Adrian Mourby

Back to Inspirations
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.
Hotel du Vin - 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.

Tuddenham Mill

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.

Malmaison - 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.

Hotel du Vin - 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 Wood Norton

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.

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