The darkly dramatic exterior of this new Eastbourne hotel conceals a pastel palette within, along with design-led rooms and a showcase for local artwork. Janet Harmer discovers more about the Port brand.
It often takes an outsider to spot a gap in the market and that is exactly what lawyer turned property developer Peter Cadwallader believes he has done.
Having previously bought tired and dated hotels overlooking the sea to convert into apartments, he decided there was an opportunity to transform such properties into stylish hotels. An extensive amount of research went into creating what he calls a "challenger" brand, which was briefly launched in Eastbourne in December 2020 before closing as a result of lockdown and then reopening this year on 17 May as Covid restrictions were lifted.
The first property, Port hotel in Eastbourne, enjoys uninterrupted views across the town's expansive promenade and to the sea beyond. The brand is expected to become a collection of carefully curated destination hotels within architecturally interesting buildings that Cadwallader hopes will play a part in driving the rejuvenation of traditional seaside locations.
With the slow-down in the coach tour market, which was once the mainstay of business in such towns, Cadwallader says that many hotels are going to have to redefine their purpose in a way that is economically viable. This means creating a product that will appeal to a whole new audience, which for Port primarily means city-based types interested in art, culture and local food, who care about the environment.
"Our typical target market is a young aspirational couple called Alex and Jude, who live in Brockley in south-east London," says Cadwallader. "They don't own a home yet, but aspire to do so. They love design and are very creative. They work as freelancers and come to stay with us for perhaps a couple of days during the week and make use of our very fast internet. But equally, we also appeal to an older generation, who still want to feel relevant and go to cool places. In fact, the age of our average guest is mid-40s to mid-50s."
Cadwallader first began to see the potential of creating a seaside hotel brand when he moved out of London to Worthing. He was then attracted to look at properties in Eastbourne due to the presence of the Towner Gallery, which since its move to new premises in 2009 has become a magnet for contemporary art lovers.
Port was previously the 20-bedroom Waterside hotel, which was acquired in June 2019 off a guide price of £850,000 by Cadwallader and fellow shareholders Ian Douglas, chairman of the business, and his brother Clive, a silent partner. Cadwallader is managing director of Port Hotel Eastbourne Ltd, which has invested just under £2m in buying and refurbishing the hotel.
The interior of the 19-bedroom Port stems from a document put together by Cadwallader and Ian Douglas to outline the key touchpoints of the brand: "escape, connect and create".
"Our intention was to create a hotel where people could escape from the city; connect with each other, yourself, nature and space; and take time to create memories, dream and imagine," says Cadwallader. "It was also about providing high standards, being customer-driven and offering good value."
Branding consultant Olivia Knight put the bones of the look together, while interior designer Imraan Ismail, working on his first hotel commission, transformed it into reality.
Port makes its mark on guests instantly, with the unexpected black exterior making it stand out from its neighbours on a terrace of primarily whitewashed Victorian townhouses.
"We wanted the building to look different and provide a contrast to the calm, pastel and monochromatic interior," explains Cadwallader, who took inspiration from the black clapboard buildings found along the Norfolk coast and industrial spaces of Amsterdam.
The public space
Port's entrance takes guests directly into a large, light-filled, fluid space, previously occupied by two smaller, darker rooms. A steel box frame was installed when an internal wall was removed, enabling the restaurant, with its multiple different seating areas, to become the star of the public space, with the bar-cum-reception off to one side.
A key aspect of creating the fresh, pared-back, calming interior was selecting exactly the right colour palette. "Generally, the colours we chose were inspired by the immediate environment, in particular the pebble beach just across the road," says Ismail.
The colours we chose were inspired by the immediate environment, in particular the pebble beach just across the road
However, the walls in the public spaces are painted to reflect what Ismail says is the "beautiful pink glow" of the sun setting on the sea one evening. "I took lots of pictures and then went on a journey to find just the right tone. I ended up using Pink Ground by Farrow & Ball."
The bar, which dominates the left-hand wall, is a showcase for one of several artisans used throughout the Port project. Cotswolds-based joiner Michael Foy made the fluted oak bar front, working to a design created by Ismail's team. The four-metre bartop is made from poured concrete, while the back-lit pink onyx circle behind it is a reflection of the brand name. "The onyx is something of a statement, and it provides a lovely soft glow," says Ismail. "We wanted to link the brand into the design without it being too obvious, so this is our depiction of a porthole."
Cadwallader chose the cork floor tiles, which are used in both the public space and throughout the bedrooms. "I had not used cork on such a wide scale before, but it has been a great decision," says Ismail. "It is easy to clean and maintain and is very durable. It is also very good acoustically. Using it throughout the building provides a common thread that unifies the space."
The soft hue of the walls allows the black tables from And Objects and the black-framed chairs with plywood seating to pop, while bespoke banquette seating and Eames-style chairs are upholstered in a pink fabric that is several shades deeper than the wall colour.
The desire to create a calm space to which city dwellers can escape means that the two tables in the floor-to-ceiling bay windows enjoying magnificent sea views have no telephone charging points nearby.
"We are trying to encourage a practical use of the space where guests are engaged emotionally," says Cadwallader. "There are plug sockets and USB ports alongside the banquettes at the back of the restaurants where people can work, but we're not a hotel that has lots of pointless gadgets. We're tech-enabled, not tech-led.
Meanwhile, the wish for Port to become an established part of the local creative scene is highlighted by the collection of contemporary artwork from Jonathan Murphy and ceramics from Karen Peters.
In the short time it has been open, Port has established an enthusiastic following for its selection of sharing dishes with a focus on local ingredients. The kitchen brigade is led by head chef Alex Burtenshaw, who previously worked at Harbour hotel and Hotel du Vin, both in Brighton.
For brunch, served daily from 7.30am to 2.30pm, Burtenshaw aims to offer dishes which are far removed from what he describes as "run of the mill hotel menus," hence the likes of smoked rainbow trout from Yowarth's smoke house in nearby Seaford served with poached egg, homemade brioche, yuzu hollandaise and trout roe (£13) and shredded duck leg confit, fried duck leg, sriracha, homemade waffle and smoked hollandaise (£12).
Dinner, served from 6pm to 9pm (9.30pm on Friday and Saturday), includes an eclectic mix that ranges from barbecue stone bass, pepper salsa, courgette (£9) to braised lamb with watercress and mint sauce and braising liquor (£10).
Two bedrooms in the former hotel were joined together to create the show-stopping, 40 sq m, double-aspect Studio Apartment with sea views. A further four bedrooms look out onto the English Channel and Eastbourne Pier, while the guests in the bedrooms on the higher floors at the back of the building enjoy views across the South Downs.
Each of the 19 bedrooms are painted one of three muted pastel colours from Farrow & Ball – green, pink and stone – and is where the inspiration of the various hues of beach pebbles comes into play. Two paint shades are used in each room, the darker at the lower level of the wall with a complementary one at the higher and on the ceiling: Blue Grey and Ammonite; Dead Salmon and Dimity; and London Stone and Skimming Stone.
"The two colours together create more interest, as well as providing a great backdrop for the head board," says Ismail. "The space is also enveloped by taking the higher, lighter colour up onto the ceiling," says Ismail.
The fluted headboard mirrors the design of the bar downstairs, with a circle of marble used this time in place of the onyx to reflect a port hole. "We were on a budget, so I went on a bargain hunt to find off-cuts of marble – in shades of green, pink and stone – that no one else had a use for," he adds.
Like the marble ‘portholes', much time was spent on carefully sourcing every element within the well-appointed bedrooms to match its colour scheme – whether it be the bijou fridges from Spanish brand Ikohs, the Hay kettles or simply the notepads. A striped linen fabric from the Cloth Shop in London's Notting Hill provides a minimal addition of pattern across the curtains, blind and bed cushions, while throws on the Hypnos beds are from German company Zoeppritz.
Few bedrooms have enclosed hanging space; instead, guests hang clothes from an oak rail, hung by leather straps from the ceiling. A selection of reading material in each room reflects the coastal location, with Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach among those on offer.
Dinky poured-concrete sinks in either green, pink or stone – made by the Poured Project, which also created the restaurant's bartop – are the focal point of the bathrooms. These are contrasted by the black taps and a number of black accessories in the bedrooms, including socket points, shelving and bedside tables.
Bathroom amenities highlight Port's commitment to sustainability with the provision of environmentally friendly products: toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap, which donates half of its profits to helping to improve sanitation in the developing world; hand soap from natural skin care company Haeckels; and body wash, shampoo and conditioner in refillable bottles from Faith in Nature.
Cadwallader is delighted that the target market for Port is responding so well to the brand's vision: average occupancy since May has been 83%, rising to 93% over the past month.
As an operator with no previous hospitality experience, he readily admits that he still has a lot to learn. "Coming from a different sector you can approach a new venture with fresh eyes, which enables you to see possibilities, but you also have a naivety that means you won't initially get everything completely right. There is no substitute for experience."
One area of the operation he is considering changing is creating a small, informal reception area separate from the bar, where guests are currently checked in. "It is not always clear where arriving guests should go, and while it is beneficial to have the flexibility of staff being able to serve drinks, work in the restaurant and check guests in and out, I think it will be more efficient if we have someone who is dedicated to working on reception."
It is no surprise that recruiting staff has been the major challenge for Cadwallader, with himself fulfilling a variety of roles, including night porter, while his wife Eve has played an integral part in building the housekeeping team.
But now, with the benefit of a buoyant number of forward bookings, Cadwallader knows that he needs to recruit an experienced general manager, who will share his creative vision for Port and oversee the operation while he turns his attention to expanding the brand.
"Recent weeks have been emotionally very challenging, but I love what we've created and I'm very passionate about growing it. Buying property is what I know and I'm good at and I need to start looking for the next hotel."
To start, Cadwallader's hunt for Port number two, before he moves on to what hopes will around 20 hotels within 10 years, will be focused on seaside towns in Sussex and Kent. He believes Worthing has the potential to accommodate the brand, as do the likes of Hastings and Folkestone. A direct sea view is a must, as is an interesting, possibly heritage building, but something brutalist would also be considered "as long as the architecture is interesting". Around 30 to 40 bedrooms for each property would be the ideal.
Contact and details
Port, 11-12 Royal Eastbourne Parade, Eastbourne, East Sussex BN22 7AR
Managing director Peter Cadwallader
Head chef Alex Burtenshaw
Room rates From £140 on weekday (£160 at weekends) for a Downs-facing room, to £250 on a weekday (£290 at weekends) for a sea-facing studio apartment
Imraaan Ismail Interiors www.iiinteriors.co.uk
Jonathan Murphy www.jonathanmurphyonline.com
Karen Peters Ceramics www.karenpetersceramics.co.uk
Farrow & Ball www.farrow-ball.com
Tub chairs, sofa and pendant lights
Ferm Living www.fermliving.com
Upholstered chairs in restaurant and bedrooms
Restaurant tables and coffee tables
And Objects www.andobjects.com
Black-framed and wood chairs
Bedroom curtains, blinds and bed cushions
The Cloth Shop www.theclothshop.net
Oak and leather hanging rails
Roar Studio www.roarstudio.uk
Concrete sinks and bar top
The Poured Project www.thepouredproject.com
Create by Ikohs www.ikohs.com/uk
Body wash, shampoo and conditioner
Faith in Nature www.faithinnature.co.uk
Who Gives A Crap https://try.uk.whogivesacrap.org/wholesale
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