Lewtrenchard Manor is a Jacobean property located in central Devon and steeped in history. TOM DAVIS speaks to Duncan Murray, director and general manager, about the changes the Murray family have implemented in their second stint at the hotel
Tell us about your background and how you came to own Lewtrenchard Manor
My parents moved across from South Africa in 1988. My father was a farmer out there and he was fairly unemployable because he had been self-employed for so long. He looked for some self-employed jobs to do, including hotels, and this was property number 40 that they looked at at the time, they then bought it in 1988.
I grew up in the hotel and worked my way up, since I could wash up basically, and through school I was part-time. I then went off to university thinking that I could get away from the hotel trade and studied biology, but I fell back into it and worked full time for a year in 2002. At that point Andrew Davis of Von Essen had been in contact with my parents and offered some money for the hotel. My parents sold it to Von Essen hotels and in the meantime I carried on working in the hospitality trade.
I worked four years for David and Patricia Nicholson up at Holbeck Ghyll where I climbed up from trainee manager to restaurant manager. I then left there and got a job at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and I was there for three years as a guests services manager. Both of those hotels were really good at teaching me about quality and high-end services, but I didn’t really know much about the financial side of the business.
I also worked at the National Trust for a while in Waddesdon Manor as a restaurant manager, before working my way up to hotel manager at the Five Arrows in Waddesdon, which is a restaurant with rooms run by the National Trust. Von Essen hotels then went into administration in 2011 and at first we decided that the hotel was on the market for too much money and we thought there wasn’t much point. However, later on that year it still hadn’t sold so we put in a stupidly low offer and they accepted it. In March 2012, after a nine-year absence, we bought it back and have been running it ever since.
What inspired you to return?
They felt like they hadn’t quite finished what they were doing here and wanted to come back and I was also in the industry. They wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been in the industry, but because I was it was a way of them helping me along really.
Could you tell us a little about the history of the property itself?
There has been a dwelling here for centuries and the first recorded point was a domesday book from 1089. But the beginnings of the building as it is today were in the 1620s – 1626 is above the fireplace as the date of completion. It was bought by the Gould family (who were a family of bankers in Exeter) from the Monk family who were asset-rich and cash-poor. Sir Thomas Monk, who was the head of the family at the time, ended up in debtors’ prison.
There had also been some sort of marriage between the two families so the Goulds bought the Lewtrenchard from him to get him out of prison, they then knocked down whatever was here and started afresh. It wasn’t a particularly interesting building to be perfectly honest, a grand Devon longhouse is probably the way I would describe it. It was quite wide but only one room deep, so you always had to go from one room to the next even on the first floor, and there were bits added and taken down ad-hoc. One of its most famous residents was Sabine Baring-Gould, who wrote ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Now the Day is Over’ and was the local vicar.
What did Sabine Baring-Gould do to the property?
He wrote a lot of books mainly to fund what he did to the house here which was to virtually start from scratch and make a Jacobean manor out of this fairly uninteresting building. Really what you see is a Victorian pastiche of a Jacobean manor house, but done very nicely. He was an early architecture salvager so he brought in lots of bits and pieces from houses that were being demolished and installed them into Lewtrenchard.
It’s still owned by the same family, who have owned it since the 1520’s and we are a leasehold, but they are third generation American now. It has been a hotel since 1949 but not particularly well-renowned, more quantity over quality. It wasn’t really until just before my parents bought it that it started its way up by going into Pride of Britain Hotels – a big help to my parents who weren’t hoteliers as such but they had that support network to help them along.
It does. I think it was seen for a little while as a bit of an old gentlemen’s club, but that has changed and it is much more professional now. It really does work out quite well for us, especially as a small hotel, to be able to market ourselves on a national scale. I do some PR in the local area but when it comes to the national side of things I leave it to Pride of Britain to do that.
Each bedroom is individually designed, could you tell us about the inspiration behind these?
Each one is individual, there are no two rooms alike. We tend to refurbish one at a time so we don’t get the same look. We have just finished one room now. We are a 14-bedroom hotel so we try to refurbish around one bedroom each year, and then by the time we get to year 14 we are starting again on the bedroom we did 14 years ago. We generally try to use what’s in the room, so the design may be based around particular piece of plaster work, trying to keep it relatively traditional. It is a traditional house and we don’t go down the boutique route, we try and steer away from that style, we try to keep it in keeping with the house.
What changes have you made in your second stint at the hotel?
When we took over it was very much run as a corporate and larger group so in terms of procedures a lot had to change, and we changed those relatively quickly. There is something about these family-run manor houses. Myself and my parents are very much involved in the day-to-day business of the hotel and there are not many family-run hotels in the high-end category that are hands-on.
Many have a standoffish attitude but we feel that it’s a unique selling point. We are trying to get that warm feeling about the place, ‘welcome to our house’ rather than ‘welcome to the hotel’, and people seem to really like it. It is our third year back and we are getting good reviews and business has really taken off. The first year was tough, it was 2012 in the height of austerity and everyone was feeling quite poor – it had a year in administration and the last couple of years under Von Essen weren’t particularly great anyway. We had to work hard to get people through the door, but since then it has been easier and easier each year.
How much of a role do you play in front of house?
I’ve been on reception all morning. Normally there is always myself or my parents here in the hotel, and we literally run it hands-on, if I have to carry a plate then I have to carry a plate. In the bar in the evenings I am the barman and take orders and I’m also the maître d’, I do the wine list, so I am very much involved with everything within the business.
You might even sometimes catch me washing up on occasion, it all depends on what the hotel needs at that current time. I particularly enjoy the IT side of things, the website I look after myself and also the wine and food beverage side of things is very enjoyable and that’s where most of my training has been. But generally I think it’s hosting the guests: you can meet interesting people and have interesting conversations. That’s my favourite part of it and if you don’t enjoy that then there’s no point being a hotelier.
You are based in Devon, not far from Dartmoor National Park, how much of a draw is your location?
That’s an interesting one actually because Devon is one of those counties that people tend to drive through on their way to Cornwall. Especially the part of Devon that we are in, which is not on the coast. We are just off the A30 so actually people quite often tend to use us as a stop off point to break up their journey down to Cornwall.
Although I think that’s changing, we are quite centrally positioned here, we are almost on the Cornwall border, and both the north and the south coasts of Devon are actually only under an hour away. Plus we’ve got a good position to be able to see Dartmoor, the Eden Project, the Gardens of Heligan, and plenty of National Trust properties such as Buckland Manor and Castle Drogo. There’s a lot you can do here without too much travelling.
If you could choose one room to stay in, which would be your favourite?
I really like a room called ‘Prince Rupert’. It’s not actually a suite but it’s deluxe king-size room, so it is our highest double room and has nice views, a nice sized bathroom, and it’s just a very light and pleasantly decorated room.
What does the future hold for Lewtrenchard Manor?
Much the same really – growth within the hotel but I would like to expand a little bit. We are only a leasehold here and I would like to be able to buy a freehold business which wouldn’t need such a hands-on style of management. Perhaps more of a townhouse or something similar, but that is for the future. At the moment it’s really consolidating our growth here and getting it to a point where my parents can take a step back and maybe I will be able to bring in a manager under me who would be able to support me.