Hotel Cateys winner Battlesteads has been transformed into a quality, value-for-money business that champions sustainable tourism. Aaron Morby reports
Need to know Richard and Dee Slade bought Battlesteads just over six years ago. The couple hoped for a quiet retirement retreat after successfully turning round a workingmen's pub in North Shields called the Magnesia Bank where they spent the last decade.
"We decided at 60 it was time to return to rural Northumberland to run a little hotel," explains Richard.
Since then, the couple has transformed the traditional hospitality business into Northumberland's greenest hotel, renowned nationally for championing sustainable tourism.
The pub, hotel and restaurant is located in the quiet village of Wark, near Hexham. Converted from an 18th Century farmstead, it is a stone's throw from the River North Tyne and ideal for exploring Hadrian's Wall, Kielder reservoir and the wild Border Reiver country.
Guests Business is very seasonal attracting ramblers and a notable contingent of Dutch tourists during peak season.
The Dutch are a welcome legacy of the previous owner, whose wife courted a travel firm from her homeland in Holland, which still regularly sends guests their way. A well-heeled hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity help to extend the season at Battlesteads.
Richard has started to explore regional tourism offering specialty food and drink nights.
"We are really trying to explore this area. We saw we could attract people from up to a 100-mile radius, looking for a one-night or weekend treat with an exotic menu and enticing wines.
"It is a discerning age group that tends to look for quality and value-for-money who are willing travel for a special experience."
"We think it's an untapped market in our region," he explains, adding that Battlesteads now boasts 32% repeat business.
Going green Part of Battlesteads' draw is a reputation for being a green-thinking outpost in Northumberland, complete with the only electric car recharging point for tens of miles.
Richard admits that running a dry cleaning business for many years persuaded him to think green. "I spent 25 years punching a hole in the ozone and now I'm trying to repair it."
He readily confesses that the couple were drawn into sustainability when they bought the hotel and discovered there was barely enough electricity to power the lights in the 17-bedrooms, let alone heat hot water.
He decided to replace the old, oil-fuelled boiler with a biomass boiler. "Including the building to house the boiler system it cost £100,000, easy to justify when it cuts annual heating costs by £20,000."
Now the hotel boast continuous flowing hot water and heating.
When faced with painting the interior of the hotel, their green passion led them to research and use recycled paints from a commercial supplier called Newlife. "Ours is a USP with integrity," he explains. "It's not greenwash, which is what many people are doing."
Richard estimates that up to 10% of Battlesteads clients are choosing them because of their ethos. "Going green is not a cheap option," he confesses. "It's more labour intensive because there is sorting and recycling to do, but we believe it is worth the extra effort."
Sustainable food Head chef Eddie Shilton sources prime local ingredients, all within a 30-mile radius. Many of the hotel's suppliers are award-winning in their own right and share Battlesteads' commitment to sustainability, taste and authenticity.
Typical dishes include Herdwick lamb, roe deer loin, venison, locally smoked cheeses, and locally caught haddock and salmon, as well as duck and chicken from the local Bywell Smokery, all pitched around £21 per head.
The pub boasts a selection of five cask ales, popular with locals. In the last year, wine sales have fizzed up 40% after Battlesteads recast the list to offer 16 wines by the glass.
Favourite supplier "Wine supplier Bibendum contacted us about developing our wine list. They have a spectacular selection of organic and biodynamic wines, which really fitted the bill.
"Richard Pickles from Bibendum is very proactive and gives up time to help us with our Dine with Matching Wine evenings."
Wine is up from 20% to 36% of wet sales.
The most expensive wine, an organic Sancerre costs £27.95, other wines are kept within most budgets at £15-£16.
Business building Battlesteads has seen six years of strong growth taking turnover from just £92,000 to around £770,000 last year.
Hotel rooms contribute around 46% of sales with food serving up 31% and wet trade making up 23%. In the summer, rooms are now usually fully-booked.
To boost business, the Slades took over the local village pub lease a couple of years ago.
"It gave us six extra rooms and went very well for a year, until the pub company decided to double the rent. So we left."
The couple have gained planning permission for 15 extra rooms - but the banking crisis put this on hold. "It's difficult to make the case with a season of four to five months without some kind of funding help for tourism," explains Richard.
Favourite hotel Lancaster London
Book that inspired Everything by Nigel Slater
Motto Always turn disadvantage into advantage
If you were not a publican what would you have been? Professional actor
Who do you most admire? Raymond Blanc
Five words that sum up your business Hard work, but worth it
Spotlight on sustainability
A supply of surplus heat from the biomass boiler allowed Battlesteads to experiment with growing its own salads, vegetables and fruits in big polytunnels.
"We grow salads and root vegetables all-year-round. During winter, we use special low light salads and produce large amounts of rocket, micro herbs and baby," says Richard.
"That is from the field to the plate in about four hours. And there aren't many restaurants can say that; it reduces travel and our carbon footprint."
Facts and stats
Owners Richard and Dee Slade
Head chef Eddie Shilton
Room rates £60-£120
Average cost of two-course meal £21.50
Average occupancy 65%