Occasionally you find a property with so much more to its design and its name than a simple backstory. The owners of The Reading Rooms in Margate take their guests back to the opulence of an elegant 18th century seaside retreat with a passion for elegance, authentic restoration, and experiential recreation.
“In the 1960s rock band Hawkwind’s co-founder Bob Calvert inherited the sizeable property, which was then in a comparative state of neglect, and it became a bohemian squat before its use as 10 bedsits in the 1970s. In 2007 the current owners bought the building, seeing great potential in its restoration.”
The Reading Rooms is a luxury boutique bed and breakfast in a restored, Grade II-listed 250-year-old townhouse in Margate, arguably the first of England’s Georgian seaside resorts. Situated in a residential square based on the vernacular of a London Georgian square, the luxury B&B was the winner of Dorset Cereals best overall bed and breakfast in their 2017 awards bit.ly/dcavlink.
In the 18th century, forming part of the new invention of sea bathing, reading rooms were institutions around the town. These would be places in Georgian Margate that could be best described social libraries, with journals to read alongside cultural activities and card-playing.
“We picked the name as something that tied into the era of the construction and purpose of the property and evoke the atmosphere that we wanted to develop,” says Louise Oldfield who owns the property with husband Liam Nabb.
Liam had moved to Florence as a child in the 1970s with his mother and they were for a time living caretakers of the Casa Guidi, the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Institute, where his mother, Magdalene Nabb, became a successful crime writer and author of novels set in the Italian city.
“That shaped us in the way we live in and run The Reading Rooms,” says Louise. “It’s a little like that aspect Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate Street, Spitalfields, where there is a certain amount of artistic licence over the presentation of historical interior and a living museum experience,” she explains, alluding to a ‘still-life drama’ created by the previous owner that serves as a historical imagination of what life would have been like inside back in the day.
“We were passionate about the house’s original purpose as a retreat, and we wanted to give the building a name that would fit, rather than just a number,” she says.
The couple were ahead of the curve when it came to period building preservation in the UK. Louise says: “Our approach was more akin to that of mainland Europe and Italy’s approach to works on historic building, and not faking things. We would peel back layers of the interior to reveal what was beneath. Then, depending on where the historical evidence happened to be in the building, we would decide whether to leave it or treat it as a new area, for example the bathrooms.” Believe it or not the building never had central heating or bathrooms in its 250-year lifetime until Louise and Liam took over.
Their trademark brand was preservation of the original Georgian plasterwork walls with the original paint and painted plaster. She says: “In the hallway, our front room and in the Attic guest room, we peeled back the layers until we reach something really beautiful and we left the scars and the passage of time still visible, rather than making it look like a newly-constructed mock-Georgian 18th century-style wedding cake.”
The result, forming part of the guest experience, is to step into a grand hallway with blue-layered walls stripped back from a yellow wood chip vinyl painted hallway that had led to a 10-bedroom bedsit. They have now been restored to their original Georgian plasterwork, revealing all the colours, with scars indicating how they have been treated over the centuries.
It had not been Louise and Liam’s plan to turn the property into a B&B when they first bought it, but their plans were influenced by Ian Schrager, co-inventor of both Studio 54 and the term boutique hotel. Louise explains: “Since we first met, we’ve always worked together, primarily within an entertainment service industry offering club night parties. When Ian Shrager inherited a hotel as a debt payment, he rethought the way things had always been done within the hotel sector before going on to personalise the whole system.
“We didn’t buy this building to do B&B, nor did we plan how to base our B&B around what existed in that market,” she says. “We had this building that we wanted to restore, and we had a house we’d moved to in Margate. We really just wanted to save this building just as the crash happened in 2008 and we realised we were going to have to try to make it work as a business, rather than trying to restore it and deciding which house we were going to live in.”
The financial crash was a call to action. They used their experience of running parties and nightclubs in Italy and applied the Schrager principle. She explains: “If you can successfully work out, effortlessly, how to get people to come to a party and to have an amazing time, then you have the skills to run any hospitality business, whether it be a restaurant or a hotel. In hospitality, when other people are at play, you’re at work,” she says.
They put a call out to the council for their views on a boutique B&B in this particular area of Margate. As fate would have it, that very day their local council had been contacted by a TV production company planning to do a new C4 programme with Ruth Watson.
“She had jumped ship from Channel 5 as The Hotel Inspector to present Hotel Rescue. We were introduced to her, and we worked with them for a year. We became friends with Ruth and her husband, and she gave us the confidence to design something new as a room service breakfast, which is central to how we ended up developing this boutique B&B,” says Louise.
They had to invest heavily from the start. “We threw everything at it, which has always been our ethos in terms of planning to attract people that are going to expect this amazing quality,” she says.
The call to action itself came from a contradictory source when they took a visit from Quality & Tourism, familiar with hospitality in the East Kent area. “Their advice was this is the kind of bed-head rug you will need, this is the minimum size of bathroom sink, and you will never get above £95 a night,” says Louise. “We simply didn’t believe that.”
They needed to create something spectacular that people would hear about, whose stunning nature would override the need for an advertising budget, which they had deliberately already spent in order to make The Reading Rooms special. She says. “In hospitality, and even in the boutique sector, there is a prevailing fallacy that you should commit a certain amount of your turnover to advertising.
“Our ethos is to spend money on the guests’ experience offer, and thus people will hear about it by word of mouth rather than from an unspectacular advert, which wouldn’t reach our target market.”
No advertising budget also means no OTAs. “We pay our staff well above the living wage and we have a high staff retention and bigger rooms than average for example, because we are not spending £30,000 to £40,000 a year to booking.com,” says Louise.
Breakfast at The Reading Rooms is truly a treat to behold. Louise and Liam like to deliver guests a very personal service with breakfast, presenting it like a treat. “The menus say you can have whatever you want for breakfast, at whatever time you want it,” she says. “There’s none of this ‘choose one of this, one of that’. We don’t segregate the menu into one juice, one fruit etc, because when it comes to breakfast, people are creatures of habit, and you want them to feel as if it is a treat.”
Guests do not abuse their generosity, she says, but she adds: “Some of our guests have come from different cultures and not known what the items are on the menu. Once we had a period when there were a number of guests who circled everything on the menu. And we delivered it! Literally I took up salmon scrambled egg, full English breakfast, sandwiches, porridge, boiled eggs, and the whole thing went into the room
and disappeared – so I don’t know what they did with it.”
The room-service breakfasts at The Reading Rooms requires two people to prepare and take up to guests, which explains why many small B&Bs and even larger hotels don’t deliver breakfast room service, she suggests.
She explains the economics: “You may be paying staff £10 per hour PAYE, but factor that into the £190 a night room rate and you still find you can add better services, notably from not having to manage a buffet with a very high level of food wastage. A five-star breakfast buffet for example must still look full when the last guests of the morning to come down to eat.”
Every now and again a guest needs to leave at 4am for the airport, and they do not slip through the net, she says. “The traditional early breakfast is a miserable affair – a small tray with a box of cereal,” says Louise. “We live on site, so if someone is leaving at that time of day, we get up and do the whole thing. Because it is such a small business rather than a hotel, I can do that.”
Prior to the March lockdown, they would check people in and give them two menus on A4 cartridge paper with an old-fashioned pencil, she says. Adapting to the immediate post-lockdown period, instead of moving their ordering onto apps or text messages, Louise and Liam have been asking wherever possible for guests to photograph the menu once they’ve filled it out in their room with a pencil, which still keeps the personal, friendly approach.
Quality and choice
“Whatever type of milk the guest requests with their breakfast they can have,” Louise says. “On the day they arrive I will go out and buy whatever they want, be it gluten-free food, almond milk or soya milk.
“You have to find a balance to be able to give people a feeling that they can have whatever they want and that you have thought about them. People want to feel special. And you can cleverly write a menu which sounds like you are giving them lots of choice.”
Louise says the key is to treat breakfast like a brunch menu. “It should come with good flavour and high quality,” she says. “It is your opportunity to shine and not to skimp and to give it that extra.”
For example, The Reading Rooms breakfast offers a salad of fruit rather than a fruit salad. “If you were having lunch in a really smart restaurant and you ordered a berry salad of fruit, it would entail carefully sliced strawberries laid out on a plate in the way you group food items together, and not mixed up in a bowel with orange juice poured on it, and not boosted with cheaper items. We make sure it is presented beautifully,” she says.
One of the challenges they found when starting up was finding dependable supplies for a business offering just three guest rooms.
“It was quite difficult to get things like fresh berries when we first opened, and we found it better to go to the local shop to collect our fruit and ripen
it because we only did six breakfasts for our
three rooms. We’re not a restaurant knocking out 100 covers.”
COVID-19 has brought about a change in this dynamic, she says. “Now, provided we order the night before, the local farm supplier that would have been supplying local restaurants will put on a delivery for orders as little as £10. I can therefore get my strawberries, raspberries and other fresh produce.”
“I am exhausted!” says Louise when I ask about the post-lockdown cleaning regime at The Reading Rooms. She has followed the Public Health England advice as it has evolved, complete with advice on quarantine and the life of the virus. “The original public health advice on cleaning a non-clinical setting of 72 hours has been adapted by the UK government and industry trade associations,”
“Our rooms don’t have curtains or carpets, so there are no soft furnishings apart from the headboards, pillows and mattresses and some furniture upholstery.”
The most significant change they have taken is to only run with two rooms and not take bookings during the week and to close from Sunday to Friday. She has also installed professional Nespresso machines and fridges in each of the bedrooms.
She is also concerned about protecting her own staff when they return, making the environment safer for both guests and employees. “If you have to wear a mask in a shop, what does that mean for the employees that have to work in that shop? And what does it mean for the owner of that shop employing the employees?
I have an obligation under employee law,” she says.
Louise decided to quarantine the guest rooms to get through the summer period, and for this she has had to refinance, she says. Right now, although the future is far from clear, she is confident she will get through the challenges as the country recovers from the effects of lockdown.
“I’m having to wait until our laundry service reopens. The government also needs to look after tourism supply chain business. We’re 17 rooms a week down, running on a total of four rooms a week now,” she says. “But I can keep it stable. I aim to bring a member of staff back once we have got through this, to see where things go,” she concludes.