Michael Watts explores a Welsh country house restored to its former glory by the dynamic — and bold — Alan and Angela Harper
Between 1945 and 1974, 250 country houses were demolished throughout Britain, killed off by taxes and dwindling staff; it was out of sheer self-preservation that the phenomenon of the country house hotel then emerged, its appeal rooted in Edwardian nostalgia. Those grand old piles not yet turned into boys’ schools and care homes were buffed and polished in order for the well-heeled to take afternoon tea by log fires and dress for dinner; outside the French windows, the countryside lies sodden, but inside the gleam of silver service beckons. As Evelyn Waugh noted of PG Wodehouse, ‘the gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled’. And, he might have added, which many of us try to find our way back into.
One day last year, Alan Harper, a telecoms multimillionaire, and his wife, Angela, drove from their Somerset home to inspect a hotel property in Snowdonia, which they had seen for sale in Country Life. Overlooking tiny Llandderfel, the curiously named Palé Hall (a French corruption, perhaps) was advertised as ‘the Welsh country mansion beloved by Queen Victoria’; she had stayed there in 1889 on reputedly her only visit to Wales. The house was built between 1869 and 1871 for Henry Robertson, a Scottish railway engineer, flushed with wealth from the Industrial Revolution, who made his own hydroelectric system to service it. The Harpers were thrilled to find a splendid building of mellow sandstone, conceived in the Gothic Revival style, with locomotives carved into its stonework. The interior of oak and walnut was equally captivating, though shabby after years of failing hotel ownership.
The Harpers were looking for a country house to renovate together, a project for semi-retirement, not a hotel to run. It would crown a relationship with a surprising history. Alan Harper helped to launch the One2One network in the UK, and became the managing director of Vodafone before setting up a company that now creates the mobile-phone infrastructure of Sub-Saharan Africa. He is 60, fit and lean, with a quiet, diligent manner; it’s still possible to see in him the head boy of his school in Surrey, where Angela was also a pupil, four years younger. She vividly remembers an 18-year-old Alan with long hair and a passion for cool cars still undiminished (he now owns a Maserati and a 1974 E-Type which once belonged to Lord Saatchi).
‘All of us girls used to look at him and think he was gorgeous,’ she sighs, theatrically. But Alan was completely unaware of his admirer, and remained so until nine years ago, when their marriages had ended and they were internet dating. Angela shrieked when she recognised him: ‘I said, “Oh my God, it’s you! You were the head boy, the one with the green Triumph Spitfire!”’
This strange convergence of their lives culminated in the moment they stood there, in wild Wales, considering the purchase of a historic house where a Queen and a Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had stayed. But then, after a circuit of the property and its 16 acres of parkland, another unlikely possibility occurred to them: they would become hoteliers, after all. ‘Driving on the way back,’ Angela recalls, ‘we said, “Well, how hard can it be?”’ She would project-manage and design the 18 guest rooms herself. They would live on-site and move between rooms as each one was completed; it would be ‘posh camping’, she enthused.
One year on, the Harpers know exactly how challenging it can be. They eventually bought the land and buildings for just under £3 million, a not unreasonable price for a Grade II*-listed property, identified by architectural experts as ‘on the cusp between Arts and Crafts and the Aesthetic Movement’; the cost of renovation, however, has climbed to £1.5 million. The house still ran on an antiquated direct current, and flames shot up from the wall sockets when the heating was switched on. Meanwhile, Angela, a primary-school headmistress not so long ago, now found herself in command of 40 workmen, swagging James Hare curtains and Zoffany fabrics, stencilling William Morris designs on the walls of reception rooms, and composing romantic blogs about folk hero Owain Glyndwr and gorgeous Snowdonia. When she asked her husband for a present, ‘something big and silver’, he bought her a scaffolding tower. I am reminded of another Blandings, of Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, the 1940s Hollywood classic in which Cary Grant and Myrna Loy face the mounting problems of a new property — a restoration comedy, if you like. Typically, the skittish Mrs Blandings explains to her decorator the yellow she wants for the dining room by saying: ‘If you send one of your workers to the grocer for a pound of butter and match that, they can’t go wrong.’
In real life, however, Angela turns out to be both a natural designer and a châtelaine. Warm but sharp, she says that she wanted Palé to ‘feel like a home that’s evolved over the years, but with all the special bits of a hotel. This is a Posh and Becks house, isn’t it? That’s what we’ve made it. It’s not an absentee millionaire who’s bought another hotel; it’s very hands-on.’
It’s also eclectic. So the breakfast room is wallpapered with scenes of Venetian canals and gondoliers, while elegant Swedish chairs and Biedermeiers adorn the light-filled drawing room; and several of the opulent guest rooms, most of them named after Welsh castles, have capacious baths in the bedrooms themselves, which may give some guests a frisson.
The suite where Churchill stayed has rich, wooden panelling, stained-glass roof lights and a concealed, marble-lined bathroom with a copper and zinc bath. Churchill visited Palé Hall in the 1950s, when it was owned by the then Duke of Westminster, who came to shoot and fish on his 32,000 acres; during his long absences, the Duke left on all the electric fires to keep the place heated, danger be blowed. Queen Victoria arrived for a few days and stayed for ten, taking over the whole house from the Robertson family. The Victoria Suite has the original bath and basin used by the monarch, and in 1889 was the only plumbed room in the house, a sanitary innovation welcomed by Prince Albert’s widow, still grieving after his death from suspected typhoid 28 years earlier.
Since opening in August, Palé Hall has joined the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, its only hotel in Wales. Countering the suggestion that it’s a bit remote, Alan Harper says that 30 per cent of Britons live only two hours’ drive away. His idea is that guests will come to hunt and fish on the River Dee, sail on Bala Lake, walk the Denbigh Moors and Snowdon’s trails, and watch or participate in the classic-car
rallies he intends to organise in the ‘Evo Triangle’, which is a network of local roads, famous for testing new cars. Bala, the nearest town, lacks even
gastropubs, but the Harpers have enlisted one of Britain’s greatest chefs and hoteliers: Michael Caines, who won two Michelin stars at Gidleigh Park in Devon, and then went on to help to create the ABode empire of boutique hotels with greetings-card tycoon Andrew Brownsword.
Alan Harper met Michael Caines through the accountant they shared in Exeter. Caines was looking for investment in his forthcoming Exmouth hotel, Lympstone Manor; Harper persuaded him instead to come and oversee food and drink at Palé Hall. Personable and highly motivated, a chef who’s triumphantly survived the loss of an arm in a car accident, Caines fully understands his own worth: ‘People are going to say, “Why go to Palé Hall when there are so many other country house hotels? What makes it different? Ah, yes: Michael Caines is cooking.” And that’s the plan.’ In fact, he will be cooking only on special occasions, but he’s hired his former chef de partie Gareth Stevenson, who before long will surely get his own Michelin star, on the evidence of the tasting menu I had (£85 per person, £120 with matching wines; and pray that his sublime duck liver is available).
North Wales, Snowdonia and the Black Mountains are where I spent childhood holidays. The food was never remotely this good, and the locals were surly and secretive — planning more bonfires, we nervously speculated, at the second homes of the snooty English. But that was then. ‘It is very Welsh up here, but people couldn’t be more friendly,’ says Angela, and she’s right in both respects. Conversations in pubs and shops are now in both Welsh and English, albeit in that order. So get the 5 o’clock train at Euston, and by 8.30 you’ll be sitting in Palé’s lounge nursing a pre-dinner drink and being serenaded by a harpist. Iechyd da! to you all.
Rooms from £190 to £920 per night
Palé Hall, Llandderfel, near Bala, Gwynedd
palehall.co.uk; 01678 530 285