By Good Hotel Guide editor Adam Raphael
When the Von Essen hotel group which owned many of Britain’s finest hotels went bust in 2011, it was bad news for its creditors. In particular, Barclays and Lloyds which had lent nearly £300 million on the basis of dodgy property valuations.
But it was good news for the British hotel industry.
A hotel is only as good as its reputation, and the reputation of the Von Essen group, in spite of all the media puffery by Michael Winner and many others, was poor.
The 31 luxury hotels which Andrew Davis, a property developer, had amassed over 15 years were badly run and starved of investment. One by one, they were dropped by the Guide following complaints from readers of poor service and casual standards.
Capitalism gets a bad press, but this is a good news story. In the four years since the Von Essen empire was dismembered, its former properties have been restored by professional hoteliers who have given them the personal attention and funds required to make them flourish.
Most of them are now deservedly back in the Guide as full entries. Many, probably a majority, are labours of love. The investment demands and staff costs are high. You don’t make big profits running small owner-managed luxury hotels.
I have recently visited several of the former Von Essen properties and am impressed by the skill and care that is being put into their restoration after years of neglect.
Cliveden House at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, (above) on the banks of the River Thames, is set in a National Trust estate with a magnificent garden. A huge programme of refurbishment and modernisation has almost been completed.
The hotel’s motto: ‘Nothing ordinary ever happened here, nor could it’, is a fair description of an historic house which has witnessed many a drama, not least the swimming pool encounter between Christine Keeler and John Profumo which contributed to the fall of the Macmillan government.
Llangoed Hall, Llyswen, Wales, (pictured at top of page) once owned by Sir Bernard Ashley, has been restored sensitively as an old-fashioned English country house with more than £3 million spent in bringing it up to scratch.
When I stayed there for a couple of nights last month, I had a comfortable room with original Laura Ashley wallpaper, the food was of a high standard, and the setting by the River Wye, stunning. There are bees, ducks and chickens in residence. Expensive but worth it.
Congham Hall, (above) bought by Nicholas DickInson, from the Von Essen adminstrators in 2012, is slowly but steadily coming back into its own as a lovely country hotel. The Queen’s estate at Sandringham is nearby; there are 400 varieties in the herb garden which contribute to the cooking’s theme of taste and simplicity.
Finally, Nigel Chapman is displaying his professional skills in the revival of the Luxury Family Group.
Three of the original hotels in the group, Woolley Grange (below), Fowey Hall and Moonfleet Manor rescued from administration are back in the Guide and deservedly popular with parents with young children.
Another talented hotelier, Robin Hutson is showing just how it should be done having bought one of the Von Essen properties with his new group of small luxury hotels. The Pig, Brockenhurst, The Pig near Bath, and The Pig In The Wall, Southampton, (below) are pacesetters for a new style of leisure stays.
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