The Chapel in Harrogate is a sympathetically restored grade II listed chapel conversion that provides a distinctive and contemporary boutique B&B in the heart of Harrogate. Bill Lumley pays a visit
The original Weslyan chapel was built in 1896 with an ornate façade styled on the baroque Italianate Church designs and lavish architecture of the late 18th century. It had the capacity for a congregation of 1,000, but over the past couple of decades it had fallen out of use and was eventually left empty for several years.
In 2009 the building was granted Grade II listed status by National Heritage, now Historic England, which has heavily influenced the care with which owner Mark Hinchliffe has redesigned and transformed the property since he bought it in 2013.
The converted Chapel now has five guest bedrooms each with an eccentric and eclectic design to reflect a mix of different eras. The rooms are the Balcony Suite, the Gordon Reece Indian Suite, the Chinese Opium Suite, the Napoleon Blue Suite and the Yellow Suite.
The venue also features an open 50-foot high atrium, which makes it ideal for hosting corporate events and wedding receptions, and offers a stunning location for film, TV and photography shots. Outside is a private garden for drinks and receptions.
Helpful and welcoming to all his guests, Mark is laid back when it comes to the format of weddings and wedding receptions. “It’s your wedding, I say, so stage it how you would wish.”
Every part of the 8,000sq ft property has been designed to a particular theme. Each of the five guest bedrooms is of a totally eclectic design that has come about from his love of travelling and collecting items from the places he has visited.
He runs the B&B with his partner Heidi Donohoe, who is also a collector, although he adds: “She’s not as bad as me. I’ve been a collector all my life since picking up my first fossil as a child on the beach at Whitby.”
Seeing first-hand the full extent of his lifelong collection of items from around the world on display in the Chapel I am drawn to ask the question as to where he has been keeping it all over the years. The answer is friends of his with a large house, in their barn, and he also had two 60-foot shipping containers. Then there were various bits and pieces of his collections stored in his parents’ garage, and much of the art he had collected over the years was also on the walls of other friends’ properties. “It’s been a case of mapping where stuff is,” he says.
When he bought the property five years ago the sale included an attached Sunday School, now converted into a four-bedroom property. He says, “It would have been nice to have kept it, but the cost of converting that and still keeping the money to do up the chapel would have been completely impossible,” he says.
As we stand in the beautiful, spacious surrounds of the B&B, he brings home the extent to which the building has been transformed: “When we walked in for the first time after buying it, nothing had changed since the last service was held here. There was an open copy of the Bible near the altar, and the candle had gone out,” he says. He assures me it is not haunted.
So why hospitality?
Before taking on the Chapel B&B Mark had been working on all kinds of artistic and design jobs, which included renovating a variety of three- and four-bedroom town houses in Harrogate over the years. “I enjoy both the renovation and the hospitality. That’s how the B&B came about. Having undertaken and completed the work, it has become a sharing experience: it’s not just about living in here all by myself, closing the doors on the rest of the world,” he stresses.
“Underpinning the mindset that gave birth to the B&B, the thoughts were: I can restore this amazing building, I’ve been collecting a long time, and I’ve got a lot of things to share with people.”
The Chapel is of course of Italian design, and Mark says: “The Italians are good at that sort of thing. It’s not just about ownership: I’m the caretaker of an amazing building that I am looking after, and when I go somebody else will take up the reigns of looking after it.”
The renovated building is packed with an abundance of strikingly unusual items blended to create the awe-inspiring design of the B&B, a full description of which would take many more pages to convey.
“I already had this idea of dividing the space on the ground floor because of the sheer scale of it. I decided to split the ground floor space up into a ladies’ boudoir and a gentleman’s club room, with a nod to the old Victorian ethics,” he says.
We step into the ladies’ boudoir. It is painted in a sunflower yellow, with one wall decorated using Victorian sewing machines. Two Broadwood square pianos dating from the 1820s sit back-to-back, acting as an elegant bar and stacked with an eclectic mix of ostrich and peacock feathers, together with three black, ebonised standing lamps, one of the lampshades being a 1920s ladies’ hat with swan feather decoration.
We cross the floor to the gentleman’s room. It is decorated with an impressive range of military jackets and uniform. “I have a love of uniforms as an aesthetic, and a slight addiction to wearing them myself,” Mark says. “They are not that expensive to buy, and they look amazing, evoking the old Victorian gentleman club conversation, with swirling tobacco plumes.”
The rear hallway entrance at the Chapel is filled with a wall-covering photomontage, displaying all manner of images relating to travel, design and artists.
Breakfast at the Chapel take place around a large antique wooden farmhouse table that seats 10 people. “When you sit down to breakfast here it is rather like when you are sat at home. There are people from all over the country or even from all over the world, and all of a sudden you just start finding that common denominator with someone else sat around the table. It’s the art of conversation,” he says.
“We’re often all on our iPads, we all live in a fast society nowadays, so it is nice to put the iPad down and get back to the art of conversation and community and chatting about things one-to-one. That communal table really does facilitate that.”
He reflects: “It’s nice meeting people. We’ve met some incredible and interesting characters, and they do start to become almost like your extended family. The people who stay here tend to be interested in architecture, design, art and travel.”
Together with Heidi, he is trying to keep Victorian eccentricity alive. “It’s almost as if much of the world is yet to be discovered,” he says. “A quarter of a century ago you’d disappear on your travels into South America for example and nobody would hear from you for the next three months. Nowadays you can be Skyping somebody from anywhere in the world, whereas 25 years ago you just couldn’t do that. In a way it has killed the adventurous spirit of travel: you can be in the Galapagos islands and still share your experiences live with your family and friends back home,” he laments.
Harrogate is an incredible spa town built from the wealth of Victorians, but hundreds of years earlier in the 16th century it was thriving as a spa town. Mark explains why: “It became wealthy because if you were coming 50 miles from York or further afield in Yorkshire, you had to be wealthy, for you would always run the risk of being robbed on your way here. Wealthy people would come with someone on horseback as a body guard or protector, to use the mineral spa waters here known even 500 years ago known as healing waters. So it originally became a wealthy town for that reason alone: you had to be quite wealthy to come here. Travelling the roads in the 15th and 16th century was an unsafe thing to do,” he says.
The rest of the wealth came from the Victorian mill owners and the philanthropic people who had made their money in such places as the clothing mills, he says. “That’s architecturally how it got built with these big villas, of which there are so many in Harrogate,” says Mark.
Four in a Bed
The Chapel has recently been on a winning streak. In October it won first prize for Picture Perfect B&B in the 2018 Vision Style Awards, and last month the property was the winner in a week-long competition in the Channel Four reality TV series Four in a bed.
“We’d never watched the show before,” says Mark. “When the production team rang up to invite us to take part, we watched two sessions to get an idea of the programme and then simply went on the show, with no agenda.
“You do get highs and lows, as well as meeting a mix of interesting people. When you are judging other people’s properties, you tend to find that what two people call good can be two completely different things depending on your standards. The experience was about going on the show and showcasing what the chapel is all about.”
The Four in a Bed series unfolded during one week in November on Channel Four “like a Shakespeare play”, he says, with “humour, tragedy and deceit”.
He explains: “When you watch the show from the beginning of the week to the end, you see how the story is layered, and who is saying what. It’s easy to look back and claim we could see something coming, but when you are actually in it and filming it over two weeks to make a week’s TV, you really have no idea.
“We were just being genuine, checking and looking at various aspects of each of the B&Bs w were judging. They were all nice people, apart from one couple with a strategy to win. Our property was the last to be judged by the other contestants. In such a situation you don’t hear the feedback, and you are also very cleverly chaperoned during the day, so you don’t get a chance to talk to everybody else as you would do in a normal scenario.”
He adds: “When you stay at a B&B on this show you all stay in separate places the previous night, so you don’t get the camaraderie you might expect going on. It is very controlled, but in a nice way, and you can see why they do it. If not, then you would get too friendly and ruin the freshness of the show”
The Four in a Bed production company, Studio Lambert, is currently looking for new contestants. Mark tells Luxury Bed & Breakfast he would recommend other B&Bs participating in Four in the show if they are given the chance. “I think it is a good opportunity to showcase what you have,” he says.
One of the hardest things Heidi and Mark encounter as relatively new guesthouse owners is guests thinking the B&B is a hotel. Mark has an approach to address that misconception that some guests have. On each morning of a day that the Chapel is expecting new guests to arrive, at 8.30 or 9am, he says he sends them a text. “I greet them good morning, and ask if they have any idea roughly what time they might be arriving so I can plan the day. At the same time I let them know that parking is free right outside the Chapel, and that it is only a 10-minute walk into town,” he says.
“That simple text definitely helps you connect with your customer straight away: they appreciate the message, and in the process you have made a connection with them before you have even met them, building a rapport on top of the booking they have already made. You have made them feel comfortable from the fact you have actually bothered to text them. That’s a definite help, and people reply thanking us for the text,” he says.
The lowest rating The Chapel has received on TripAdvisor in its first year of operating as a luxury B&B is four stars, and the reviews bear out guests’ appreciation of this morning-of-the-visit text. “The owner is really friendly and helpful,” says one. “Visit just to see the art and décor alone,” says another. “This is an amazing place to stay. Mark and Heidi are fab hosts and Mark tells you about the history and the restoration project with such passion and feeling. We will definitely stay again, priceless!” concludes a third.
So how does Mark balance the maintenance of the Chapel with his tendency to go off to such places as Italy to work on design projects? He reflects: “We’ve been open a year now and I’ve been fortunate so far, but I am increasingly doing other things.” Even as I visit, he is waiting to hear if he has been awarded an interior design contract at Harewood House. He enthuses: “It’s an amazing building designed by John Carr. This and other interior design jobs are materialising, and I am finishing off the release of a collection of wallpapers and fabrics, the design of which is based on some of the things I have been collecting.
“I am not actively going out to search for work of this kind but it is finding me, and I think the chapel will become my calling card for what I can do and what we are about,” he concludes.
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