Ye Olde Bell began life as a farm in the 17th Century and it is documented that a Ralph Thoresby was one of the first guests to stay when he became lost on horseback on his return journey to London whilst looking for his drunken companion.
On the original Great North Road midway between London and Edinburgh, the hotel rose to fame and fortune in the days of stagecoaches and highwaymen and the inauguration of the postal service in 1635. Much of the artwork displayed today reflects this bygone era.
By the 19th century the Bell (known as the Blue Bell) was already a 'famous baiting place for the stages that passed between London and York'. The landlord from 1800 to 1842 was Mr George Clarke, who was an avid horse breeder and farmer, so with stabling for 120 horses and beds for 60 post boys, bedrooms were provided for weary stagecoach travellers.
During Mr Clarke’s ownership the young Queen Victoria stayed with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, in what is now named the 'Victoria Suite' on her journey along the Great North Road from London to the music festival at York in 1835.
The next owner was Mr Henry Beever, who turned it back into a private house and converted the courtyard archway where travellers used to disembark into a reception room.
The horse pond which formerly stood in front of the Bell has been filled in for many years - part of the car park is now where the coach and horses would perform their ablutions.
As the village did not have a church at this time, a chapel was formed in part of the Bell and was approached by a flight of stone steps outside the building. In recent years this has been transformed into bedrooms and the centre aisle of the chapel is now the corridor from Rooms 5-17.
In 1905 The Bell was owned by Mr P Grain of London, who turned the house back into a hotel again. Unfortunately his application for a liquor licence was turned down and, after a long battle with the owners of the White Horse nearby, the licence was turned down a second time due to local opposition.
Next came the age of the automobile, at which time Mr Denys Dundas resided as the manager of the now re-named Ye Olde Bell Hotel.
The hotel held the official appointment of the Royal Automobile Association and at the time there was an inspection pit for all the cars to be tuned up before setting off on the open road. Early classics such as Minervas, Argyles, Daimlers and Renaults were often lined up outside the hotel.
Mr Williamson, who owned the hotel in 1917 decided to once again close it down to the general public for a short time during the First World War when petrol restrictions hit the motorist and gentlemen were away fighting.
On 23rd September 1932 film stars engulfed the hotel to shoot scenes for a Gaumont film called “The Good Companions” written by J B Priestley. The film is about Jesse Ackroyd, a run-away husband who goes in search of fame and fortune in the south and starred Henry Ainsley, Heather Thatcher, Wallace Everett and Jesse Matthews.
In 1939 the hotel was the headquarters of the 1st Cavalry Division for a short while before going to the Middle East. The Officers stayed in the hotel and other ranks slept and dined in the stables. When they all left, the whole village turned out with sandwiches and cake at midnight.
During the 1950s Queen Maude of Denmark kept a small suite of rooms at the hotel, which, as far as we know is now our Bell Room and Room 1.
St Leger Week at Doncaster Racecourse in 1953 nearly saw the end of the Bell, when two wings of the hotel were destroyed by fire, a total of 30 bedrooms. A member of staff raised the alarm and five brigades fought the fire. Several of the affected residents were racegoers who returned from Doncaster to see the hotel ablaze. Lady Galway opened up her home, Serlby Hall, at a minute's notice to accommodate the guests and they were transported by Scholeys, the local coach company, together with a buffet on the seat of the bus. Mr Leigh, the Manager, kept the hotel bar open and served drinks by candlelight!
After the fire the Bell was bought by Mr Hans Nielsen, a renowned and well respected owner still remembered by guests today. Mr Nielsen initially came over from Denmark on the same boat as Lord Charles Forte. He worked for a year in France before a number of restaurants in the UK, including Lyons in London and the King's in Nottingham. He bought the Bell in 1954 for just £28,000 helped by Harold Fisher, a poor man's property dealer in Nottingham. He immediately set about improving and developing it, bringing in new experienced staff. We still hear stories of Miss Ruddy, the strict Housekeeper, Miss Hill, Head Receptionist, and Harry the Greek, Head Waiter.
When Wiseton Hall was demolished, he bought the elaborate ceiling for just £4 10s and then promptly commissioned the Retford architect, Ted Bishop, to design a room around it! Hence the Wiseton Suite as we see it today!
The Bradgate also took its name from its origins in that all the oak panelling came from Bradgate House in Leicestershire when that too was demolished. It had been the home of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen for just nine days before Queen Mary had her executed in 1554. We have been told Lady Jane still occasionally walks the Bradgate Suite!
The restaurant used to be in what is now the Bradgate Suite until it was moved to its present position and named Restaurant 1650 as a nod to the original date of the building. Appropriately to the history, most Sundays we still use the Bradgate as a restaurant for traditional lunch.
At one stage however, the Bradgate and the Wiseton were used for injections! There was a polio scare and everyone was called in to take a sugar lump with the drops in and be innoculated.
Hans Nielsen also converted part of the original stables and hayloft into another room for dining and banqueting and it was aptly named the Nielsen Suite. He loved stylish banqueting and hosted all the best balls and private celebrations in the area. The Bell was in its heyday and is still renowned for the popular dinner dances every Saturday evening from 1955 - 1972 with the Geoff Oakley Showband and the conga through the corridors!
As you will see our current owners, Paul and Hilary Levack, have made innumerable alterations and additions to the hotel, but when they created a new suite adjoining the Nielsen, we all gave them no alternative but to name it the Levack Suite in respect of their custodianship!
During the 1950s, the Bell still had five kitchen gardens, extensive greenhouses and an eel pond. Fresh salmon and beef would be brought down from Scotland and collected by Chef at Retford Station. Hans was also passionate about his poultry and pigs and would often stay up all night with them when they were giving birth. What is now a separate office near the gardens was The Buttery where all the large cheeses were stored. Clive Pickering was Head Chef for much of Hans Nielsen's ownership and we have been fortunate to share much of his vast collection of memorabilia.
We were also delighted a couple of years ago to have a visit from the grand-daughter of John George Hall, Head Gardener in 1915. She brought us some fascinating reading including his daily gardening journal, a snapshot copy of which is now framed on our memorabilia wall in the Levack Suite.
1959 was a time of change, as the new A1 opened and there was no longer the volume of traffic passing the hotel on the original Great North Road. In the winter of 1959-60 the Bell was again host to the great cars of the era, as it hosted over 70 competitors for the only British checkpoint. Over the last five years, we have been proud to bring the Monte Carlo checkpoint back to the hotel, together with numerous other rallies and specialist enthusiast clubs.
In 1972 a re-enactment of the original mail coach run from Edinburgh to London was organised with a coach owned by a group of enthusiasts from the Lake District. The last run had been in 1845.
Many famous faces have passed through our doors over the years including Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Oliver Reed, Joan Crawford, Sir Harold and Lady Wilson, Shirley Bassey, Edward Heath, Jilly Cooper, One Direction to name but a few. Our distinguished visitor’s book is available for viewing – please ask at reception.
After Mr Nielsen the hotel was taken over and operated by a series of hotel companies including Trusthouse Forte, Principal Hotels, Crerar Hotels and, latterly, Swallow Hotels.
In 2002 Paul and Hilary Levack, longstanding residents of Barnby Moor village, bought the freehold to Ye Olde Bell, whilst the building itself remained under long term lease to a national hotel chain. In late 2006 the hotel’s operating company, Swallow Hotels & Inns, went into administration leaving the Levacks with the decision to either find a new operator or to take over the management of the hotel themselves. They decided on the latter and asked Kate Firth to return to the hotel as General Manager, together with her husband, Keith, as Executive Head Chef.
Within weeks a full-scale renovation and refurbishment programme was underway, personally led by Paul and Hilary. They always regard themselves as ‘custodians’ of Ye Olde Bell and it was paramount to both of them that the restoration was sympathetic to the heritage. 'It’s been like this for nearly 400 years, so there’s no way we’re going to be the ones to change it!' For those who knew the hotel of old, there’s still a strong sense of the familiar – but with new life, passion and enthusiasm breathed into it.
A deep red traditional carpet throughout, elegant wallpapers and moulded Lincrusta wall coverings plus windows dressed with sumptuous fabrics. All the oak panelling has been restored, including the unusual 'linen fold' panelling in the St Leger Bar, and the original oak floorboards have been kept - creaks and all! Antique furniture repaired, oil paintings cleaned and no stone unturned either front of house or behind the scenes.
The Levacks commissioned a local artist, Mary Daw of Epworth, to paint a mural of a country-sporting scene on one of the staircases as an integral feature for years to come from their period of custodianship.
The original mouldings in the Bradgate Suite have been completely restored (take a look at the bell over the first fireplace) and beautifully crafted oak panelling has been installed in the Nielsen Suite – something Paul and Hilary think Hans Nielsen, the former private owner, would wholeheartedly approve of. They also felt it important that the St Leger Bar be transformed back into a spirited hostelry and the focal point for the local community. Both the bar and the adjoining St Leger Bistro now certainly form the true heart and 'hub' of the hotel.
Whilst Paul and Hilary felt a responsibility to preserve the hotel’s heritage, they also wanted to bring it very firmly into the 21st century with modern amenities and contemporary touches. Hilary's natural design style, enthusiasm and expertise was complemented by local interior designer, Tonia Wynne of Homestead Interiors. They shared a vision on how Ye Olde Bell should be transformed - sympathetic to the history and heritage, yet with plenty of 'wow' in the appropriate places. They pooled their expertise and creative energies to achieve what we see today. Aside from the public areas, there were no less than 49 bedrooms in need of total refurbishment and they created a unique scheme for each and every one. The result is a palette of individual colours which have been teamed up with, and enlivened by, drapes, throws and cushions in an array of rich silks, damasks and contemporary fabrics, some vibrant, some subtle, but all respecting the heritage. Hilary loves the rich black and gold stripes of the ‘Victoria Suite’, which she describes as 'Victorian Versace', whilst the ‘Bowness Suite’ with ornate tapestries and rich velvets, ranks as one of Tonia’s favourites. Although, both admit to a soft spot for the 'smallest bedroom in the house', Room 40, which has a 'cottagey' feel, original beams, sloping eaves and soft floral linen furnishings. All in all, a huge amount of effort and imagination has gone into individually styling each room with lovely finishing touches such as glass beading, intricate pelmet trimmings, elaborate silk tie-backs and unusual lamps.
Hilary is very particular when it comes to bathrooms and it shows in the first class standard of every one - all with superb power showers and many with claw-footed roll top baths. Having travelled the world a great deal, Paul and Hilary know what’s important to them when staying in a hotel and have used this experience to ensure they provide the highest levels of comfort for their own guests.
It has been an all-consuming labour of love restoring Ye Olde Bell to its former glory and hard to believe that during the whole refurbishment programme the hotel didn’t close for a single day! Many guests have graciously put up with bare floorboards, dust sheets and a good deal of general banging and crashing!
Now the work is done, Paul and Hilary take great pleasure in sharing the hotel with everyone and seeing how it has regained its former reputation as 'the' place to eat, stay and celebrate in the region.
Come and see the transformation! If you haven't visited us for some time, you're in for a wonderful surprise and if it's your first time, it is sure to be one of many!
Over the past few years, people have brought us fascinating memorabilia from photographs to press cuttings and even an embroidered pillowcase! We're keen to keep recording the stories and building our memorabilia wall in the Levack Suite, which is well worth a visit!
Did you meet, marry, or hold a special celebration here? Do you have a funny story or a happy memory to share or did you perhaps work here and have some great 'behind the scenes' stories?
If so we would love to hear from you - please contact Sue Wilson, Sales & Marketing, on 01777 705121 or email@example.com to share your memories with us.
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