The concept of staycations has obviously been sweeping the nation this year, with the UK’s hotels trying to make the most of domestic demand while they can, including one palatial pad in Bath usually known more for its conferences and events
Imagine the excitement of being the new custodian of a hotel, enjoying a festive season there, and then within months, seeing it shuttered as the world grinds to a halt.
This is how it must have felt for Russell Lines, who arrived as general manager at beautiful Bailbrook House Hotel in Bath in November, only to have to close it down a few months later as the virus started to take the world hostage, and with it, the entire hospitality sector.
An experienced hotelier – including 10 years spent among the Hand Picked Hotels family, of which this property is a member – he had to spend several months pretty much on his own at Bailbrook during its early closure, keeping an eye on it for security reasons.
As time rolled on, a small team came back to start maintenance and manicure projects – meaning the hotel is looking in tip top shape now of course – and then came the preparations to ready the hotel for reopening in July.
Lines meets me enthusiastically, but of course hands-free, in the hotel’s lobby – both of us wearing masks, given official government guidelines had changed just before my stay in August to stipulate they must be worn by staff and guests when in public spaces in hotels.
He tells me that the hotel has also of course done everything else it should under Hand Picked’s company-wide In Safe Hands initiative – an enhanced set of stringent health, safety and security measures – from ensuring hand sanitiser dispensers at the door, to taking temperature checks of guests. There’s a little rope barrier to ensure a one-way entry system in the lobby, screens at reception, and also a one-way flow to guest rooms and restaurants and lounges, along with the signage on distancing that’s now such a familiar feature of our daily lives.
These may be essential, but the measures do remove a touch of the luxury feeling you might usually expect a place like this to exude, but it’s clear Hand Picked has done all it can to be guest-ready and to strike the right balance between caution and care. And don’t you worry – I still found plenty to luxuriate in; this was my first work hotel trip since March, and it felt great to be back in the routine.
Sitting just outside the city centre within 20 acres of private grounds, Bailbrook House is one of only two Grade II-listed hotels in Bath – and the names of its lounges and suites reflect a prestigious history of ownership and guests.
For example, you could take afternoon tea in the beautiful Queen Charlotte Lounge, named after her visit in 1817. Or like me, stay in the Lady Isabella King suite, a one-time owner of the house whom the monarch came to visit.
From a wealthy Irish family at the time of her arrival into Bath, Lady Isabella saw the growing gap between the rich who were flocking to enjoy or live in the city, and those on harder times, so she used her philanthropic charm to try and make the former help the latter.
This included helping to establish The Monmouth Street Society as a charitable institution that would help “beggars and vagrants” who genuinely needed, or truly wanted, help to get it.
Her propensity to address contemporary social problems in Bath also led her to try and establish an institution that might help women of little independent means, The Ladies Association, with the idea they could live at Bailbrook, but while it was sanctioned by Queen Charlotte it was a huge struggle for Lady Isabella to get off the ground, despite her being by all accounts an “extraordinary woman” of her time.
I cannot claim any such lofty achievements, but I could almost feel her tenacious spirit in the suite, and the house – standing proudly and independently up above Bath. The eponymous suite – which has palatial views of the front gardens and a huge feature bathroom with standalone bathtub – is one of 13 feature rooms set within the Mansion House part of the hotel, which dates back to the 1790s.
Meanwhile, expansion over the years has seen 94 modern guest rooms added and the once-thriving – pre-Covid-19 – conference and events wing of Bailbrook Court has sprung up to the side of the hotel.
Any guest can enjoy Bailbrook’s secluded location with its rolling hills and woodland where some trees date back 200 years, but the true luxury accommodation lies in the main house.
That’s also home to the elegant Royal Lounges which are available for light lunch, drinks and afternoon teas, while the 2 AA Rosette restaurant, Cloisters, offers up delicious a la carte breakfasts and dinner (there is also a Conservatory Bar, but that hasn’t reopened yet). Drinks or dining on the terrace, framed by the last throes of the season’s wisteria on my visit, are also an inviting possibility.
Head chef Michael Ball took the helm at Bailbrook House in 2018 and has extensive experience in the country house hotel market, and his menu at Cloisters was sufficiently varied, local and truly delicious. I tucked into a pea soup starter with a Wookey Hole – a Somerset favourite – cheddar fritter and followed it up with fillet of cod, having asked to mix up the accompaniments (which actually went well I thought; black olive, Isle of Wight tomatoes and courgette), finishing off with a vanilla creme brulee with strawberries and shortbread which was an utter treat.
The group has taken the opportunity – if anyone can call Covid-19 that – to reassess its offering to a degree, and to introduce a much deeper level of tailor-made service under its Treasured Experience approach. “Our hotels have a new offering of curated experiences completely tailored to each party, based on their size and individual preferences,” chairman and chief executive of Hand Picked Hotels Julia Hands tells me.
“With these in play, we’ve seen a steady volume of bookings over the summer period and I am encouraged by the number of enquiries coming in for the remainder of the year and also for spring/summer 2021 as people look to plan ahead. A warm welcome is always a priority, and having worked hard to provide a safe and comfortable environment in which our guests can truly relax and unwind, knowing that every detail has been taken care of, is something of which I am incredibly proud,” she says.
And with severe restrictions on MICE operations these days, it’s been essential for a hotel like Bailbrook to turn its hand instead to such leisurely staycations, and with seeming success so far, as people increasingly look to book any kind of escape they can from groundhog-day lives.
Lines himself makes a point to contact all guests personally to reassure them they will be taken good care of, and to start making any enhancements for during their stay. Treasured Experiences might include a private Sunday roast, with the hotel providing a private dining room so guests can enjoy the delicious relaxation of a big lunch with none of the cooking and washing up.
I had been looking forward to a picnic lunch in the hotel grounds, and to trying to spot more of the Muntjac deer that are known to roam the grounds (I’d spotted a lone one from a window elsewhere in the hotel), but alas that plan was scuppered by a miserable wet Sunday, so I had to abandon my mission. But no doubt like many guests, just having a lie-in, waking up in a huge luxurious bed, and enjoying someone else cooking for me for a weekend in these weird times was a luxury in itself.
Lines says many more families have been staying too, not a segment the hotel had ever really courted, and certainly this seemed the case as I looked around at breakfast. He uses that opportunity to chat to guests, conscientiously checking all is well, and I hear many of the couples – the other big obvious segment the hotel now attracts – sharing snippets of their lockdown experience with him, and talking about why they’ve come. Smart cookie that he is, he also chats to them about the group’s other hotels…. A gentleman GM and a good salesperson, it seems.
“We’ve also had lots of local visitors and guests, finally taking this time to come and see us at Bailbrook, which has actually been a really great upside,” he says, proving how – like many of us – he has made the most of adapting to these new times we live in.
GOOD TO KNOW