As Rockliffe Hall celebrates its 10th anniversary. PETER BARRON meets the man who was tasked with overseeing one of the region’s most spectacular business transformations

 

AS he reflects on the past ten years, Warwick Brindle could easily be forgiven for sitting back and relaxing in the knowledge that his mission has been a resounding five-star success.

Instead, the silver-haired, affable chairman of Rockliffe Hall is looking to the future: “We have to stay one step ahead of customers’ expectations,” he says. “We haven’t reached our full potential yet – there’s still so much more we can do.”

That determined pursuit of perfection has been the hallmark of a project to produce one of the country’s most prestigious golf and spa hotels from the ruins of a former hospital building and surrounding potato fields.

Rockliffe Hall – magnificently situated alongside the River Tees in the village of Hurworth, near Darlington – was the vision of Middlesbrough Football Club chairman Steve Gibson and built with his money. But it was Warwick who was handed the momentous challenge of making it happen.

The pair had developed a mutual respect in the early 1990s when Steve was breathing new life into the football club. Warwick was managing director of the Evening Gazette at the time before being lured north of the border to run The Scotsman newspaper, then spending four years in America as a media consultant for the Thomson Group.

On his return to the UK, he was invited to a Middlesbrough versus Bolton match at The Riverside stadium by Richard Scudamore, Executive Chairman of the Premier League. After the game, Steve asked Warwick if he’d be interested in “a couple of projects” he had on the go.

The first was to produce a feasibility study into opening a casino at Middlehaven, the development area around The Riverside. The other involved an intriguing drive to Hurworth to view Rockliffe Hall, a Grade II-listed building with a fascinating history.

Built in 1863 by prominent Quaker, Arthur Backhouse, it went on to be used as a World War Two command HQ after being acquired by Lord Southampton. In 1948, the estate was sold to the Brothers Hospitallers of St John of God, who remained there until 1991 when Steve Gibson bought the land for a new Middlesbrough FC training base.

“What do you think of that?” Steve asked Warwick when they arrived outside the dilapidated old building. St John of God had planning permission for a hotel and leisure centre, and Steve wanted a feasibility study into its potential.

“When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, he pulled the plug on regional casinos, so I got on with Rockliffe, and that’s how it all started,” Warwick recalls.

The feasibility study indicated that the four-star market was saturated, but there was a gap for a five-star hotel, with a premier golf course, and catering for a new trend in spa treatments.

“We decided that, if we were going to do it, we didn’t want to be run of the mill – we wanted to be the best,” says Warwick.

All he’d originally been tasked with was managing the feasibility study and financial planning, but when Steve asked if he fancied carrying on with the building stage, the invitation proved irresistible.

“It was clear that it was going to be something special, and I couldn’t let go,” admits Warwick.

He became chairman of Rockliffe Hall Limited, and assembled a “fantastic” team to turn the dream into a reality: architect Guy Holmes, of Browne Smith Baker; construction leader Neil Matthias, of Shepherd Construction; and quantity surveyor Ashley Temple, of Baker Mallett, were crucial players. Peter McTiernan, also of Baker Mallett, was responsible for feasibility checks on the old building, and Tony Cooper, of Bussey and Armstrong, built the estate’s 24 houses.

“They were local lads who shared a passion for the place, so that made a massive difference,” says Warwick.

Nearly 300 acres of farmland were purchased to create Europe’s longest golf course, and planning permission for the entire development was granted in December 2006. Incredibly, Rockliffe Hall opened less than three years later – on November 23, 2009 – despite the global financial crash sending the economy into meltdown.

Having aimed for the stars, Rockliffe Hall quickly reached them. Within nine months, it was awarded five-star status, and four rosettes were to be accumulated over the next seven years. A plethora of awards have also been won, including Pride of Britain Hotel of the Year, VisitEngland’s Large Hotel of the Year, Best Spa for Luxury in the UK by the Readers’ Choice National Awards, and The Sunday Times’ Family Hotel of the Year for 2019.

Staging the English Seniors Open, in 2013 and 2014, put Rockliffe on the international golfing map, while other highlights have included hosting the Team GB football team before the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the New Zealand All Blacks during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. In 2021, Rockliffe will host a team competing in the Rugby League World Cup.

“It’s been surreal at times – it’s not every day you come in to see a group of All Blacks having a sing-song around the piano!” laughs Warwick.

Three other “more normal” milestones stick in Warwick’s mind: the first time he saw a bride coming downstairs for Rockliffe’s inaugural wedding; the first four-ball preparing to tee-off; and when the estate hosted a vintage car rally and he peered out of the window to see a line of Bentleys parked outside.

“When we got the early 3D drawings from the architect, they put Bentleys on them because we were aiming at the luxury end of the market. Suddenly, they weren’t just on a piece of paper – they were here for real. Those were moments that made me appreciate what we’d created,” he explains.

Rockliffe has also made an invaluable contribution to the local economy. It now employs 330 people, and visitor numbers have grown year-on-year, though there is no question of Rockliffe resting on its laurels. Major investment continues, with the recent addition of a stylish Spa Garden, along with further upgrades to the Spa area and gym equipment.

In the summer of 2018, Mischmasch – a whimsical play area, inspired by the area’s connections to author Lewis Carroll – was also opened in the grounds, along with Curious Cabins, The Looking Glass House, and a nature trail.

So, what do the next ten years have in store? “It’s impossible to say because we don’t know what will come along,” says Warwick. “What we do know is that we can’t stand still – we’ll never stop trying to make it an even better experience.”

From a disused old building, surrounded by potato fields, to a five-star wonderland – the Rockliffe fairytale is far from over.