Jim Parker: Making the hilltop Grand Old Lady fit for the 21st century

Torbay Weekly

She was like a grand lady that sat on the top of the hill exuding five-star glory over the beautiful and stunning Bay.

The Imperial Hotel was simply imperial, the only five-star hotel this side of Bristol and a venue for world conferences, the rich and famous.

To dine there – if you could afford it – was a gastronomic extravaganza with festivals especially attracting some of the finest chefs in the country, if not world.

But over the years the Imperial’s crown has slowly but surely and sadly slipped. The wonderful views are still there, but the Imperial has got old.

Its five-star status has been long gone as a series of owners have come and gone with little or no investment in the hotel.

But does a new era at last dawn for the ageing relic which has been running since 1864?

There has been lots of talk of a major refurbishment scheme from current owners Andrew Brownsword Hotels – a £7milllion investment has been mooted.

Gladly, that talk was finally matched with action as a massive project to transform the hotel and its fortunes was given the go ahead by Torbay planners earlier this week.

The plan is to turn the hotel into a ‘luxury hotel and destination spa’ - with, no doubt, an eye on winning back that five-star status.

Even Historic England says the current hotel is ‘tired and functional’, and welcomes the new proposals.

The project involves the renovation of the existing hotel to retain up to 111 bedrooms as well as the building of a spa and more than 50 apartments – the new homes would fund the scheme.

The main building would have a new facade looking out across Tor Bay. The hotel’s impressive entrance lobby, the 1935 Ballroom and Sun Lounge, the two main staircases and Corridor Lounge would be given a new lease of life.

The number of bedrooms would be reduced from 152 to 111, and there would be a new 35-cover restaurant and a separate events space.

A terrace over the pool would offer outdoor dining as well as plans for a champagne bar, meeting rooms and the spa including an indoor pool overlooking the Bay.

Richard Maddock, a director at Kay Elliot, the company designing the project, told the planning committee, the hotel’s fortunes ‘mirrored those of Torbay itself: from the heights of its popularity in the 19th century to the comprehensive expansion of the sixties and seventies to its decline due to competition from package holidays in the eighties and subsequent fall from five-star grace’.

He said redevelopment would ‘breathe new life’ into the building and would ‘recapture the grandeur of the original 19th-century property’.

It was interesting to hear the views of two councillors, let’s say, from different generations. Speaking before the planning committee’s vote, former mayor and long-standing councillor Nick Bye said: “Something has just got to be done with the Imperial Hotel…the building is in a shocking state.

“It is just a very depressing concrete monstrosity that desperately, desperately needs to be brought back to a high standard.”

He said the development would give a significant boost to the Bay and its economy.

Young and relatively new councillor Jack Dart said he’d always been ‘in awe of the hotel when growing up and that the renovation was important in making young people more interested in staying in the Bay.

He argued that granting permission for the redevelopment sent a signal to Torbay. “This is a statement,” he said. “It’s a landmark. It’s part of our history and young people will be looking at us at these meetings asking ‘what are you doing to make sure the place you want us to stay in is regenerated, suitable and ready for the future.’

“By approving this we are setting an example of what can be achieved here in Torbay.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself. The Imperial will now join a long list of hotel redevelopment schemes with millions of pounds being invested in new hotels by the Fragrance Group and other current hotels upping their game with major refurbishment works.

Hopefully, the grand old lady on top of the hill will now be made fit for the 21st century. How many of our other sleeping giants will now follow suit?