The Harper, a coastal hotel created in a former glassblowing factory, is steeped in North Norfolk history, from its sympathetic restoration of an ancient building to the celebration of local produce on the menu and the seal-watching tours offered to guests. Tessa Allingham pays a visit.
Dates have not been the best of friends to the Harper, the newest boutique hotel on the North Norfolk coast. A soft launch was slated for 13 March 2020; a full opening scheduled for 1 April. Inauspicious twice over, as it turned out.
"The fridges were full and the bar stocked, so we moved in, locked down and worked our way through everything that we needed to do," says owner and managing director Sam Cutmore-Scott, the ‘we' being Sam and his partner, and his parents Jo and Mark.
"You get to the point with a hotel opening where you are desperate for just one more week – we ended up having an extra year. We basically spent 2020 around this table," he explains, indicating to the polished coffee table near the hotel bar, surrounded by generous velvet sofas and armchairs in inky blue, rich crimson and sunflower yellow. "We spent the time thinking about how we wanted the hotel to work."
You get to the point with a hotel opening where you are desperate for just one more week – we ended up having an extra year
Little changed from the family's pre-pandemic intention to create a contemporary, 32-bedroom heritage-referencing hotel, complete with spa and pool, out of a shell of a building they had bought from developers Avada Country Homes in 2017. The site, in tiny Langham, just inland from Blakeney, had been a glassblowing factory – Langham Glass – and behind the unmistakably North Norfolk brick and flint structure are the original beams, high ceilings, exposed brickwork and lofty windows that nod to an industrial past.
The hotel is named after Stanley Harper Cutmore, Cutmore-Scott's grandfather, who was a mechanic in Norwich. The family won't be drawn on the cost of the project, but rejects the multimillion-pound figure quoted in the media.
Those lockdown discussions also reinforced the family's ambition to open a residents-only hotel, with the focus firmly on looking after 60 or so guests at a time. This was to ensure as pleasant and safe as possible a working environment for 30 full-time members of staff, plus part-time workers.
"There are so many operational reasons for [the residents-only model] to make sense," says Cutmore-Scott. "I can square the potential loss of F&B revenue, because it's rooms that make or break a business. If a hotel is quiet, you can't turn that loss of revenue around, however many burgers you sell to non- residents. And if overnight guests find they can't get a table in the restaurant, Stanley's, because we're busy with non-residents, that won't encourage them to return, will it?"
He and his parents have done the maths accurately: all three are accountants by training, albeit steeped in hospitality thanks to the family's established wedding business, Bijou Weddings (see below).
"Peaks and troughs are balanced out. We become more efficient and less wasteful. Staff know what to expect, and as recruitment is so difficult, that's important. It can get to the point [in conventional hospitality] where they dread the sun coming out because they know they'll be rushed off their feet."
Cutmore-Scott talks of the health and safety importance of maintaining a sensible space-guest-staff ratio. It's too early to see if the approach translates to a more stable workforce, but for now the Harper has – a rare thing – a full quota of chefs, front of house, reception and housekeeping staff, all recruited from the immediate area.
Window of opportunity
The redevelopment of the Langham Glass factory has animated village residents (372 of them, at last count) ever since Avada bought the empty site in 2005. Concerns about ‘community cohesion', parking and of it being ‘out of character with the area' are documented, but planning permission for a hotel and 25 homes was granted in 2006. The 2008 financial crisis then halted works until 2014, and on eventual completion, the houses were sold individually, most as second homes, and the hotel space was bought by the Cutmore-Scotts in 2017.
The residents-only decision doesn't please everyone. "We absolutely don't want to upset anyone or be exclusionary," says Cutmore-Scott. "But it's not as if we've taken a much-loved local pub and turned it into something people suddenly aren't able to use. There was nothing here before we bought it. We've created local employment and we'll draw visitors to the area." He talks of creating a "centre of gravity" and attracting visitors likely to spend locally, to the benefit of everyone.
The possibility of the Harper becoming a membership club is "not crossed off the list". "First, we need to understand how guests use the facilities and what they want from the hotel and we'll take it from there. I'm just so chuffed to be finally sitting here with guests in the rooms."
He sees opportunities in creating what the website describes as a ‘small community of kindred spirits' and providing a ‘second home without the hassle', and he may tap into the working from home revolution. Similarly, if the hotel turns out to be quiet during the day, he may open for midweek lunches for non-residents.
For now, settling into the swing of the busiest of summers is the priority at the hotel, which finally opened on 17 May along with the rest of indoor hospitality in England. Some 90% of room bookings from 2020 have been rearranged rather than refunded, and new bookings tend to be for longer stays, in keeping with national trends.
"We were expecting two-night stays to be the norm, but the average is four," says house manager Jules Keirle, who joined the Harper from a period as a hotel consultant. "We're full through the summer – maybe the odd day here and there." He looks up from the booking screen; it's a neon colour-coded blur, barely a glimpse of vacant white.
"We'd got quite blasé about travel," says Cutmore-Scott. "Jetting off to Ibiza for a weekend might be lovely, but you have to question the sustainability. I don't think we'll fully go back to old ways. The UK summer break will become more important. OK, you may have a few hours in the car, but that's nothing compared with the risks of overseas travel, the cost and time of possible quarantine, the changing regulations. I expect a resurgence in appreciation and celebration of life's little highlights, not just the big ones. Appreciation of a good meal, good service, a comfy bed and a nice environment will outlast the shadow of 2020."
Appreciation of a good meal, good service, a comfy bed and a nice environment will outlast the shadow of 2020
So who's booking? Cutmore-Scott talks of the "young London crowd" and the "grey pound", and of his caution not to swing too far into one camp or the other. Families with young children are welcome, dogs too, though the hotel is not specifically designed for either. Right now, Jack (a cockapoo) and Florence (a golden retriever) touch noses in the bar, tow-haired youngsters toddle towards the pool for a (pre-booked) swim with their parents, and robe-clad guests make their way to the Irene Forte spa (the first to be opened in a non-Forte hotel) for treatments. They have come from the Cambridge area and London, Lancashire even.
And, beyond the appeal of the new hotel itself, why do they come? A giant hand-drawn map of the area hangs behind reception, illustrations marking staff members' favourite Norfolk spots. "Everyone contributed," Cutmore-Scott says. "It does seem to gravitate around distilleries and pubs and Carrow Road… oh, and golf. One of our very first guests came just for the golf. It bodes well for the longer stays that it's not just about the beach." His own contribution? The Anchor pub at Morston, the Gunton Arms at Thorpe Market, and the Dun Cow at Salthouse, particularly for the crab linguine.
Subtle but stylish
The Harper fits a 2021 definition of rural hotel luxury, designed, the website says, "without an ounce of chintz". Understated industrial style remembers the building's heritage, and retouched black-and-white images of glass-blowers and landscapes taken by local photographer Chris Everard hang alongside eclectic original art. Iron, slate, oak and stone are softened by leather, linen and velvet, and a striking arched window with stained-glass birds will likely become popular on Instagram. There are four-poster beds made from light oak in the bedrooms, and in the Ivy's lounge is a cast-iron woodburning stove and muted copper pendant lights. "We bought furniture we liked and moved it around until we were happy," says Cutmore-Scott. "No designers were involved. It's all about us, what we like. Some of my walls at home are a bit bare now!"
There's fun too: giant emojis wink and blow kisses; there are enormous coffee table tomes about Barbra Streisand, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the Den offers a pool table, games, squashy sofas and a giant TV designed to work for private-party hire and as a post-dinner retreat.
There are the inevitable ‘hotel 2021' tropes, such as festoon lighting in outdoor space the Yard, a firepit and blankets galore. Plants are abundant, from tall Kentia palms to clusters of succulents and air-cleansing peace lilies in bedrooms.
The Harper's eco-conscience is determined. Renewable energy heats the building, the water and fuels the kitchen, and there are electric car-charging points, including Tesla Superchargers. Bedding by New York brand Buffy uses eucalyptus fibre, which requires far less water than cotton to cultivate.
Hand-in-hand comes an abundance of technology. "A year ago, nobody really used QR codes," says Cutmore-Scott. "But they were the plan here well before Covid." Guest interactions from booking to checkout are paper-free, and QR codes are on everything from menus to explanations of the fire system, guest feedback or ‘Harper Hikes' routes, with suggestions of where to spot seals or find the best smoked seafood. They even tell guests where to buy a piece of hand-blown Langham glass.
The Harper hotel
North Street, Langham, Norfolk NR25 7DH
Owners Jo and Mark Cutmore-Scott, Sam Cutmore-Scott
Managing director Sam Cutmore-Scott
House manager Jules Keirle
Rates ‘Big' rooms from £175; ‘Bigger' from £250; ‘Biggest' up to £360
Hotel facilities Irene Forte spa with pool, sauna and steam room; games room; bicycle hire
Restaurants Stanley's (40 covers); Ivy's (30). There are approximately 40 seats outside in the Yard and 20 in the Bar
A bijou business
The wedding business, with its myriad suppliers – not to mention couples – has been pummelled over the past 15 months. The Cutmore-Scotts' company, Bijou Weddings, is no exception.
"We were doing 250 weddings a year," says Sam Cutmore-Scott, managing director for the past 10 years. "This past year has been heart-breaking for everyone. Some couples were angry, some even blamed us, but around 75% have stayed with us and rearranged."
It goes without saying that he is desperate for restrictions on guest numbers to be eased, though having the time between hotels opening on 17 May and full weddings possibly being allowed later this summer has been welcome.
Bijou Weddings was set up by Jo and Mark Cutmore-Scott in 1999. The company owns three licensed properties in the home counties (Cain Manor and Botleys Mansion in Surrey, and Notley Abbey, Buckinghamshire), and Chateau du Bijou (closed until further notice, due to the pandemic) in Provence. Bookings are based around exclusive use for 24 hours.
The Harper hotel was originally set to join Bijou as a venue-hotel hybrid. However, with the post-pandemic preference expected to be for outdoor weddings and gatherings in open-sided marquees, the Cutmore-Scotts reconsidered. The Harper with its courtyard – albeit spacious – wouldn't work.
"This building works better as a hotel," says Cutmore-Scott, who describes it as "a diversification in strategy, despite shared DNA". He adds: "The best wedding venues are blank canvases, spaces that can become anything the couple wants. The Harper isn't like that."
On the menu
Chef friends have advised on the à la carte and all-day menu, which guests can take either in the 40-cover main restaurant, Stanley's, the adjacent lounge Ivy's, in the Bar, or outside in the Yard. A brigade of eight runs the kitchen, but Sam Cutmore-Scott says "it's not about the names and ego here; it's a team effort and will remain so".
On the ‘all day, anywhere' menu are salads (from £8), small plates such as crab tacos (£11), and duck-fat sweet potato fries with truffle and Parmesan (£4). Among the more substantial dishes, lobster and samphire mac 'n' cheese (£12) has been an early win, Cullen skink (£11), made with smoked haddock from nearby Cley Smokehouse, is beautifully creamy and savoury, and a deep-fried Mars bar with vanilla ice-cream (£4) tops up the fun factor.
Norfolk is celebrated conscientiously. On the 5-5-5 à la carte, local samphire, asparagus, sea vegetables and potatoes accompany spring-summer dishes. A Josper oven works its charcoal magic on venison from the Holkham Estate (£30), ribeye (£29) from local herds, or whole fish often landed in Morston. Norfolk Gin gets its moment behind the bar, but is also splashed into an iced Eton mess (£9).
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