A fine vintage

A fine vintage

Robert Cook, Hotel du Vin and Malmaison group chief executive, gives Brian Nicholls the grand tour of the the biggest Hotel du Vin yet.

By the time you read this, a unique hotel will have opened in Newcastle.

At every turn, it will remind visitors that this region was once a world-leading maritime centre - in fact it still is, when you consider the marine insurers thriving in Newcastle and Sunderland.  Simultaneously, the hotel will consciously aim to raise its visitors’ knowledge and appreciation of wine. Newcastle’s new Hotel du Vin occupies what was an Edwardian-built maintenance depot and store for the Tyne Tees Steam Shipping Company.

The 100-year-old building overlooking the Tyne has been extensively renovated and refurbished, but it retains the character given to it by its first owner, a firm which was established in 1864.

Robert Cook, chief executive of the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin group, has no anxieties about its appeal.

“Frankly, I think this is the best Hotel du Vin we have done yet,” he says, going on to explain that there will be 14 carrying the name in England and Scotland by the end of 2008.

Throughout its 13 years, the group has been rescuing old buildings for hotel conversions: a former eye hospital in Birmingham, an old brewery in Henley, a one-time mental asylum in Edinburgh, a former mansion house in Poole, a disused sugar warehouse in Bristol.

Now it’s the turn of Allan House on Newcastle’s City Road, close to the former Tyne Tees TV studios.

It has 42 guest rooms and will be the biggest Hotel du Vin in the country.

Cook says they are all individuals, but why a building just five minutes’ walk from the group’s Malmaison, where he was the first general manager 11 years ago? “I knew about this building from my days at the Malmaison and to be honest, I always fancied doing it privately for myself.

I was a general manager then though, and didn’t realise I’d get to the giddy heights of being the group chief executive.

“When I got board approval to look for a second building in Newcastle, I felt this place could make something really smart.

Newcastle’s Malmaison has been one of the most successful of that brand and I think this city is still lacking quality hotel rooms.

“Had the building allowed, I would have given Malmaison an extension, adding perhaps 50 bedrooms to the existing 122, so it’s sensible for us to provide rooms here.

Also, we’re giving the city a bistro restaurant of considerable character with a huge wine list.” The open-air eating area in the horseshoe courtyard will be well used, he says.

“Al fresco eating is enjoyable and, contrary to popular belief, apart from the pouring rain today, you do get pleasant weather in Newcastle.” He says this with authority, for despite his gruelling week-day travels visiting hotels throughout the country, weekends are spent at home in Eglingham, Northumberland, with his wife Debbie and one-year-old son Andrew.

His accent affirms his early years in Aberdeen, but of the North East he says: “I love the people’s attitude.  They’re full of enthusiasm. Geordies are probably the best in the UK for hospitality.  That’s partly why I have every confidence that both Malmaison and Hotel du Vin will do well together.” They are, he says, different animals.

“I run the Hotel du Vin business as a bistro with bedrooms,” he explains.

“For a financial model, it’s not typical. It’s not a cookie cutter business. It’s individual. It revolves around whichever interesting building it fills.

If a building isn’t interesting or not important to a city historically, I won’t touch it.” At Newcastle’s Hotel du Vin, the setting is also breathtaking. Below it stands the Sailors’ Bethel (similarly red bricked, built in 1877 and now offices) and the Tyne snakes by. To the right, you can see the Tyne’s bridges and around the river’s bend to the left, the sailing and boating community of St Peter’s Basin. Some distance behind Hotel du Vin, stands the architecturally renowned Byker Wall. Cook considered the recovery implied by the rebirth of the Ouseburn district and further Quayside development in his decision to house the hotel here. The Ouseburn behind the hotel is being dredged, new cultural venues are opening, new businesses and new residents are moving in.

“As at Malmaison, we probably got here a little ahead of time,” Robert says.

“If we can help catalyse this area, then that’s great.

This could be Bohemian Newcastle.” He is also praiseworthy of Newcastle’s planners.  “They were great,” he says.  “I think they knew from Malmaison that we would convert Allan House sensitively. They were supportive and when a couple of glitches or changes of planning ideas arose, they accommodated us. Unlike some cities elsewhere, Newcastle is very good about development.” A roof fire in the original wing set the project back four months, but Metnor Construction and 165 able bodies made up the leeway, completing the job in a year and a half.

Outside the building, the cobble stones have been re-laid. Replicas of the old shipping company’s gates are being fitted and the old office sign is being reinstated. A new wing, reminiscent of a lighthouse, was built with a special frame.  “There was a weight issue,” Cook explains.

“Underneath it there’s a tunnel and to safeguard against collapses, and because of the historic significance, we had to use lightweight timber frames. It was a challenge, but it’s worked.” The 1.5 mile tunnel to which he refers, which is in some parts 26 metres underground, is Grade II listed and one of the Victorian coal industry’s most important relics.  Wagons drawn through it carried coal to port from Spital Tongues colliery.

“With these old buildings, we regenerate and re-invigorate,” says Cook. “It’s not what we do to them, so much as what we don’t do.” Hence, interior brick, girders, struts, beams and stone are exposed. Old fireplaces are preserved, as are a number of staircases, skirtings and mouldings.  In the air-conditioned guest rooms, full use has been made of the high ceilings.  Bathrooms with under-floor heating sit on mezzanines and the floors are laid in oak.  Almost half the rooms are suites, some have balconies, many have two baths, and all have a suitably period feel. Showers, or drenchers, are about the size of a bus shelter.  Wash stands sometimes back onto the bed head, some baths offer a panoramic view over the Tyne.

“Hotels by rivers always work nicely. People love the views,” Cook says.  Baths are clad in Northumbrian plaid – something the Cooks tried on their own bath at home and liked. Some windows are tiny ovals, some are portholes and some are large picture windows.  Reproductions of ship’s guard rails help the building to meet health and safety standards in fitting style.  You may even find the toilet in a room within a room; reminiscent of a Tyneside nettie and fitting the historic structure. Yet old also mixes with the very new, with TV screens at 42 inches or, in the de luxe loft suite, 52 inches - in addition to a nine foot bed.

Room prices start at £135 and rise to £395, the management paying the VAT for the latter. In public areas, large murals have turn-of-thecentury shipbuilding themes with Geordie humour to set party moods.  Spittoons are back - not amid sawdust, but resting on a Laroche tasting table for wine dinners and wine schools.  The wine stores are glass fronted and there is a champagne room, all of which rather conveys a message.

“Three of our 50 sommeliers, who are the cornerstone of our service philosophy, will work here,” says Cook. “Their knowledge and way of educating and selling wine is important to the brand.  We’ll have about 350 wines. We start at £18 and go up to £100. But about 75 per cent are below £50.” Cigars are also a speciality. The Hotel du Vin and Malmaison group is the UK’s biggest customer of Havana cigars: annual outlay, £250,000. Smokers are not pariahs at Hotel du Vin, where a smokers’ bothy in the courtyard resembles a very elegant bandstand.

“You can sit in there with under-floor heating, leather seats and a nice roaring fire, and smoke a cigar with your Cognac or Armagnac after dinner,” Cook says.

“The bothys are popular at other Hotels du Vin.” Inverted wine glasses hang from the chandeliers, and in the lounge and bar a potbellied stove features. The bistro will have no table cloths, but will have a clear view into the kitchen. Pictures will alternate between old shipyard scenes and vineyards, and rooms will be named after wines. The architect, Michael Phillips Design of Henley, and the in-house interior designer, Matt Hulme, who is just 24, must be proud.