History lessons for staff

Sir Hugh Blackett.
Sir Hugh Blackett.

New recruits at a Northumbrian hotel are being given an induction course with a difference.

Along with learning the ropes at Matfen Hall Hotel and Spa, new staff also have to take a history lesson, and their teacher is the person who knows the historic venue better than anyone else, its owner, Sir Hugh Blackett.

His ancestor Sir Edward Blackett built the hall in 1832, and Sir Hugh turned the family home into an award-winning hotel in 1997. Sir Hugh, 60, the 12th Baronet Blackett, gives each new recruit a tour of the building to ensure they can answer visitors’ questions about its past.

Among the highlights of the tour are a brick panel in the entrance hall, which is all that remains of an earlier Jacobean house, a lintel above the door bearing the family motto, and a fireplace with regal connections.

The marble Chantrey fireplace, named after its 19th century carver, in the hall’s terrace room, is a popular backdrop for wedding photographs, but its original owner was less impressed with it.

The fireplace was originally commissioned by King George IV for London’s Buckingham Palace, but it was rejected for being too narrow.

“The story goes that Sir Edward was buying bits and bobs for his country house when he came across the fireplace in an antique shop at St James, London,” said Sir Hugh.

“I had always wondered whether the story about Buckingham Palace was true, but then I went there a few years ago, and there was this long salon with three or four fireplaces almost identical to ours, except they were slightly longer, then I released it must be true.”

As well as highlighting other historic features of the hotel, such as its full-height Gothic hall and a late 17th century staircase with twisted balusters in its west wing, Sir Hugh sheds light on the lives of his ancestors at the hall over the centuries.

Legend has it, for example, that Matfen village’s 117ft-high church spire was built so Sir Edward could find his way back home after hunting.

Another poignant tale tells how his son, also called Sir Edward, was wounded at the siege of Sebastapol in the Crimea in 1851, had his leg amputated without an anaesthetic and was nursed back to health by Florence Nightingale.

“I found Sir Hugh’s tour fascinating,” said Leila Reed, the hotel’s Rates and Revenue Manager.

“There’s a real family atmosphere at Matfen Hall, and knowing about the people who’ve lived here and learning about the history of the building really makes you see the hotel through new eyes.”

For further information, call 01661 886500 or visit www.matfenhall.com