A sizeable 19th century country estate with many acres of land and outbuildings ripe for conversion can offer a stunning landscape for luxury hospitality opportunities. Bill Lumley pays a visit to Pudleston Court in deepest Herefordshire to witness the renovation challenges and opportunities at the top end of luxury accommodation just as lockdown lifts.
Getting back to business as usual is proving a great challenge for just about every hospitality property. Occupancy rates alone are an unknown as B&B and hotel doors open across the UK to a litany of restrictions. Yet within days of reopening on 4 July, the main rental cottage at Lakes Edge in Pudleston, Herefordshire, found itself fully booked to the end of August.
The exclusive holiday location offers a number of elegant properties and gatehouse lodges in its grounds. Its first guests since the provisional end to the lockdown last month have been those who had rebooked during the pandemic, or who were returning for a few days to complete a holiday interrupted by the lockdown.
Current owners of the estate George and Bridget Sideras had lived in London for many years before they left the UK for Cyprus with their family a decade ago. After a few years they decided to move back to the UK, and rather than returning to the bustle of the capital they came to acquire Pudleston Court in deepest Herefordshire.
The county itself is situated in the West Midlands between Worcestershire to the east, Gloucestershire to the south, Wales to the west and Shropshire to the north.
George and Bridget found the property and its 50-acre plot advertised in Country Life, represented by Savills Estates, and were immediately taken with its stunning parkland, woodland trails, lakes, streams and formal gardens, including a wonderful walled garden.
Pudleston village itself is a long way from any population centres. Situated 7 km east of the town of Leominster, 20 km north of Hereford, 25 km due west of Worcester or 30 km southwest of Kidderminster from where it is accessible by country roads, Pudleston Court is splendidly remote. To give you an idea of how far off the beaten track the property is, it suffers almost zero light pollution, with the result that guests can see all the stars in the sky on a clear night.
A holiday let business is born
Unsurprisingly, large projects are not cheap, and a great deal of money was spent in renovating the main house alone. Upon realising the enormous expenditure required to maintain the estate, the couple decided that Pudleston Court could become self-funding in order to continue the restoration and maintenance work needed, as well as providing an income for the estate.
They set about renovating existing cottages on the estate into luxury holiday let homes. They then appointed a general manager, Janet Taylor Martin, to develop a holiday let business, and renovations began on the existing staff quarters, the gatehouse lodges.
With a background in luxury international hospitality and the presentation, brochure production and promotion of destinations, Janet’s function is to market the business, deal with all procurement and on-site management at the newly developed holiday let business.
A grade II listed building, the estate is a large mid-19th century country pile typical of the period when successful industrialists of the day built such monuments to their achievements. Lancashire coal baron Elias Chadwick originally commissioned the design and construction of the building in 1846, and plans were drawn up for a lavish Tudor-Gothic style country house constructed of pink sandstone, slate roofs and with embattled parapets.
The Chadwick family owned the estate for several decades. From its original concept as a residence fit for a well-to-do Victorian gentleman Pudleston has seen many changes. During the second world war for example the house was used by the Red Cross as a convalescence home for members of the British armed forces injured in battle. It is understood that author James Herriot stayed at the property during that period.
In the 1950s it was converted again this time by the local authority into whose ownership it had fallen, and it became a special school for children with learning difficulties.
In the 1980s the property was acquired by supermarket billionaire Albert Heijn, who substantially renovated it to a high standard (for its day). However, much of the décor and fittings were reflective of the time. For instance, some of the bathrooms had bidets but not showers; kitchen fittings not to a standard one would expect today; and the carpets and wallpaper, although expensive when fitted, had become dated and in need of replacement. And of course there was little if any Wi-Fi connectivity. Responsivity is critical in an age of instant communication. Guests will expect you to respond to their requests almost before you have received them.
Other aspects of upgrade from that were required as well, such as the complete refurbishment of the swimming pool.
When George and Bridget took over the property in January 2012, the initial renovations were focused on the main house itself and made to accommodate the new owners’ needs and tastes.
While the 1980s décor of the main residence at Pudleston has been refurbished, many areas are still in need of updating, including bathrooms, bedrooms and hallways. The areas that have been redone include the main kitchen, lounge areas, including a bar/snooker room and six of the 10 the bedrooms, all en-suites. The owners have completely refurbished the west wing into guest accommodation for themselves and family. There is also a state of the art 12-seat cinema annexe, with 4 metre screen, Dolby Atmos surround sound, where the curtains open to the original Pearl and Dean sound track reminiscent of 70s cinema.
Overlooking the interior of the walled garden there is a fully equipped commercial grade gymnasium.
Janet says: “We may decide to offer these rooms to guests if we start hosting small weddings.” She adds: “There is also approved planning for an orangery to be built at the back of the property and now a complete bridal suite, with sumptuous furnishings and a luxury en-suite.
Gatehouse lodges AND COTTAGES
The estate has two historic, grade-II listed gatehouse Lodges – Adam and Eve – surrounded by woodlands and overlooking the lake. “It’s a very secluded romantic setting whatever the season, and each has hot tubs, barrel saunas and covered outdoor social dining area with BBQs.”
The profile of the guests here is mainly couples, says Janet. “We have anniversaries celebrated here which was also the location of a recent marriage proposal!”
The Gaggles sleeps eight guests and offers a luxury cottage with its own leisure facilities, an indoor swimming pool, a sauna and a steam room. Guests here are predominantly families, sometimes involving multi-generational groups or various households, she says. Meanwhile Butlers cottage sleeps eight and is popular for family gatherings and groups of friends.
As a self-catering holiday business, Lakes Edge does not offer on-site catering yet. However, the estate can organise a chef to come into each individual property and cater for parties of eight or more. Meanwhile plans are afoot to open a bar in the main house for guests use at weekends.
“Our management is well versed in recommending exceptional eateries in the area,” adds Janet.
Lakes Edge currently employs seven staff but as we go to print a new employee is preparing to join to manage the grounds, bringing the groundsmen staff total to three. The estate also has a full-time and two part-time cleaners whose number may increase to four as the demands of pandemic compliance are evaluated.
All the property’s staff were brought back into employment after an initial three-month furlough period in time for the business reopening on 4 July.
“As our bookings increase and we introduce two new properties with swimming pools, our staff may increase further,” Janet says. “Our two groundsmen – soon to be three – maintain to a high standard the parklands, woodlands and all guest house gardens.”
Schedules for the final stages of the conversion of two properties on the estate were being adhered to and the build was progressing on time at the time of the breakout of the Covid-19 virus in March.
Janet says: “The lockdown closed our site immediately, and whilst we were able to reopen the building work a week later under strict social distancing rules, it has been difficult throughout the lockdown, with contractors unable to be present every day with new childcare responsibilities, materials unavailable, deliveries rescheduled and the choice of certain finishes no longer an option.
“We have now completed with the builders, leaving only minor snagging. I now will be able to furnish and dress the properties ready to open for August,” she adds.
The business is carefully following not just WHO guidelines but also the advice being given out by the tertiary sites it uses, including Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Booking.com and HomeAway.
“We were looking at having to leave 72 hours between bookings. This has been reduced to
24 hours on the condition that we conduct a deep clean between every set of guests,” says Janet.
Most of Lakes Edge decorative soft furnishings have been removed, including throws, rugs and cushions, she says. “Our properties are immediately aired as guests leave and our staff access the following morning 24 hours later.”
Cleaning procedures include steam-cleaning upholstery and curtains and ensuring all surfaces are cleaned or wiped down with antibacterial products. “Attention to detail is now imperative as everything metal or plastic could be a conductor of the virus,” she says. All staff must now also be dressed in PPE, and they must wear masks whenever there is any interaction with guests.
She adds: “We are taking measures to ensure the handover of keys to property can be carried out in a socially distanced way, for example ensuring that keys are cleaned.
“We also ensure that staff cleaning the accommodation between stays follow full government handwashing guidelines, and we maintain a comprehensive checklist of all hand contact services to be cleaned throughout the property when each guest vacates.
“Ultimately our procedures ensure that we only leave guests with goods and facilities that are verifiably COVID-free, down to ensuring all TV remote controls are thoroughly cleaned between guests.
“COVID-19 has meant a whole new way of working for us/our staff, and it is critical that this is embedded in the operational culture at the estate,” she stresses.
Like so many other high-end properties around the UK, Lakes Edge finds itself having to cancel plans it had made to improve the guest experience. Abandoned ideas for this season include picnic hampers, BBQ packs and breakfast hampers.
Before the lockdown, building application had been approved to build a multi-million pound events centre on the estate. These plans are on hold due to the wish to “pilot” weddings in the Main House.
“George and Bridget have already successfully held large-scale weddings for family members here, and they could allow the change of use to certain areas of their house to be used for functions. We are currently awaiting council approval for this change of use,” she says.
“We could accommodate 80-100 guests at an event with 50 overnight guests. Initially all catering and wedding arrangements would be outsourced, but we hope to include this in-house in the future.
New accommodation development
Lockdown has not been without its benefits albeit minor ones. Long in planning, a building project began earlier this year to renovate to existing outbuildings and in the process raise capacity by 18 guests.
As we go to print the project is nearing completion. It has entailed demolition of two agricultural barns after planning approval was granted to build two timber-framed houses. The Farmhouse is a six-bedroom, all en-suite property and the Poachers Lodge, a three bedroom, all en-suite accommodation, in their place, each with indoor pool.
This has been no small scale endeavour – the work involved extensive landscaping to create private gardens for each property and a sweeping driveway that leads up to the properties.
To stay keeping with the dog-friendly tone of the rest of the overall property, plans to run hedging along the driveway were replaced when the decision was taken to opt for a more dog-accommodating border and fencing and small gates were thus installed.
“Dogs are welcome in the properties that have fencing and gates. We allow dogs all over the estate however they must be kept on leads. We provide dog beds, bowls and poo bags. A pet damage deposit has recently been added to our rates,” she says .
Again in keeping with the entire estate, The Farmhouse and The Poachers Lodge have been finished in an elegant country style, with farmhouse flag-flooring, oak furniture, vintage leather and tweed seating, wood burners and bespoke handmade shaker-style kitchens. Both properties have an indoor pool. All bedrooms have a luxury en-suite with shower. The master bedroom in the farmhouse has a bathroom with large walk in shower and roll top bath. There is also a wet room rain shower for potential guests with reduced mobility. Both properties can be accessed without steps. The new properties will be able to achieve 12 weeks minimum throughout the year and at least 24 weekends, and increased overall capacity from 24 to 42.
The Estate has invested in green energy, being accredited with both the Government RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) & FIT (Feed-In Tariff) Schemes.
A Biomass multi-fuel burner, which can work off pellets or wood chip, provides heating to all the cottages (except the Gate Lodges, which are situated too far away). The huge 8,000 litre tank supplies heating and hot water.
Electricity is provided through 400 photo voltaic panels, supplying the Estate with 100 KVA.
Emergency back-up systems are provided through more traditional fuel sources, with five gas boilers working off LPG. In the event of a power cut, a generator meets the electric needs of the estate.
Attention to detail
The luxury element which defines Lakes Edge is the attention to detail, says Janet. “We understand what guests want, from the leisure facilities we offer to the staff being available whenever they are needed during their stay and to offer help, for example with restaurant recommendations. Or maybe you have ordered your shopping and would like someone to bring it in before you arrive.”
All the furnishings are high-end, and all the properties are fully equipped with everything a guest may need. “We pride ourselves on having beautiful surroundings, being knowledgeable of the area and providing great guest comfort, luxury linens, bathrobes, towels and toiletries are all provided, but it’s going the extra mile which really sets us apart,” she says.
After being confronted with the greatest challenges hospitality owners have ever faced, and then having worked through the immediate aftermath and seen its promising results, Bridget and George are now contently looking forward to years of happy guests and a prosperous and growing luxury hospitality business.
- Heated outdoor infinity swimming pool
- sun loungers and with a gloriously bubbly hot tub
- Relaxation rooms
- Gym & fitness studio
- State of the art equipment, personal trainers and classes including yoga and pilates
- Heated indoor swimming pool
- Indoor pool with spa bath, steam room and sauna
- Sandpiper lounge
- Tennis courts
Although Lakes Edge attracts a wide cross section of visitors seeking a relaxing stay in opulent surroundings, its guests typically fall into three main categories:
Groups of ladies. Often on a luxury catch-up weekend, such guests come to stay at Lakes Edge primarily for the leisure facilities, the sizeable properties, and the privacy. They want to bring their shopping with them and hunker down with a glass of wine in the hot tub.
The romantic getaway couple. They want the seclusion of the estate but like the ease of which they can access the local towns for a meander around the markets or a ramble along the walkways with a pit stop in a local pub. They like restaurant recommendations and local knowledge. They also enjoy the woodland walks here, and there have been several proposals by the lakes.
Families. Families really make the most of the properties with the swimming pools. “We accommodate food deliveries so they can have everything they need ready for when they arrive. Many families come to us for that time away: they want to know the kids will be entertained, but they can also relax. They are getting back to nature on the estate, walking the dogs in the woods, getting the children away from screens and enjoying their time together in a safe, quiet environment.”
Check-in at Lakes Edge has in the past been a great way to welcome and greet guests and explain the functions of the house, says Janet. “We can offer them an insight on what is on offer to do during their stay. We offer a discreet on-site concierge service where guests are confident they can contact a member of staff on-site at any time.
“Our welcome pack includes in the basket, an array of local products, including preserves, biscuits, savoury snacks, local cheese and wine.”
Guests are also encouraged to pre-book a supermarket delivery, where our staff will pack away if it arrives pre-check in, she adds.
“Due to the new WHO guidelines we are now only leaving a bottle of Champagne as a welcome gift,” adds Janet, “whereas before COVID-19 guests would have received a welcome basket with a variety of local produce.”
Government work safety advice:
A feel for the customer experience can be seen on TripAdvisor where reviews for the main cottage are 100% positive, being awarded a Certificate of Excellence
In a typical year there are dozens of worthy festivals and events that attract visitors in their droves to the county of Herefordshire. This year of course is far from typical, and many events have either been cancelled owing to the coronavirus pandemic or postponed. Herefordshire Country Fair for example (delayed until 1 August) features country fair favourites terrier racing, working gun dogs, inter hunt relay, scurry racing, clay shooting, fly fishing and a parade of foxhounds.
There is the Hay Festival, the Ludlow Spring and Ludlow Food festivals, the Three Choirs Festival, as well as many other worthy local events. For example:
Postponed until 2021, a few miles west of Leominster, the Kington Vintage Show. This includes all sorts of classic and vintage vehicles and machines as well as a great line up in display ring including Inspire Mountain Bike Trails display. Also in Kington, and delayed until September 2021 .is one of the largest agricultural shows in the country, the Kington Show https://kingtonshow.co.uk/vintage/
Southwest of Hereford later this month on 22-23 Augstin Hellens Manor in Much Marcle, re-scheduled from its usual June date, find the beautiful garden and parklands brought to life with Hellens Garden Festival www.hellensgardenfestival.co.uk
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