Watch this space. There's an impressive and pleasing refurb taking place at the old-new hotel that is now Merchants Manor. It's adding to the buzz about Falmouth which, largely thanks to the town's redevised university and its redeveloped waterfront at Discovery Quay, has become one of the most vibrant places in Cornwall.
Set on a hill above the heart of Falmouth, the hotel rises above the bustle. You enter a tall hall that, complete with stained-glass window, retains an air of the genteel living for which the 1913 property was built. This gives in to other gracious public areas: there's a spacious sitting room attached to a quiet former library filled with light from a pretty octagonal window seat and a stylish restaurant that is steadily gaining much applause. Behind is a big conference and wedding space, while spread over two floors of the old building, and a later extension, there are 39 bedrooms.
The Edwardian mansion was built for the Carne family of merchants and brewers – they were to be early developers of the screw-cap bottle. As a result, the house was affectionately known as Screw Top Manor. In 1958, it became Green Lawns Hotel, which was quickly established as a smart family option. By 2012, however, Green Lawns had fallen on tired times.
That was when husband-and-wife team Nick Rudlin and Sioned Parry-Rudlin bought it. While some boutique hotels in Cornwall have been eagerly developed by enthusiasts new to the hospitality business, this is an experienced operation. The Rudlins have previously both worked for years in the hotel world – variously for Marriott and The Ritz.
Having renamed the property, signalling its new identity, they are refurbishing Merchants Manor a section at a time. To date, the main public areas and 15 of the bedrooms have been completed in soothing, mellow colours with occasional bright or quirky flourishes.
But revamped looks are only part of the makeover. The Rudlins are establishing the hotel as a gourmet destination. It was a smart move to bring chef Dale McIntosh on board. Formerly at The Riverbank in Truro and The Norway Inn in Perranarworthal, McIntosh has built up a great reputation for big flavours and for his use of local ingredients. A professional forager visits most weeks, bringing car boot loads of seasonal delights, such as wild mustard and horseradish leaves. Dishes range from zingingly fresh mackerel to six-hour braised Cornish lamb shank.
Local residents have started flocking here for the food. They also come for exercise. The old Green Lawns Hotel developed a sports annexe with a gym and indoor swimming pool that's open not only to guests, but also club members. The gym was revamped with state-of-the-art equipment earlier this year. The pool is perfectly serviceable and will no doubt be glammed up at a future date.
By welcoming local people, the Rudlins are cleverly positioning Merchants Manor as a Falmouth establishment (and indeed they are taking great care to employ local crafts people in the ongoing revival of the property). While the exclusivity of some upscale hotels can have the effect of making you feel disarmingly removed from the world around, here I was comfortably tuned in to south-coast Cornwall – and enjoyed live music from a local band the night of my visit.
Merchants Manor is perched well above the sea, with distant ocean views from the dining room and some of the bedrooms. It is about a seven-minute walk northwards and downhill to pastel-shaded old Falmouth with its busy harbour, long parade of shops, cafés and art galleries, and the National Maritime Museum of Cornwall on Discovery Quay. The nearest stretch of sandy coast is Gyllyngvase Beach, about a seven-minute drive southwards and downhill.
The new interiors have been devised by Helen Hughes, who won acclaim for her work on the Barbican Foodhall and Lounge in London. The aim has been to highlight features of the original house and to showcase Merchants Manor's collection of modern and restored furniture.
The bedrooms have pared-back maritime looks and walls hung with works by local artists. Added character is provided by the amenities, which include a jar of home-made biscuits, tea from the Cornish Tea Company, soaps from Halzephron Herb Farm (from St Keverne, south of Falmouth) and the specially created Merchant magazine which includes articles about the hotel and the vicinity (a welcome change from the dull list of room service facilities and local attractions supplied in most hotel rooms).
The public areas are both elegant and comfortably informal, with sink-into sofas and creative concepts such as lamps fashioned from old milk churns. The hotel's well-planted sub-tropical garden offers plenty of outdoor seating space.
Merchants Manor, Western Terrace, Falmouth, Cornwall TR11 4QJ (01326 312734; merchantsmanor.com)
Doubles start at £110, including breakfast