow evenings of summer.

The Nare Hotel

Not many hotels own two boats for the use of guests. At the Nare on Cornwall's enchanting Roseland Peninsula a 38-foot motor launch called the Alice Rose is available every Tuesday and Saturday in spring and summer - and there's also a four-person yacht for hire.

Guests board the Alice Rose eight miles away in Tolverne and the cruise begins down the beautiful River Fal, a ria or drowned valley with lush vegetation on all sides. Heading further out to sea, the Alice Rose passes Falmouth and Pendennis Castle before turning up the Helford River, another delightful ria before mooring for lunch. The round trip costs £85 person and includes drinks, house wine and lunch. Guests are back at the hotel by 4 pm.

The hotel 's yacht is called Maggie O'Nare, a modern craft with red sails designed along the lines of a traditional Cornish crabber. She can be chartered for a day of fishing and/ or swimming. The half-day rate is £230 and the full-day rate £290. This includes the services of skipper, Toby Ashworth who also happens to be the proprietor of the Nare.

It was Toby's grandmother who bought the Nare 25 years ago, furnishing it as a family home by the sea. Although much enlarged and now with two restaurants and two swimming pools, the Nare still has the feel of a country house with the good fortune to overlook Carne Beach and the South West Coastal Path.

The hotel's dining room has sea views on three sides and serves local Portloe lobster every evening. The dining room benefits greatly from the hotel's Quarterdeck Restaurant nearby, where youngsters under seven are fed in the evening after 7.30 pm. This traditional idea of making sure that children are fed but not heard is a boon for those who want to enjoy a quiet five-course table d'hote dinner - but also for the parents of young children who want to be able to eat without saying sorry all the time.

South Sands

South Sands in Devon is a gorgeously restful hotel whatever time of year you visit. It sits on the Salcombe-Kingsbridge estuary, tucked away in a small bay carved out of the coastline. The remains of an old royalist fortress guards the bay and the approaches to Salcombe, but centuries of waves have reduced it to little more than a rocky stump visible from the hotel's dining room.

In the autumn, waves smash dramatically against the quayside at South Sands and in winter - as recently - you may even see snow on the beach, but in summer the wide expanse of sand in front of the hotel makes a great place for families who want to swim, paddle and build sand castles. You also can hire canoes and surfboards at Sea Kayak Salcombe, which operates from the old lifeboat station next-door to the hotel. The company also run rock-hopping excursions through the caves and flooded gullies around South Sands. As well as being designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, South Sands beach is part of Britain's National Heritage Coastline.

Staying at the hotel is the best way to enjoy this hidden Devon beach because you have it to yourself when the day-trippers have all gone home. Set the alarm for dawn and come down early. When the tide is in, the sea surges immediately below the hotel's terrace, a thrilling presence in the half-light of morning. When the tide is out, you have a long beach walk ahead of you down to the east-facing shoreline.

In the evening sit on the terrace and dine on local produce prepared by chef Allister Bishop in a big glazed dining room that makes the most of the bay view.

Artist Residence Cornwall

A mere five minutes walk from the quayside in Penzance sits a Georgian house, reworked in colourful and quirky hues by the team that created Artists Residences in Brighton, Oxfordshire, London, and Bristol. Here the company's style incorporates driftwood, exposed brick and big sofas with a beer garden that offers hammocks for the seriously chilled. The dining room, "Cornish Barn" serves up hearty portions of local meat and fish in an intimate and relaxed setting, with a log burner for chilly days and a sun-trap of a garden for Cornish summers.

The team behind Artists Residences, Charlotte and Justin, describe their hotels as “fun and friendly places to eat, drink and sleep”. That description certainly suits the breezy and cheery ethos of their Penzance residence.

The hotel is perfectly located for exploring the Cornish peninsula. Penzance sits at Cornwall's narrowest point, making it easy to drive north for the Poldarkian north coast or south for the more mellow coastline around Mousehole and Newlyn.

Chateau Rhianfa

Chateau Rhianfa rises up as dramatically as any castle above the Menai Strait. Before it was reconceived in the French style, the chateau was known as Plas Rhianfa which means "place" or bower "of the lady" in Welsh. Sir John Williams, Baronet of Bodelwyddan and former High Sherriff of Anglesey wanted to leave his young wife the house of her dreams when he died and so he gave the design of it over to her.

Lady Sarah had made sketches of the sixteenth-century Château de Chenonceau on the couple's European travels and she brought these to the architect Charles Read for incorporation into their design. Not surprisingly the chateau which was completed in 1851 would not look out of place in the Loire Valley. The house remained in the possession of the Williams family until 1957 when it was sold and converted into a number of apartments. Most of the land surrounding the house was sold off too, leaving just three acres attached to the estate. When the Chateau was turned into a hotel, bedrooms were created that made the most of its spectacular views over the strait that divides Anglesey from the Welsh mainland. Today some bedrooms even have baths in their windows so you can soak up the view and the soap suds at the same time. Guests can also stay one of three self-catering lodges in the hotel grounds.

The hotel offers a number of activities including wine-tasting in the charmingly vaulted cellars, falconry lessons and speedboat hire for an exploration of the Menai Strait. Or you can just enjoy the tranquil home that Lady Sarah created for her impending widowhood.

The Imperial Hotel

It's difficult to believe that Llandudno, named the “Queen of the Welsh resorts” in 1864 had been a small North Walian town of miners and fisherfolk only twenty years before.

In 1848, an enterprising Liverpool architect called Owen Williams presented Lord Mostyn, the local landowner with plans to develop the marshlands behind Llandudno Bay as a holiday resort. Like the Duke of Devonshire in Eastbourne, Lord Mostyn threw his weight and wealth behind the project and by 1877 most of the Llandudno we know today had been built in long terraces broken up by some individual boarding houses.

Among the early guests was the family of Alice (Alice in Wonderland) Liddell who stayed at a Llandudno house called Penmorfa where they were actually visited by Lewis Carroll in the 1860s. Llandudno is proud of its Alice connection but also the way that successive Lords Mostyn have preserved the Victorian layout of the resort. The current lord (who also happens to be the 13th richest person aged under 30 in the UK) is equally committed to this policy of preservation. Sitting at the centre of the broad sweep of the Victorian promenade is The Imperial Hotel, the uncrowned Queen of Llanudno. With its grey stucco façade broken up by semi-circular bay windows, elaborate white downpipes and a host of neo-Italian arches it could not look more Victorian if it tried. Inside there's a modern pool and a restaurant known as Chantreys but the new fifth floor rooms with rooftop balconies have the best views of Llandudno Bay and a birdseye view of Lord Mostyn's grand project.

The Headland Hotel & Spa

Clark Gable, Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) are just three of the celebrities who have stayed at Newquay's remarkable Headland Hotel.

In 1951 Clark Gable was filming the Cold War romance Never Let Me Go, with Newquay and Mullion doubling as the Russian coastline while the teenage prince was convalescing here - some decades earlier - after contracting mumps while training at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. His brother Bertie (later King George VI) came to visit him at the Headland and they shared a suite of rooms on the first floor. The boys' grandparents Edward VII and Queen Mary also came to stay. With that kind of guest list it's not surprising the hotel, which opened in 1900, was built to impress. It's even more impressive these days, as an extensive recent refurbishment draws to a close.

Don't be surprised to hear German spoken in the lobby. The author Rosamunde Pilcher, who grew up in Cornwall and used to attend parties at The Headland, wrote about the hotel and adaptations of her books are particularly popular on German TV. Don't be surprised to find dogs here either. The hotel is not just dog-friendly, but has even placed dogs statuary in the lobby to help visiting canines feel at home.

The Headland occupies a real headland just above Fistral Beach. This is a very popular place to swim in the summer but afterwards it's good to be able to retreat up to the hotel and dine in quiet comfort in the Headland's Samphire Restaurant. Executive chef Christopher Archambault makes the most of local Cornish produce, as does the bar team. I can particularly recommend their Cornish martini made with Tarquin Gin from Wadebridge.

The Quay Hotel & Spa

Most British seaside resorts are Victorian. Some are pre-Victorian ports that were rapidly adapted to service the 19th-century mania for seabathing and Kiss-Me-Quick walks on the pier. But Deganwy is different from being a new, late 20th century resort development.

The name Deganwy probably comes from the Welsh Dinas-Gonwy (fortified town on the River Conwy) but its castle was demolished by avenging Welsh Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1263 and all that remains today are ruins.

The town's marina and its lovely new Quay Hotel are actually built on wharves that were constructed in the nineteenth century for the purpose of exporting North Walian slate by steamboat. Given the impassable nature of Snowdonia's roads at the time, slate was brought by rail from Blaenau Ffestiniog to be shipped out around the British Isles. So while many towns around the British coastline were becoming resorts, Deganwy was industrialising. In the twentieth century when the slate industry decline the wharves fell into disrepair but then plans were laid for a marina with housing on the abandoned site and modern hotel accommodation was planned too. The presence of a railway station with connections to Manchester Piccadilly meant that Deganwy, once a fortress and thereafter an industrial port, could become an attractive new resort on the Welsh coast. Today its hotel terrace offers a tranquil spot to sit and enjoy a drink as the sun sets over the Irish Sea.