With the acquisition of the spectacular Lympstone Manor, near Exmouth in Devon, Michael Caines has fulfilled his long-standing ambition of owning his own hotel. Janet Harmer went to visit
The surprise on driving up to the entrance of Lympstone Manor is that no-one had snapped it up and turned it into a hotel before Michael Caines. Set in an elevated position, with sweeping lawns running down to the Exe estuary and views to Exmouth and beyond, the location is up there with the best of any hotel in the UK.
“I could have searched the entire country and not come up with such an exceptional location,” explains Caines. “I’m a Devon boy, born just a few miles away in Exeter, and I never knew this place existed. I think it was waiting for me. It captured my heart and it’s now time for it to capture others.”
The 21-bedroom Lympstone Manor opened at the end of March, following a 16-month renovation project, which involved transforming the previously ramshackle Grade II-listed Georgian mansion into Caines’ vision of a country house hotel for the 21st century.
For Caines, that has meant creating a property that is unashamedly luxurious, chic and glamorous. Lympstone is an antidote to the traditional country houses stuffed with antiques and decorated with chintzy swag and tails or hotels that offer a more relaxed, shabby chic look that has more recently caught the imagination of operators. He dismisses both out of hand.
“I don’t do period dramas; we’re not looking to pretend that I’m part of some dynasty or family that has long since gone,” he says. “And I don’t do shabby chic, which may be charming but is also an excuse for under-investment. I’m here to celebrate the future and the contemporary, while at the same time embrace the historical architecture of the house.”
Caines’ ambition to own his own hotel stems back to the days when he took over the food and beverage operation at the Royal Clarence hotel in Exeter (see panel). Although he did go on to acquire the Clarence in partnership with Andrew Brownsword, further hopes of being offered a financial stake in Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon, where he eventually spent 21 years as executive chef, never materialised.
“The best way to describe Gidleigh is that it was like a wonderful love affair and then, when I asked it to marry me, it said no,” explains Caines. Rejection, however, drove him on to search for a property of his own, eventually leading him in July 2014 to what was then known as Courtlands, having previously decided against Rockbeare Manor (“too close to Exeter Airport”) and Combe House (now the Pig at Combe – “a leasehold property, so it didn’t fit into my business model”). The property had been on the market for three years.
It took three months for Caines to raise the capital – 11 out of 13 potential investors eventually came on board – and six months to obtain the planning permission required to extend and turn the former private home into a hotel. Caines himself has the largest stake in the venture, which has cost close to £9m to develop.
It has been a long haul, but Caines has been involved every step of the way and with every detail, from drawing up the room layouts to selecting key items of art and furniture. He even became the principal contractor halfway through the project because he was unhappy with how it was proceeding. “Everything you see here is my decision,” he says.
The grounds have been decluttered to open up the landscape and views, while inside Caines was keen to create a sense of place with spacious rooms where guests would want to linger. “We say ‘experience the extraordinary’, by which we mean that we are proving the exceptional in everything we do – the service, the wine, the food, the accommodation, the location.”
Inspired by Restoration Hardware, a luxury American home furnishings brand, Caines worked alongside architect Rud Sawers and London-based design company Meraki to create his vision of a contemporary country house hotel. Meraki designed all the furniture, which was made by 2install in Glasgow.
To reflect the locality, the birds that live in and around the estuary provided the names of the bedrooms, as well as the colour palette, from the soft greys used in the top Heron suites to the blue jewel tones found in Kingfisher and an indigo shade with black and white accents in Magpie.
The most vivid reflection of the surrounding landscape is captured in two bespoke wallpapers commissioned from Devon-based watercolour artist Rachel Toll, which provide a focal point in the reception, on the stairs and in Powderham – one of three dining rooms. Meanwhile, individual pieces of art by Kurt Jackson featuring estuary life, vintage nautical maps sourced from the British Maritime Museum and polished shells also provide a connection to the surrounding landscape.
Overall, the look and feel of Lympstone is one of carefully considered luxury, highlighted by deep, comfortable sofas in beige and cream, sparkling chandeliers and nero marquina and estremoz marble flooring in the Berry Head dining room. Yet, while the finest cutlery (Welch range from Studio William), glassware (Veritas range from Riedel) and china (Serax, Jars, Jacques Pergay and Villeroy & Boch) on white tablecloths is also the order of the day, Caines wants the hotel to be somewhere guests can relax, so there is no expectation of what they should wear and there is background music “to set the tone so that no-one has to bloody whisper”.
The sense of indulgence continues into the bedrooms, where high-speed broadband is available alongside free phone calls to anywhere in the world, GHD hairdryers and straighteners, L’Occitane fragrance and a complimentary tray of Williams gin from the Chase Distillery and Fevertree tonics.
While Caines has spent the large part of his career focused on food, he stresses that he has a good head for business and always listens to guests’ feedback, which has helped inform him in the creation of Lympstone. He is now concentrating on building up the team to its full capacity of 60, headed by general manager Scott Andrews and head chef Tom Hines, and bringing in the business, which will be boosted by joining the Relais & Chateaux sales and marketing consortium later in the year.
Caines is confident that he has put into reality the original vision he dreamt up on first seeing the building he renamed as Lympstone Manor. “The rooms are beautiful, yet unpretentious,” he says. “When did you last go to a hotel and feel ‘wow – this is really stylish and sumptuous’?”
Born in Exeter in 1969, Caines was brought up by his adopted family. He attended Exeter Catering College, where he was named Student of the Year in 1987 before going on to work in London at the Grosvenor House hotel. Three of the most formative years of his early career were then spent working under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire. Caines later moved to France to work with the late Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu, Burgundy, and Joël Robuchon in Paris.
He returned to the UK in 1994 to take up his first head chef position at Gidleigh Park, then owned by Paul and Kay Henderson, in Chagford, Devon. Just two months into the role, Caines suffered a devastating car accident in which he lost his right arm. Yet, just two weeks later, the determination and ambition that has stuck with him throughout his career ensured he was back at work in the kitchen part-time. He returned full-time after four weeks.
An Acorn winner in 1996, Caines was awarded his first Michelin star soon after arriving at Gidleigh Park, followed by his second in 1999. He was presented with the Chef Award at the 2002 Cateys and received an MBE for services to the hospitality industry in 2006.
While remaining as executive chef at Gidleigh Park, Caines branched out beyond the hotel in 2002 with the launch of Michael Caines Restaurants, which saw him take over the food and beverage operation at Exeter’s Royal Clarence hotel, then owned by Corus & Regal Hotels. A chance encounter with entrepreneur Andrew Brownsword led to a partnership that acquired the Royal Clarence hotel and launched Abode Hotels, with restaurants eventually opening in each of the brand’s restaurants in Glasgow, Canterbury, Chester and Manchester, as well as Exeter. In 2005 Brownsword went on to acquire Gidleigh Park and Caines was appointed food and beverage director of Andrew Brownsword Hotels, which eventually comprised 12 properties.
He resigned as food and beverage director of Brownsword Hotels in 2014 and left Gidleigh Park as executive chef in early 2016, having acquired Lympstone Manor in September 2015.
In addition to running Lympstone, Caines is co-host of the Channel 4 programme My Kitchen Rules, as well as appearing on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, MasterChef, Great British Menu and Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. He also consults on the food and beverage operations at Kentisbury Grange, near Barnstable, Devon, and Palé Hall in Llandderfel, Gwynedd, as well as providing food for the Williams F1 team at its motorhome facility during race weekends.
Having held two Michelin stars at Gidleigh Park for 18 years, Caines is determined that he will achieve at least the same accolade at Lympstone, but he admits that his ultimate ambition is to achieve a third star. However, now he is a businessman as well as a chef, Caines recognises that the most important achievement will be the creation of a successful hotel.
“I will know we have succeeded if we have a place that people want to come to and leave feeling happy,” he says.
Guests and customers who are familiar with Caines’ food will recognise many dishes, or variations of dishes, from Gidleigh Park. “I’ve got to play to my strengths – I can’t throw away 18 years at two-star level to start a new fad. I know what I’m good at and am starting with that, but as we move forward, we’ll evolve,” he explains. “There’s a whole group of followers out there who are coming back to enjoy my food. It would be silly to change now.”
At dinner, Caines offers two tasting menus – the Estuary, featuring local fish and seafood, at £130 for eight courses, and the Signature, comprising nine of “my greatest hits” dishes, at £140. These sit alongside a small à la carte menu, with a choice of four dishes at each of three courses, for £115.
In the middle of the day, the Estuary menu is replaced by a lunch menu, with a choice of three dishes at each course, costing £45 for two courses or £55 for three.
Caines is especially proud of the two tasting menus, which reflect the influence of his two great mentors, Raymond Blanc and Bernard Loiseau. The braised turbot with River Exe mussels and cockles with tomato and basil sauce on the Estuary menu was inspired by Blanc. Meanwhile, the orange confit in the chocolate orange confit mousse with orange confit sorbet, which completes the Signature menu, originated with Loiseau.
“This simply started off as two rings of chocolate mousse with an orange mousse in the middle and orange zest on top,” says Caines. “Now it is more complex. Two halves of a sphere of chocolate mousse are fused together and the centre filled with a liquid confit orange, which is then frozen and dipped in an orange gel before being sprayed with a white chocolate cocoa butter. It is visually fantastic.”
The orange confit is made by piercing the fruit 10 times, which is then blanched 10 times to remove the strength of flavour. The oranges are candied in stock syrup for 10 hours before being blended to create the sauce which, as well as being inserted into the centre of the ball of chocolate mousse, is also used as the basis of the orange sorbet.
“It is an incredibly time-consuming dish,” explains Caines.
Signature tasting menu, £140
• Langoustine cannelloni with braised fennel and shellfish sauce
• Quail’s egg tartlet, onion confit, black truffle and smoked bacon, and a light quail jus
• Cornish salt cod, Beesands crab, chorizo, samphire, tarragon and lemon purée
• Pan-fried duck liver, orange braised chicory, caramelised walnuts and marinated raisins in an orange sauce
• Fillet of Darts Farm beef braised cheek, horseradish and shallot confit, celeriac purée, mushrooms and red wine sauce
• Selection of cheese
• Apple mousse, green apple sorbet, vanilla foam
• Chocolate orange confit mousse, orange confit sorbet