Steve scores the winner

Steve scores the winner

Middlesbrough football club boss Steve Gibson has netted a vital goal for the region’s tourism with a £50m hotel and recreation complex. Brian Nicholls takes a look around.

Even self-effacing tycoons can hide their lights for only so long – and never totally once they pull off the previously unimagined - so let no-one say we’ve no entrepreneurs like the 19th Century venturers who made the North East great in railways and heavy industry.

No-one noticed much when Steve Gibson, by disposing of Teesside heavy industry’s detritus in a little boat, acquired the means at 21 to set up Bulkhaul.

Bulk haulage lacks glamour, but even today, as chairman and majority shareholder also of Middlesbrough Football Club with a personal fortune estimated at £82m, Gibson avoids publicity.

His latest feat, though, amid a mix of companies, will not pass unnoticed. The newly developed Rockliffe Hall Hotel, Golf and Spa Resort, a £50m investment in itself, opens on November 23 and promises a rarity in North East tourism - five star status.

It’s Gibson’s foresight again, alongside a separate and simultaneous development of 24 luxury homes for let. It also complements the Middlesbrough club’s £11m training ground, which is considered one of Europe’s finest and a possible centre for Olympic athletes in 2012.

Fittingly, it’s been spun from the former mansion and estate linked to a family which was especially prominent among 19th Century entrepreneurs through Alfred Backhouse in the founding of Barclays Bank.

Set in 375 of South Durham’s more beautiful acres on the banks of the River Tees bordering Yorkshire, it’s already a big talking point, hoisting North East tourism to a new level with 61 rooms, a championship-class golf course, and one of the most spacious health and fitness spas in the country.

Managing director Nick Holmes, a multiaward- winning operator of some of the UK’s most prestigious golf, hotel and leisure venues, predicts: “This place will, in time, sit alongside the top 10 hotel resorts of its kind in the UK. There’ve been great plaudits for the golf course already.

People are talking of it in terms of The Belfry and Celtic Manor.” Holmes, aged 51 and from the Wirral, has been around a bit and is not given to exaggeration.

But he believes it will be the new standard-bearer for quality resort experience in all of Northern England.

He’s especially delighted to be settled there with his wife Liz and daughter Eleanor, 11, after near enough a year of commuting from Bristol.

He was previously MD for Branston Golf and Country Club in the Midlands, and opened Bristol Golf Club, a 250-acre upmarket centre in South Gloucestershire.

He also helped start up the five-star Cameron House on Loch Lomond in the 1990s, and has been a consultant for Studley Wood Golf Club in Oxford and Silvermere in Surrey.

His career took off as country club manager at Gleneagles, where he also met his vivacious wife Liz - a fitness professional who is now director of Rockliffe’s 50,000sq ft spa.

He entered general management in 1987 at the four-star Craigendarroch Hotel and Country Club in Royal Deeside, which is popular with royalty while at Balmoral, then became the group’s operations director.

Warwick Brindle, director of developer Rockliffe Hall Ltd - part of the Gibson O’Neill group which owns Middlesbrough FC and Bulkhaul - says Holmes is “the best in the business.” Holmes says of his challenge now at Hurworth village, Darlington: “It’s been my food and drink for more than a year.

Rockliffe Hall has become a much talked-about new destination in the UK’s leisure industry already. I feel honoured to run it. Seeing the team and final touches come together is exciting.

And having the golf up and running to get us away during the summer was fantastic.” With more than 100 members already, the club should soon reach its goal of 300. Holmes explains: “We’re not looking for big numbers – this is to be a whole golf experience.

Some people like to collect experiences of major courses they’ve played on, and they must be able to get on easily.” This 18-hole course, a par 72, is at 7,800 yards one of Europe’s longest, and includes practice facilities and a deluxe 18,000sq ft clubhouse.

Marc Westenborg, of renowned course architects Hawtree, designed the course, giving it “super-fast, slick greens” with the superior bent grass more usually found in warmer climates.

A course’s strength lies in its routing, experts say. But wait – isn’t this near Croft and Neasham, places that are notorious forflooding? Yes. But areas of wetland habitat have been created as one of several steps in absorption on the estate’s flood plain.

With these, Westenborg not only ensures holes remain playable, but also that a wildlife retreat is preserved and enhanced.

That’s a golfer’s view; maybe twitchers will agree. The course and estate is cared for by Davy Cuthbertson - ex-Slaley Hall - who, the internet reveals, is a fervent Sunderland fan, but we won’t go into that.

He’s prepared courses for several PGA Tour and Seniors Tour events, and during 12 years at Slaley – four as course manager – he oversaw the birth of the second Priestman course.

The father of two, a golfer since his schooldays, began with a green-keeping role at his local South Moor course. Unlike Slaley when it started, Rockliffe plays down any ambitions of hosting top tournaments.

Holmes explains: “We do hope before long to have a big - as distinct from a major - tournament. The course is capable of hosting a European Tour event. “If the opportunity arose, a long way off, it has Ryder Cup potential, too.

But venues for really big events are decided far ahead, so it wouldn’t be our immediate priority. It might involve lobbying too, and a question of whether it’s right to do it commercially.

“A top tournament comes with a lot of baggage. Celtic Manor, the next Ryder Cup venue in Newport, effectively offered to rebuild the course to get it. If it gets to that extent I can’t see us doing it.

Anything we did might be after a few years, and we’d have to be sure it was of the right quality.” But it’s not only golfing zealots and their “widows” Rockliffe wants.

Holmes says: “The fantastic location is what appealed to me with my hotelier’s hat on. We’ve work to do with the tourist people to make everyone aware.” Perhaps he’s needled by a travel website declaring, “Rockliffe Hall to open in Newcastle Gateshead this year”.

Today’s 70 staff could become 200 in two years, and Holmes is pleased by the availability of local skills; a strong community element in staffing is the aim.

Some key workers are from beyond the region, though for Wendy Benson, sales and marketing director, it’s a return to the North East after stints with the PrincipalHaley Group, InterContinental Hotels and De Vere.

Holmes says: “Once tourists come, especially from abroad, they’ll see how attractive villages here are.

I don’t think local people have grasped yet, either, just what a big deal this is for local jobs, investment and opportunity for local suppliers.” But at least the butcher might who’s just landed a meaty contract.

Enquiries are coming in about Christmas events. Talks are on for conferences next year. And 10 weddings are booked, the first in January. “Quite a feat,” Holmes suggests, “when you can’t really show them round yet. But the old house we’ve built onto really lends itself to ceremonies.” Residential conferences of up to 80 will be hosted, and there is banqueting for up to 180. Three restaurants will offer “contemporary British dining” under head chef Martin Moore, 35, who is also restaurants manager, and sous chef Luke Taylor.

Moore, from Belfast but now living with his wife and daughter in Middlesbrough, was previously with Seaham Hall for more than five years and learned his trade at another distinguished Tees Valley hotel, Judges in Yarm.

Taylor was senior chef earlier at Solberge Hall Hotel and Restaurant in Northallerton.

The hotel’s six apartments are already being occupied, mainly through golf-related bookings, and soon they will be generally available to families or other residents who are inclined to stay just a little bit longer. If those old Backhouses had still been around they would surely have offered Gibson, a proven master now of magnificence, unlimited credit.