Pier group pleasure
PUBLISHED: 16:51 19 September 2013 | UPDATED: 16:51 19 September 2013
Pamela Mardle talks to Robert Gough, owner of Gough Hotels about his plans for iconic Southwold Pier
Popcorn, candy floss, Punch and Judy, cockles and whelks. Perhaps not concepts you’d automatically associate with quirky hotelier Robert Gough, best known for Bury St Edmunds’ historic Angel Hotel and the avant garde Salthouse Harbour Hotel on the Ipswich waterfront.
But that’s exactly what the owner of pan-Suffolk hotel group Gough Hotels has in mind for his new venture on Southwold’s treasured pier.
When the pier was bought for a rumoured £6m from long-term owners Stephen and Antonia Bournes in March this year, Robert knew the iconic location and national pull of the Suffolk coast was the perfect place to lay down his newest development. He had been searching East Anglia for the perfect spot for his next venture and is certain that Southwold pier has what it takes to satisfy his sometime wacky wishes.
“Piers are a British institution,” he says. “We feel it’s important to take note of the heritage of piers in our design, but we want to do that in a 21st century style and quality fashion.”
The group was given planning permission to knock down the front building and reinstate it as a 30-bedroom hotel, a project that is still in the early stages of development.
Robert hopes to get the hotel up and running as soon as possible, although he won’t be pressed on an expected completion date or the aesthetic direction of the project. He has been visiting hotels nationally and internationally to gain insight on what could work best for the hotel, but will only reveal that the basic standard for the four-star rooms at Southwold will be at least as prestigious as the very best rooms at the Salthouse.
“We’re not looking to put the Salthouse into Southwold. Each of our hotels is very distinctive but it is essential to complement the surrounding area,” he says.
The success of the Salthouse, his first hotel near water, has inspired his enthusiasm for the seafront setting. The ever-changing environment and striking views that water brings is something Robert believes gives these hotels “pulling power”. And increasing demand for water-facing rooms since the Salthouse was overhauled in 2007 bodes well for the pier.
Currently he is focusing on “getting used to the business” that he inherited with the pier, including The Boardwalk restaurant, the Under the Pier amusement show and The Curlew gift shop. He is passionate about local sourcing – suppliers include Suffolk Meadow ice cream just four miles away – and has built on the ideas already in place at the pier to increase the offer to visitors, while retaining the British seaside theme. The posh fish finger sandwiches and lobster and skinny fries on sale on the pier were an instant hit, he says, and the theme is honoured by candy floss dessert decorations in The Boardwalk.
It’s resurrecting the history of this inherently English pier that Robert hopes to capture in this new development. Upon reading the engineering report for the 113 year-old structure, it was discovered that a piling rig drove up and down the 810ft stretch of boardwalk to build the end of the pier, an intricate and seemingly inconsequential detail that could be overlooked. But it inspired an idea to populate the end of the pier with a French CV2 van, or similar, selling fresh fish, or perhaps more in keeping with Gough Hotels style, oysters and lobster.
“We want to give people a reward for walking to the end of the pier,” says Robert. “Most just walk all the way out there, admire the view, and turn back.”
The concrete space at the furthermost point of the pier is something Robert is very excited about, giving him an opportunity to offer some extra special experiences to visitors. He mentions theatre shows, street artists and pop-up restaurants from the kitchens of the Angel and the Salthouse as just a few of the ideas he is playing with to fill the currently unloved area.
The artistic and playful aspect of the pier that first attracted him, such as local cartoonist and engineer Tim Hunkin’s fanciful water clock that dominates the mid-point of the landing stretch, is something Robert looks to develop further. Those familiar with the established Gough Hotels will know that progressive art is something close to the heart of the owners, although Robert hasn’t yet decided on a theme for the hotel design – or so he tells me.
“We want the opening to be a surprise and tease people. No one expected the Salthouse to be the way it was – industrial, minimalistic – until the day we opened our doors in 2003, and we want to do that again. The excitement lies in the fact that no one knows exactly what we are going to create,” he says.
Never one to settle for the ordinary, Robert has always aimed to challenge convention and raise a smile through his quirky choices of décor. The family-run business, set up by Robert’s father in 1965, has gone from strength to strength in recent years thanks to the foresight of the dedicated team behind the hotels.
“We were fortunate enough to have the vision to invest in landmark buildings in iconic locations across Suffolk, and we see this as a very similar project. Southwold is probably the most famous small town on the east coast of Britain and is potentially the most special that we’ve got into. We feel very proud and privileged to have a business here.”
‘Arousing curiosity’ is not just a marketing strapline, but a way of thinking – a philosophy that has so far served Suffolk’s iconic Gough Hotels well. And judging by the imagination of the man at the helm, this ship looks set to navigate the Southwold seafront for years to come.