Glass enjoys a red letter day at Cornwall’s secret eco haven
Managing Director, Simon Baldwin hands me his card. Scarlet text is printed on recycled pulp, a detail which echoes his environmental ethos as well as his wooly jumper and the colours of my caffè latte, brewed from locally roasted beans. ‘The owners were bequeathed a hotel but wanted to launch their own’ he says of his colleagues, the sisters, Rebecca, Emma and Debbie. ‘Their first initials spell ‘RED’ which inspired The Scarlet’s bold name.’
After unashamedly licking his spoon clean of froth, Baldwin continues his story. ‘Their search for a site ended rather closer to home than they anticipated.’ It transpires their original hotel, the 1960’s Bedruthan Steps is just 500 yards from where we sit and sip. ‘Another operator’s hotel stood where we’re sitting. It was hideous and rundown. When it was refused planning permission for conversion into flats, they seized the opportunity to buy it. Because I have experience running boutique city centre hotels in the Alias group, they brought me in.’
Three years on The Scarlet opened to rave reviews from critics, architects and paying guests. Despite it being the first hotel project of Totnes architects, Harrison Sutton and also that of the main contractor, burning the midnight oil in the quest for perfection didn’t end in rows nor litigation. ‘We managed to bring together a group with huge commitment. In fact, everyone involved volunteered to sign up to a partnership agreement detailing steps towards resolution in case of problems.’ Baldwin pauses and strokes his salt and pepper beard. ‘Life’s not about trying to trip each other up. Baldwin sees the building process as trying to realise the harmony of a triangle. ‘The points constitute economics, punctuality (delivering to schedule) and achieving the highest quality. There was tension, but tension can be good. We didn’t have limitless resources after all.’
Baldwin momentarily visibly itches on observing the door to the back of house has been propped ajar. ‘Should be shut.’ As if by telepathy, a member of staff slides into frame to close it. We head on a tour. ‘Rather than big open plan lounges, we have more intimate areas, like this snug.’ The gently lit room in which we find ourselves has slightly ecclesiastical looking rectangular windows overlooking the indoor then outdoor pool, then the sea lapping Mawgan Porth. Beside an open hearth a couple plays Monopoly. ’I wonder when they last did that?’ he whispers to me with a rare smile.
As we stroll back into the lobby, free from anything suggesting the semiotics of a conventional reception, Baldwin tells me about his ideal clientele. ‘We’re designed for couples. We offer an opportunity for them to reconnect, from shared spa “journeys” to Dutch hot tubs on the terrace. We’ve also made sure there are nicks in the building for them to sit, share and contemplate the view.’
We head downstairs to the bedrooms. Borrowed light floods corridors, cutting down the need for artificial light while grass grows on gravel roofs echoing, in colour and texture, that of the stunning headlands. As we wind along, Baldwin explains how you can rarely see the ends of corridors. ‘We like people to feel compelled to explore.’
As we enter the fourth best in the five categories of rooms, Baldwin gestures to the sea - every room features a view of it. Most include open plan bathrooms. Baldwin explains the reasoning. ‘You can brush your teeth while looking at the sea. We don’t like boxing.’ Do not disturb signs are printed on recycled tyres, while room numbers are carved into flooring off-cuts. Furniture is simple, steamed, carved and sandwiched from knotless plain wood. But pictures are absent. Instead, carved tree panels represent the positive centre of a puzzle which is recreated in negative in public areas.
‘You don’t need pictures with such a wonderful every changing vista,’ says Baldwin, looking out to sea. However, elsewhere in the hotel, the works of nearly 30 local artists punctuate the smooth walls. A catalogue in the lobby gives more detailed background. My favourite by far is Anna Gillespie’s ‘taste the rain’, (www.annagillespie.co.uk) which depicts a life sized refreshed nude looking towards a damp sky. Also of note is a cast of bare feet by the wife of architect, Jilly Sutton.
‘Even our “just right” rooms are different”, says Baldwin of the lowest tier, which I have been allocated. ‘Okay, they’re not how everyone would want to live 365 days a year, but they’ve got what people need, coupled with views most of us not privileged to have at home.’ If sleeping with the window open, another benefit is being able the roar of the sea, an exotic contrast to the sirens of the city.
As we encounter a cleaning lady, who greets Baldwin warmly, he stops to point out that the site is actually spread over five storeys, which surprises me considering its fluid feel. ‘Yes, it’s 180 steps,’ confirms the cleaning lady with a chuckle. I ask Baldwin what actually constitutes an ‘eco’ hotel. He starts by telling me what wouldn’t work. ‘We would have struggled to get planning permission for a windmill – at least for anything larger than a toy.’ Instead it turns out the main focus is water. ‘We need a lot in a hotel, so we recycle grey water from basins and sinks, filter it with UV and use it to flush loos.’ Toiletries are organic, with leftover soaps used in the laundry. ‘We also harvest rainwater from our green roofs. And the outdoor pool is in effect a pond, with two skimmers gently sucking water, reintroduced through filtering reed beds.’ Under-floor heating is fired by locally harvested bio mass (wood chip) and solar panels. Baldwin assesses this has led to a 50% saving in costs. ‘We’ve worked hard on air tight insulation too, using render board and a timber frame. As well as insulation, it means the rooms are in effect soundproof.’
Baldwin slides back a heavy German glass door smoothly and we walk towards the shore. ‘I love this view of the hotel,’ he says, as a February curl of cool air grasps us. ‘It’s one of the few areas you can see all five floors of the hotel together. You can feel the link between the indoors and the outdoors too.’ Beside us, the crystal clear outdoor pool is flat calm. Realising I am cold, Baldwin says, ‘we always wanted this to be about Cornwall, not an alternative to Bali.’ Perhaps a bracing walk could help warm me up. ‘Have you met Jasper?’ he asks. I shake my head. ‘He’s our whippet. Customers can take him for walks.’
We return indoors. Because I am not able to avail of treatments on the hotel’s dime, we instead take in the spa’s shop. Here, Baldwin picks up a book by Nick Bayliss, ‘Rough Guide to Happiness’. ‘Nick and Alasdair Sawday of the eponymous guide helped us in our planning stages – both adding a flavour to the outcome.
The eco aware philosophy continues into the clearly planned kitchen, where we meet head chef, Ben Tunnicliffe. ‘We cook on induction hobs,’ says Baldwin, ‘which equates to instant energy and lower temperatures generally. It means we need less refrigeration.’ From Tunnicliffe’s ‘army’ of local suppliers, produce comes in daily. ‘We are not the type of establishment who must have sea bass come hell or high water,’ says Baldwin. Waste is macerated for composting. We walk through the airy dining room, its chair backs like a lattice of roots, towards plate glass windows framing the shimmering sea. ‘These windows are sash,’ says Baldwin. ‘They’re designed in such a way as to provide a gentle breeze which comes in just above the table, so dishes won’t get cold.’
Our journey ends where it begun – back in the bar. Baldwin takes the opportunity to explain his beloved drinks list. ‘We shun big brands. You won’t find Southern Comfort here! Plus we love to focus on natural wines.’ Before he heads off to a managerial meeting, Baldwin adds a little more hue to The Scarlet’s ethos. ‘Too often staying in a hotel is surreal. You see virtually no one while renting little more than a bed for the night. We’re actually looking to set up book club for locals. We’ll advise guests of the book being read, and they will be welcome to join in. We’re involving the skills of our staff too, many of whom are locals. Gemma, for example, offers a complimentary Yoga class. But I’m not particularly physically flexible!’
Is there another Scarlet Hotel in the pipeline, I ask. ‘There is another project,’ says Baldwin, cryptically, ‘but it will be quite another experiment and bigger.’ Location and budget are alas a secret. ‘We’ve still got a way to go here first. But we’re moving forward. It’s not something set in aspic and our customers love to come back to see the changes...’