Edinburgh, on an uncharacteristically sunny day, and the city is in love with itself. Jackets are off, shoulders are bare, pavement café tables affect a continental atmosphere while American tourists congratulate themselves on their good fortune: “Can you believe it?” At Lamplighters, the roof-top terrace bar of newly opened Gleneagles Townhouse, visitors gape at the view of the Forth and distant Fife hills while they politely, but vigorously, vie for outdoor tables. On this brilliant blue-sky afternoon it is a hot spot.
Gleneagles Hotel, the Perthshire grand dame of golf and sporting pursuits, has the status of a national icon in Scotland. The Townhouse marks its first outpost beyond the glen in the hotel’s 98-year history — which surely makes it the slowest brand roll-out on record. “We’ve always had one eye to the future of Gleneagles,” says Sharan Pasricha, the dynamic chief executive of Ennismore, which took it over in 2015 and embarked upon a smart rebrand and top-to-toe refurb, repositioning the hotel and members club as a contemporary classic. “If we were to extend, what would it be and where?” he asks. “An obvious answer might be to take over a golf resort in Florida, but it didn’t appeal to me in the same way as this incredible building in Edinburgh.”
Overlooking the Melville monument on St Andrew Square — since the 1780s one of the city’s most fashionable addresses and the heart of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town — the Townhouse’s building was constructed in 1851 for the British Linen Company before becoming a branch of the Bank of Scotland until its sale, in 2017, to Ennismore. Already faced with the challenges of repurposing a listed building, the renovation endured supply shortages and Covid-related setbacks and ended up taking five years. (During the lockdowns of 2020, bedroom mattresses being tested for the Townhouse were laid out on the floor of Gleneagles ballroom where, on occasion, staff were known to take a bounce.)
A short walk from Waverley train station, the Townhouse makes an imposing first impression. Corinthian columns are topped with Neoclassical statues, each representing a key industry of the city: navigation, commerce, manufacture, art, science and agriculture. Old and new interact in surprising ways here: the august statues now find themselves at the same level as the Lamplighters’ terrace, their heads a popular perch for seagulls, much to the bemused annoyance of the hotel’s general manager and the delight of guests.
The building houses 33 bedrooms, a private members’ club and an all-day restaurant, the Spence, open to all, that occupies the lavish former banking hall. Original oak-panelled doors, stained glass windows and architraves give a museum feel to the hotel’s central atrium and reception area where a stone staircase floats upwards to the Note Burning room, a members’ lounge of Knole sofas and antique chandeliers which takes its name from the bank’s practice of burning its old notes. (Hotel guests are welcome everywhere except for the Note Burning room and a ground floor members’ co-working space.)
In what must be one of the most impressive dining rooms in Scotland, granite columns are topped with gold curlicues, an extravagantly corniced ceiling rises to an engraved glass cupola, while around the room’s perimeter, plaster cameos of notable Scotsmen — Adam Smith, Walter Scott, John Napier and the like — stare dourly downward (judging your bar bill, no doubt).
What might be an intimidating space is softened by a modish, Belle Epoque-meets-Twenties interior of velvet banquettes in heathery hues, pink dining chairs, blush-coloured walls and a central bar with Art Deco glass panels. The youthful staff in their bank clerk-inspired striped shirts worn with chinos and trainers are another effective counterbalance to the opulence. As are the large-scale artworks by predominantly female Scottish artists, and the tunes pumping from speakers. And then there’s the menu, devised by Jonny Wright (formerly head chef at Berners Tavern in London), that avoids Scottish clichés — no haggis! — by serving rigorously local produce with a light but inventive touch: stone bass tartare with monk’s beard, or Tweed Valley zabuton steak with smoked marrow butter.
My bedroom is vast, with double height windows facing the square, airy ceilings and restored mouldings in green tones that echo the green marble floor in the bathroom. “Our dilemma was creating a space that felt like an extension of the Gleneagles Hotel, which was built in the 1920s, rather than building an artificial predecessor,” says Ennismore’s in-house designer, Charlie North. “We kept subtle references to the building’s history in the shapes of custom-made furniture and joinery details, but contrasted these with fresher fabrics.”
A nod to Gleneagles’ sporting estate is found in a toile de Jouy of gundogs and pheasants papering the toilet. A pale-blue fringed canopy frames the bed and its pink mohair velvet headboard; underfoot is an antique Turkish rug. There’s the faint noise of trams going past on the street below. It is traditional and elegant while also being comfortable and cued in to the expectations of today’s traveller (pre-mixed cocktails in the fridge and a gratis pot of flapjacks). In the former vaults in the basement, yet to open on my visit, will be a high-tech members’ wellness centre, with studios, treatment rooms, a cryotherapy chamber and infrared sauna.
The members’ club, and the atmosphere of informal luxury, were key to Gleneagles’ plan for the hotel. “We never wanted a corporate account restaurant,” says Connor O’Leary, Gleneagles managing director. “We want to be part of the fabric of the city as much as part of our members’ lives so that when hotel guests come they feel plugged into an authentic Edinburgh.”
Ennismore might have successfully revitalised the Gleneagles mothership but its roots lie in a very different type of hotel. Sharan Pasricha founded the company in 2011, aged 30, and the following year acquired the Hoxton hotel in London’s Shoreditch. Launched six years earlier by the Pret A Manger co-founder Sinclair Beecham, the Hoxton had helped pioneer the “budget-luxe” trend (with rooms from as little as £1 per night but no shortage of style). Ennismore rolled out the brand — there are now 11 Hoxton hotels in six countries with another 11 in the pipeline.
Last year Ennismore evolved further, merging with Accor, Europe’s largest hotel group, to create a hospitality management company two-thirds owned by Accor and a third by Pasricha that operates 14 brands. It currently runs 90 properties (another 160 are in development) but has an “asset-light” business model under which it manages but doesn’t own its hotels. Gleneagles and Gleneagles Townhouse are now owned by Bharti Global, a private company controlled by the family of the Indian telecoms tycoon Sunil Bharti Mittal.
“We’ve really done our bit to think through how this quintessential Scottish brand extends to an urban environment,” says Pasricha. “Gleneagles has always been a brand that means so much to so many people. The Townhouse had to have a focus on community and bringing people together.”
Scots, so I’m told more than once during my stay, typically display a sniffy attitude to London brands parachuting into the city and expecting instant success. Gleneagles’ long history, however — as a place both for afternoon tea with great-aunts and grannies and as a byword for rods, guns and golf — means there’s excitement rather than antipathy towards the arrival of the Townhouse at this city landmark. All day, curious passers-by walk in off the street, entering the foyer wide-eyed and slack-jawed. “Wow,” they murmur.
Heavy with history and echoes of Hogwarts, Edinburgh has traditionally figured as a grander and somewhat slower city than edgy, arty Glasgow (where Soho House has reportedly chosen to open an outpost). The festival and Hogmanay notwithstanding, some Edinburgh restaurants only open Wednesday to Sunday. But the city is effecting its own gentle repositioning.
A wave of openings and excitements presents a fresh chapter for Edinburgh, including a David Chipperfield-designed concert hall, a W hotel, blockbuster shows at the wonderful Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and Jupiter Artland — most recently Barbara Hepworth and Tracey Emin, respectively — and an innovative restaurant, bar and arts scene at Leith where Amazon recently invested in a film studio.
Neighbourhoods like the West End, Stockbridge, Newington and Bruntsfield are developing world class food and drink offerings. While Jenners, the recently shuttered, 183-year-old department store, has been bought by Scotland’s largest private landowner, Anders Holch Povlsen, and will transform — with the help, again, of David Chipperfield — into a 96-room boutique hotel and retail site.
“There are so many ways in which we can have a contemporary conversation in this extraordinary environment,” says Sorcha Carey, the director of Collective, a contemporary art centre on Calton Hill. Like, say, at the Palmerston, a popular new restaurant in the West End, where, on a Tuesday night the restaurant is abuzz with people dining on lamb shoulder and borlotti beans. Or, indeed, back at Lamplighters, the light still in the sky at 11pm, Edinburgh’s rooftops shimmering in the dusk. In a city where cocktail bars are usually found in cosy basements this feels glamorous and different.
“Look,” says Pasricha, “there’s nothing wrong with a golf resort in Florida. But this is a natural extension for us. This is a big moment for Gleneagles, our first time outside of Perthshire in 98 years. We’re excited to see how it goes.”
Charlotte Sinclair was a guest of Gleneagles Townhouse (Gleneaglestownhouse.com); double rooms start from £495
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Source: Financial Times
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