Take a peek inside this maximalist Georgian B&B in Hertford
PUBLISHED: 10:05 27 September 2016 | UPDATED: 10:09 27 September 2016
Five years ago, Annie Rowley turned her elegant Georgian home in the heart of Hertford into a boutique B&B. Now expanding to supper clubs and parties, she spoke to Pat Bramley about the venture that has become a passion
The night before the interview for this feature, Annie Rowley had cooked a three-course-meal for 30 at a pop-up supper for psychics, served in the candlelit dining room of her boutique hotel in Hertford. Three mediums had been present at the dinner. Did the evening provide an inkling of what the future might hold for the indomitable 60-year-old who welcomes guests to her Grade II listed home in a Georgian terrace in the centre of the county town? Had anyone from the spirit world got in touch with a message for her? ‘No idea,’ Annie replies brightly. ‘I was stuck in the kitchen.’
Pop-up supper clubs are one of the innovations introduced to mark the fifth anniversary of the launch of Number One Port Hill as a destination for guests who, as the owner puts it, want to stay in the utmost comfort in a beautiful house filled with objets d’art yet feel as much at ease as they would in the home of friends they’ve known for years.
A tall order? You bet. But if you doubt whether the realty can live up to the standard Annie sets, look at the recognition she’s won. Hers is the only hotel in Hertford listed in the Good Hotel Guide and Alastair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay. Last year Annie’s establishment won the certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor, and this year customer satisfaction levels at Number One have put the hotel in the top three per cent of properties in the world listed in the 2016 HotelsCombined Stellar Stays. The hotel is also the winner of Luxury Boutique Hotel of the Year in the 2016 Luxury Travel Guide Global Awards.
Her guests tend to be people visiting the area either on business or to see relatives who want a home from home where they will get good company. ‘That’s why I get lots and lots of single women coming back time and again,’ Annie says. ‘They don’t want to go to a hotel and sit on their own. Here they can kick off their stilettos on a summer evening and come out with me to the courtyard garden and relax over a glass of wine after a busy day.
‘We also get groups of friends. We recently had six friends – three couples – who stayed three days. One night we laid on a special dinner for them.’ 4
Thirteen years ago when she bought the elegant four-bedroom town house, it was to be home – there had been no thought of turning it into a boutique guest house.
‘It was built in 1812 – it’s mentioned in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of Hertfordshire. The late great architect Sir Edwin Lutyens’ nephew Eadred lived locally,’ Annie relates. ‘The drawing room at Number One was his office. He was taught to paint by the artist Trevor Chamberlain here. During World War I, the house was used as an officer’s mess.’
Annie’s present regime would win the approval of top brass, that’s for sure. Only her best china and vintage crystal are deemed good enough for the guests she welcomes to her tables.
The sheets on the beds in the three bedrooms she lets at rates from £110-£130 a night have a 400-thread count. She doesn’t send bed linen to a laundry. Everything is laundered in-house.
All the meals are home cooked from fresh ingredients. ‘There’s smoked sea salt on the table, not just sea salt,’ she points out.
She redecorated every room in the house during a programme of refurbishment after she bought it. ‘The only room I didn’t do because there was no need was the kitchen. I still use the original cooker – it’s called a Europa, not a well-known make.
‘I create the food like I create a room. It has to look lovely and taste lovely but it starts with the eye,’ says the woman who took a Cordon Bleu course at the age of 17 before she’d decided which direction her life would take.
Although she assumed the mantle of landlady comparatively late in her career, her background in marketing couldn’t have given her better training for her present enterprise.
‘I’ve worked for myself for 40 years,’ she states. ‘Until five years ago I ran an advertising agency specialising in the entertainment industry, working for very discerning and demanding clients in the record and film industries. I organised events around the world – album product launches, conferences, events necessitating great attention to detail.
‘Eventually I arrived at a point when I decided I could transfer these skills to the local community and open a boutique bed-and-breakfast for the same sort of clients. My son Max now runs the marketing and event management side of the business.’
Annie believes her attitude to new ventures springs from her birth sign. ‘I’m Aries, I was born on the first day of spring.’
What advice would she give to others who fancy turning their home into a guest house?
‘I would say double-check you have the time to commit to this way of life. It’s not the 50s or 60s. Standards of hospitality have increased triple-fold,’ she says.
‘In the past, B&B owners might have succumbed to a “that’ll do” attitude at busy times when they were under pressure. Nothing “will do” any more. Guests expect the same standard you get in a hotel.
‘When they go out for the evening, I’ve had some tell me on the way out “We’ll probably be back at 2.30 am – we’ll ring the bell for the concierge”. I’ve had to point out that it’s my home, there’s no concierge, I live here. I’m up at 6.30 to prepare the breakfasts. I like to be in bed at 10. I give them the key – I have to trust them.’
Running the business ‘is a bit of a passion’ says the hostess, as the reviews on so many websites bear out, but ‘it is exhausting’, she admits. 4
‘It must be a bit like being in a marriage,’ she suggests. Although never having been down that route herself, she believes her present lifestyle is not unlike wedlock. ‘In a marriage they say you get a seven-year itch. Well, there’s a five-year itch when you run a B&B.’
Perhaps it was when she was taking stock of where her business was going as her fifth anniversary approached that motivated her to open the doors of her beautiful Georgian house not just to bed-and-breakfast guests but also as a venue for pop-up suppers, wedding receptions, Christmas parties for local businesses and special occasions of all kinds.
‘The idea behind these supper clubs is to provide a unique experience for the local community while showcasing some of the extraordinary talent we have locally, such as a flamenco guitarist and visiting sommeliers and chefs. For example, we are hoping to collaborate with a semi-finalist from MasterChef who is a local guy.
‘In the spirit of our new events company (called First of Many) we’re offering Number One as a venue for local businesses to host events. We like to feel we are versatile, adaptable and understanding.’
With those words as a parting shot, Annie’s off. It’s time to take her 12-year-old labrador Presley for a walk. There are some things that can’t wait. It’s the same in any household.
Number One Port Hill (01992 587350) is a five minute walk from Hertford town centre and a 10 minute walk from Hertford North and East stations.