COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Ripon Spa Hotel - a 'butterfly' plan.
Ripon Spa Hotel - a 'butterfly' plan.

The inn thing – David takes a look at the history of the development of the hotel from the hospitality offered by the monasteries in the Middle Ages up to

developments in the 21st century.

Hotels. We’ve had a couple of planning applications for new ‘pile them high and sell them cheap’ hotels in Ripon in the last few years, one on the Morrisons site and another on Boroughbridge Road, but so far nothing has arrived. There is no doubt that the city needs more bed space, as even with the excellent bed and breakfast establishments the city is certainly lacking in accommodation.

The history of hotels has been long and is full of interest. In the Middle Ages the monasteries, like Fountains Abbey, in some ways served as hotels, for one of their roles was to cater for travellers, putting them up in their guest houses as an act of Christian charity; how they got rid of guests who outstayed their welcome is not clear.

By the 15th century, though, what we might begin to recognise as hotels began to spring up. It’s a fine line between an inn and an hotel, but if an establishment has a range of public rooms as well as a bar and a dining room, it is certainly on the way to hotel status.

A number of 15th century hotels still exist, among them the Angel and Royal Hotel in Grantham, a fine limestone building where King Richard III signed the death warrant of the Duke of Buckingham. A century later there were much larger hotels abroad – the French essayist Montaigne reported staying in an hotel in Baden that had 200 beds.

In Britain things were not quite so advanced, but by the late 17th century there were galleried inns – one of the few surviving is the George Inn at Southwark – that were serving as hotels.

The word ‘hotel’ was only used to mean a place at which you could pay to stay from about 1760; before that it had meant a grand house of a nobleman, as it did in the original French.

By the time we get into the 18th century hotels are definitely on the map. This was the heyday of the coaching inn, the essential stopping places on those long-distance routes that criss-crossed the country; places where refreshments could be taken, beds obtained for the night and, most importantly, the horses could be changed.

Ripon, of course, had a number of such inns, including the Unicorn; nearly all such hotels had an archway (the Unicorn’s is now filled in) to admit coaches to the stable yard.

But the best hotels had additional facilities, not least an assembly room, to serve the local population as opposed to the transient trade. An assembly room gave added status to any hotel.

In the 18th century the hotels began to get a taste for spectacle, too, and gave over some of their space to impressive entrance halls and sweeping staircases. Externally, too, they began to give themselves airs, the most impressive attempting to look like the country houses of the gentry whom they hoped to attract – at suitably grand prices.

Some of the early 19th century hotels on Scarborough’s South Cliff have classical columns; in Cheltenham the Queen’s Hotel was even grander – 13 bays wide and with a Corinthian portico – and, it was said, ‘cannot fail arresting the attention of the most listless and indifferent’.

Then came the railways, and with them the railway hotels. In London all the main terminals has their adjacent hotel, often of gargantuan scale – the Great Eastern at Liverpool Street and the Great Western at Paddington were in Renaissance style, while the most imposing of the lot, the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, now wonderfully restored, is in Sir Gilbert Scott’s best Gothic style. Gothic-style hotels were not common – one, the Castle Hotel in Aberystwyth, is now part of the university.

When the railways reached the seaside, large hotels began to be built to serve the visitors, none greater than the Grand Hotel in Scarborough designed in 1865 in a French Baroque style by Cuthbert Brodrick, architect of Leeds Town Hall.

Its 13 storeys on the beach side, its four domed towers and its impressive central hall – what today would be called an ‘atrium’ – were intended to impress.

One factor in the expansion of hotels was the development of lifts; they had been introduced into hotels in the late 1850s. Advertisements for the Scarborough Grand mention ‘Hydraulic Lifts’ as well as ‘exceptionally pure water from an Artesian well of its own’. The Grand was originally open only in July and August.

By the Edwardian age hotels were again reflecting country houses – Ripon’s Spa Hotel, built as a hydro as part of the city’s attempts to become a spa to rival Harrogate, was built on the fashionable ‘butterfly’ plan for smart houses, its wings canted to receive the maximum sunshine. Many of these Victorian and Edwardian hotels showed themselves to be acutely aware of what their clientele needed – which, curiously, did not seem to be plenty of bathrooms.

The vast Midland Grand Hotel had only two bathrooms on each floor, and lavatories were often only in the basement.

All types of technical innovations and increased comforts (including en-suite bathrooms) were introduced in the 20th century, and their style followed fashion – becoming slab-like in the 1960s (the Viking Hotel, now the Park Inn, in York is a good example).

Around the millennium many old hotels were made more up-market (the Great Eastern became the high-end Andaz, for example), while the budget chains upped their game, too, to provide decent accommodation at a good price.

So these days travellers have a wide choice of hotel accommodation, from the Savoy and Ritz end of the market to the Travelodge and Premier Inn, all offering different things but, usually, value for money.

Ripon needs to find the model that will best suit it (and that may not be the budget model) and the right location. It’s up for discussion – but we can’t afford to leave the decision too long.