A rather stylish duke: Devon Life visits one of Plymouth's most historical hotels
PUBLISHED: 16:54 24 October 2016 | UPDATED: 14:50 25 October 2016
Su Carroll takes tea at Plymouth's Duke of Cornwall where old-fashioned style isn't out of place in a modern hotel
The Duke of Cornwall hotel is a landmark in the city of Plymouth – even though it appears out of place next to a nondescript office block and opposite an entertainment venue with an ice rink. It was the arrival of the steam train at Millbay Station that led to the building of Plymouth’s first luxury hotel, once described by Sir John Betjeman as “one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture.”
The hotel played host to many famous faces – Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and even Ernest Shackleton, the night before his party set out on their Trans-Atlantic Expedition in Endurance. Other visitors would have been passengers on a cruise from nearby Millbay Docks, or heading for London and the Continent by train.
It is 150 years since the Duke of Cornwall opened, when it boasted of hot and cold baths, billiard and smoking rooms, a ladies’ drawing room and a superior French chef de cuisine. It has remained a popular choice for weddings, honeymoons, balls and special occasions. The trick for the two men who regard themselves as the custodians of this great hotel is to retain the style and splendour that is the Duke’s hallmark, but also meet the needs of the modern guest. But if anyone can do it, it’s directors Walter Combstock and Jonathan Morcom, who between them have chalked up 75 years of service at the hotel. They appreciate the impact the hotel made when it first opened – then it was the tallest building in the city and a real focal point. It has survived virtually intact after two World Wars (just a few shattered windows) but still needs an ongoing programme of refurbishments to maintain a glorious interior alongside the impressive exterior.
“The hotel went through a phase in the mid-70s when they ripped out every original fireplace in the bedrooms,” says Jonathan.
“We’ve tried to bring it back to where it was and along the way have discovered things like ornate columns behind the wood panelling.
“Some hotels become too modern and too contemporary, and conversely we don’t want people to walk in and think we are too old-fashioned. It means keeping old Victorian tiles, but not the flock wallpaper. At one time the bedrooms had a slot meter on the wall for the electricity. Later they had those Rediffusion boxes. Five years ago we put internet into all the bedrooms then two years down the line it’s all out of date. Today things are changing so quickly.”
Jonathan says he and Walter regard themselves as custodians of the hotel, holding on to it for the next generation. Both men started at the bottom here and worked their way up. Jonathan began with a weekend job at 14, turning up in his school uniform. He carried on working while he studied hospitality at college for two years and progressed to deputy general manager, spending seven years away before returning to the fold.
Walter first came to the Duke while working as an apprentice with a local company. He ended up full-time at the Duke 50 years ago. “I know it from top to bottom,” says Walter. “When I started out, everyone knew their place. There was a different entrance for staff and you were in trouble if you were caught in the wrong area. It was such a different world. Today the public prefer a more relaxed manner. It’s really family to me. We all have the same aim, if we do well, they do well. That’s helped to get us through the bad times.”
Training is vitally important to the two men who recognise what it’s like on the shop floor and took over the Duke after a management buy-out 15 years ago. They take on and support apprentices, have loyal and long-serving staff and those who leave often find their way back. They also understand the importance of continually improving. They want more people to visit the hotel restaurant where the excellent food has already been recognised with two AA rosettes.
“We want to take it to a different level,” says Walter. “We’ve got to have good service, get the food right and the bedrooms right. If we stop investing, we lose the business.
“The Duke of Cornwall has always been very much of its own time,” adds Jonathan. “Millbay is on the up and we will once more be at the heart of it.”
Celebrate in style:
As part of a continuing programme of investment in the Duke of Cornwall, the beautiful Hayward Room was closed earlier this year for two months of refurbishment. Inevitably, an architechtural gem was uncovered – the carved top section of the floor to ceiling windows which had been boarded up for years.
Another gem in this Victorian Gothic building is the iconic Lantern, part of the Tower Suite. For six months in the year two people can enjoy Tea at the Top with their own butler and stunning 360 degree views over Plymouth. A champagne afternoon tea includes homemade scones, sandwiches and sweet treats.
The Duke of Cornwall is one of the enthusiastic supporters of plans to mark the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower in 2020. They hosted the launch of Make a Difference for Mayflower 400 to encourage local businesses to help get the city ready for the celebrations. For their bit, they have invested in Plymouth’s West Hoe area. “We think it’s really important businesses give something back to their community,” says Jonathan Morcom.
“We saw an opportunity at the West Hoe children’s play area and painted some of the play equipment. We’re also investing in the exterior of the hotel over the next few years in an effort to do our bit for Plymouth.”
Plymouth City Council, Plymouth Waterfront Partnership and Plymouth City Centre Company have pledged £1.5m to get the ball rolling and ensure the city’s public spaces are in tip top condition for the year of events to mark the sailing of the Pilgrim Fathers from Plymouth to the New World.