Welcome to northwestern England’s Skinburness Leisure Hotel, known for generations in Cumbria as a Skinburness landmark. During its 130 years of operation, the classic Victorian inn assembled an impressive track record of bankrupting its owners.
Known as the Skinburness Marine Hotel when it opened in the 1880s, it enjoyed a brief, opulent period until its first owner went bankrupt after several years. The hotel changed hands and later spent nearly sixty years in government service as part of a liquor control program. Later it re-entered the private sector and proceeded to bankrupt its next two owners. For ten years it enjoyed a brief Renaissance under an experienced hand, but after it sold the hotel bankrupted its next owner.
Since the Skinburness Hotel closed for good in 2006, two attempts to redevelop the property have failed. Now vacated for the last ten years, the old inn has deteriorated significantly. Today it remains for sale, awaiting an impending future of being demolished.
cover photo courtesy Guy Carpenter
Skinburness & the Hotel
Skinburness is a small village located along the western coast of Cumbria in Northwest England. The name ‘Skinburness’ is derived from a Scandinavian form of the Old English ‘scinnan burg’, which translates to ‘demon or spectre haunted stronghold’.
The settlement dates to at least 1175, when the ancient town of Skyneburg was first recorded. It was later known as Skynburgh – although this iteration of the township was destroyed by the sea during a storm between 1301 and 1305. Local chronicles from the fourteenth century state that “the devastation made by the breaking in of the sea must have been tremendous, for in the place of the borough, the magazines of princes, and a country full of merchandise and people, there remains nothing but a sandy waste.” Before the harbors at nearby Silloth and Port Carlisle were constructed, the shores of Skinburness were an important anchorage point for ships.
The current Skinburness Hotel was built on the site of the former Duke’s Head Hotel, which was first documented in 1829. In 1867 the Duke’s Head Hotel of Skinburness was enlarged and received a remodel. Newspapers at the time announced the Duke’s Head was “greatly improved.” Less than twenty years later, the Duke’s Head was razed to make way for the new Skinburness Marine Hotel.
The Skinburness Marine Hotel was built by Edwin Hodge Banks. His family owned a cotton mill in nearby Wigton and had amassed some wealth. The Banks family erected several notable structures in the area, including another Skinburness landmark in the Chichester House, as a holiday villa in the late 19th century.
The Banks family made their primary residence at the Highmoor Mansion in Wigton, which is still standing and today has been converted into flats. Edwin Banks enjoyed the fruits of his labor on his 30-foot steam yacht, the Neptune, which he kept moored in Skinburness.
In 1887 Banks hired leading Cumbrian architect Charles John Ferguson to design the Skinburness Marine Hotel. While the oldest parts of the hotel date to 1887, many of its additions came later, in the early 20th century. In a tip of the cap to the prior establishment, the tavern in the Skinburness Hotel was named Old Duke’s Bar.
Edwin Banks’ hotel in Skinburness opened to great fanfare; a June 1890 newspaper article claimed “the new Marine Hotel – one of the most important undertakings of the kind in this part of the country – is now rapidly approaching completion.” One of the revelations in the new hotel was that of heated water throughout the inn, something not common for the time.
In July of 1890 a newspaper article described a “handsome new hotel at Skinburness, where Mr. Banks has nearly completed additions which will make it the most commodious and comfortable residence on the West Coast.”
In December of 1891 the Skinburness Marine Hotel was advertising “Reduced Winter Terms, £2 peb Week. Modern Improvements. Unrivaled Winter Residence. Equable Dry Climate. Hot Salt Water Baths.”
[ Did You Know? The Skinburness Hotel featured here was not the first lodge to bear that name. The nearly thousand year-old townsite has featured several township-named hotels across multiple generations. An earlier version of the Skinburness Hotel is mentioned in February 23rd, 1796, when a storm left “a grievous loss sustained in furniture, wearing apparel, etc.” at the inn. ]
Under New Management
Between 1891 and 1895 financial difficulties forced Edwin Banks to relinquish ownership of the Skinburness Marine Hotel. The exact timeline is murky; Banks wasn’t officially declared bankrupt until 1899, but the National Archives have on record an 1898 transfer of ownership of the Skinburness Marine Hotel. A 1901 census does confirm a new owner by listing a ‘Mr. Geo F. Brown’ as the Skinburness Hotel proprietor.
Yet as early as an August 1895 issue of the Agricultural Journal, George Brown was listed as the owner of the Skinburness Hotel.
Under the ‘new management’ of George Brown, the Skinburness Marine Hotel began an advertising blitz. There was an ad for the Skinburness Marine Hotel in the 1895 edition of Black’s Guide to Devonshire. The same ad continued to run for the next few years, also appearing in the 1897 version of Black’s Guide to North Wales and the 1897 version of Black’s Guide to the Trossacks, Loch Katrine, Loch Lamond, etc., among others.
Interior of the Skinburness Marine Hotel
Carlisle State Management Scheme
The State Management Scheme was a government-sponsored program that controlled the brewing, distribution, and sale of liquor in the United Kingdom from 1916 until 1973. It began in Carlisle in 1916, after scores of workers from the armament factory in Gretna were arrested for public intoxication. In short, the goal was to reduce public drunkenness and its effect on the arms industry.
A 1919 report produced for the Liquor Control Board explained the Carlisle District Control area as being necessary because workers from a munitions factory in Gretna had “flooded the district” and the result was a “terrible outbreak of drunkenness” that “seemed likely to get beyond the control of civic authorities.” The same report acknowledged “prohibition is out of the question.”
[ Did You Know? At the time drunkenness was prevalent on Saturdays, so the Local Committee decided to prohibit the sale of alcohol on that day. “Spiritless Saturdays” continued from February 1917 until the end of 1918, when the ban was lifted. ]
How the program worked: Drinking houses were placed under direct management and closely monitored. Those taverns which could not easily be managed or monitored were closed. Private owners were offered compensation for their loss of legal interest in the property. Some would stay on as managers. To eliminate pecuniary incentives, managers were paid a fixed wage unaffected by volume of liquor sales.
The Carlisle side of the scheme began acquiring taverns across northwestern England in 1916. Included in the purchase was the Skinburness Hotel, which was a part of the scheme from 1916 until 1973. While the Skinburness Hotel bar was being indoctrinated into the scheme, the rooms upstairs were used to house munitions workers supporting the war effort.
Sites participating in the State Management Scheme were often given upgrades and kept up to date. Improvements were made on the Skinburness Marine Hotel in 1919, thoroughly bringing the establishment “up to date for the accommodation of summer trade.”
[ Was the 1916 State Management Scheme effective? Carlisle’s annual convictions for drunkenness: 1914: 275, 1915: 277, 1916: 953, 1917: 320, 1918: 80, 1919: 78. ]
The majority of the Carlisle State Management Scheme licensed premises were sold off in 4 large groups between 1971 and 1973. A large number of lesser lots – which included more valuable individual properties – were sold off between 1973 and 1974, after the fourth large group was liquidated. This included the Skinburness Hotel, sold as Lot 117 to Mr. G. S. B. Chalmers for £65,000.
The hotel was not successful after leaving the state management scheme, and by the late 1970s the owners had closed the business.
In the early 1980s the Dyke brothers purchased the hotel as a derelict building. The brothers reportedly invested “a substantial amount of money in refurbishment, replacing decaying internal features (such as cornices and wooden fixtures) and purchasing new furniture.”
By the early 1990s the Dyke brothers ran into financial problems, and Receivers were brought in to manage the hotel.
A Skinburness Renaissance
While the Skinburness Hotel has experienced turbulent times, it does not stay open for more than one hundred years without a modicum of success. For this hotel, that successful spell came under the guidance of Mr. David Milne and Interlink Hotels, Limited.
After it’s time under the Dyke Brothers, the hotel was once again sinking. In the early 1990s it was placed into receivership by North West Building Society after losing nearly £750,000. David Milne, who worked for the receivers, managed the Skinburness Hotel on behalf of Northern Rock Building Society.
From 1994 until 1996 Mr. Milne successfully managed the property for the banks. When he took over as General Manager, the Skinburness Hotel was falling apart – every time it rained its owners spent £10 in replacing blown light bulbs – and it was losing £125,000 per year. During his ten years with the hotel, Milne grew its annual turnover from £118,000 to £490,000; he boosted local employment by growing the hotel’s staff from six full time employees to eighteen. His early successes in managing the Skinburness Hotel resulted in the Building Society offering him a sale on favorable terms; in 1996 he purchased the hotel from the bank for £295,000.
To turn around the hotel, its new owner introduced a myriad of alterations – including changing its color, at the time a drab gray. David hired a cherry picker, and along with three friends wielding domestic rollers, the team spent three weeks painting the entire building white. He installed a new water system, a leisure pool, a Jacuzzi, five executive suites, he added pet menus and dog walking facilities, and he was responsible for the 30-seat, £50,000 restaurant addition. He also regularly kept up with maintenance, spending £12,000 per year to keep the old building fresh and functional.
The hotel generated income from its bar and restaurant, however the bulk of its business came from hosting tourism coach companies and large events like weddings. During this time the romantically rural Skinburness Hotel was hosting 20 weddings a year. Its bar was popular and featured 120 different malts, and the hotel was sufficiently busy to warrant its full staff be retained during the slower winter months.
“The Hotel was successful because it went out and found its market in both private and coach business, bringing people to the town, spending money locally.”
– David Milne
The only major economic setback for the Skinburness Hotel during this era was 2001’s foot and mouth epidemic, an outbreak among the farming community which resulted in the burning of hundreds of sheep and cattle carcasses – sometimes on the side of the road. The event decimated the tourist trade for the next year and a half, and ultimately required military intervention to stabilize the region. Veterinary surgeons from all over the world responded to the epizootic, with many staying alongside military personnel at the Skinburness Hotel. According to Mr. Milne it was the loyal patronage by the doctors and soldiers that helped keep the hotel in business during such a challenging time.
During the last years of his ownership, David Milne applied for a license to build holiday chalets on the property. He did not intend to build them, but he believed it could be beneficial for potential future development or expansion plans. In addition, having a permit in-hand improves the value of the business to prospective buyers; David knew that eventually, he would want to sell.
After ten years behind the wheel, David had increased turnover and nearly quadrupled profits. From 2002 through 2004 the hotel had experienced a reliably strong 78% occupancy rate. Having successfully completed his original assignment of reversing the hotel’s fortunes, Mr. Milne believed he had taken the hotel as far as he could.
In 2004 he sold the Skinburness Hotel for £695,000. When it sold, the hotel was a turn-key franchise: Its staff stayed on, and 75% of the hotel’s turnover for the following year was pre-booked.
Back to Bankruptcy
In 2004 Bill and Ann Howard purchased the hotel for £695,000. In its June 2004 issue the Solway Buzz announced the Skinburness Hotel’s new owners as well as their daughter and son-in-law, Karen and Stuart Ridley. The article shared that “The Hotel is now open for the following: Conferences, all types of Parties, High Tea’s and much, much more. Food is served all day from new and exciting menus in the Bar, the Restaurant and a Carvery for Sunday Lunch. Fresh local produce is being used throughout.”
The Howards were restaurateurs by experience, and quickly realized they could not handle the full scope of the hotel’s operations. The couple wasted no time in re-listing the Skinburness Hotel on the market. After months of ownership, Bill and Ann Howard sold the hotel for £55,000 more than their purchase price.
In April of 2005 Adrian and Vanessa Moore purchased the three-star hotel from the Howards for £750,000. The Moores decided to leave their careers and put their life savings into owning and operating a hotel. They searched the country and eventually found the Skinburness Hotel in Cumbria.
After purchasing the hotel, the Moores announced plans to spend £100,000 refurbishing it with a new pool, gym, and solarium. They attempted to update the twenty-six en-suite rooms, the ballroom, lounge and bar, restaurant, staff apartment, and gardens.
Adrian and Vanessa also changed the name to Skinburness Leisure Hotel.
“The minute we saw it, WE KNEW IT WAS THE ONE, it has so much potential. We want to return it to its former glory when it was a gentleman’s country residence.”
– Vanessa Moore, owner
As 2005 wore on, the Moores realized the building required more money and time than they could afford. To start, they claim a significant investment was necessary on the fabric of the building merely to bring the hotel up to code. The Moores made improvements to the bar, heating system, lounge, pool, and restaurant.
To stimulate business in the winter months, the couple also embarked on a marketing campaign, as well as regularly sponsoring local events. Despite the changes made by Adrian and Vanessa Moore, the community reception was cold. According to the Moores, for the most part, the locals failed to embrace their incarnation of the Skinburness Hotel.
By October of 2005 the Moores were experiencing their own hotel financial crisis. Revenues had failed to meet expenses, and the couple’s existing sources of equity were tapped. Still, they believed the 2006 season would yield improved fortunes, so the Moores sought an additional loan of £30,000 to keep the business afloat.
Fortunes did not improve, and within months Mr. and Mrs. Moore capitulated. In January of 2006 the hotel was listed for sale through Redworth Dowling Kerr. This only increased rumors of the hotel’s death spiral, and in a cruel self-fulfilling prophecy, the listing resulted in guests and parties canceling their reservations. Occupancy, which was beginning to wane, suddenly dropped off a cliff. Compounding the Moores problems, the hotel initially received no serious offers on its real estate listing.
Skinburness Hotel no Moore
With no buyers and a shrinking timeline, Adrian Moore’s next move was to approach investment companies with a development idea. In early 2006 Mr. Moore approached Newcastle firm E21 Investments Limited with just such a proposition.
Adrian’s redevelopment idea was to demolish the Skinburness Hotel and build 50 two- and three-bedroom holiday apartments on the site. He hoped to battle low off-season occupancy by attracting tourists to the area with proposed twelve month leases. E21 was receptive to the concept but the citizens and the Allerdale Borough Council had reservations. Desperate to find a financially viable use for the old hotel, the Moores even considered turning the Skinburness Leisure Hotel into a hostel for ex-offenders.
The end of the road for the Skinburness Leisure Hotel would come following the Silloth Carnival and air show in late August of 2006. The lone access road into Skinburness was shut down for emergency vehicle use only, which isolated businesses from traffic during the busiest time of year and risked removing the most profitable weekend from the Skinburness Hotel’s calendar.
Owner Vanessa Moore was outraged. “This will affect us badly – it could run into £15,000 for two nights. Our hotel is full – we have a wedding party booked and are expecting 55 residents and 200 people for dinner.” For a hotel with a history of economic misfortune, it was devastating.
Silloth mayor Graham Wilkinson was less than empathetic. “It’s only for one day. There’s not room for 10,000 cars in Silloth. It is a requirement of the RAF and the police to have a clear road for emergency vehicles to get to the hospital if anything happens.”
Four days later the hotel was permanently closed.
The Skinburness Leisure Hotel officially closed on Sunday, September 3rd, 2006. The unoccupied building’s contents were sent to auction.
Vanessa Moore offered her final thoughts:
“The reason the hotel closed was because it was not financially viable. We’ve already struggled through one winter and it wasn’t going to survive another. We were forced to make the very painful decision to close the hotel because we couldn’t keep digging deeper and deeper into a black hole.”
The Moores claim that the hotel had little local support, with only a few loyal customers from the village using it regularly. Vanessa explains “the previous owners had similar problems and it became apparent to us quite early on. You can’t turn it around without the support of the local community.”
Villagers dismissed claims that the Skinburness was not well supported, saying they stopped using the hotel because it was overpriced, did not give them the service they wanted, and they were not made to feel welcome. But the hotel was still a landmark, and its importance was recognized as such.
“We have nothing in Skinburness – no shop, NOWHERE FOR US TO GATHER.”
– Dinah Robertshaw, Skinburness resident
More than 150 people attended a public meeting in protest of planned demolition and called for someone else to take over the beleaguered hotel.
Not in attendance were the Moores, who instead submitted a letter to be read to the villagers explaining the situation. But the letter failed to move the townspeople, who felt a new owner could be found “if more effort was made.”
“We have been added to a significant list of broke, bankrupt and financially ruined owners. I wonder why there have been so many?”
– Vanessa Moore
The citizens were successful in rallying against the Moore’s proposed development plans, earning the Skinburness Leisure Hotel a stay of execution while the Allerdale Borough Council was allowed to conduct a six-month review of the Moore/E21 proposal. Growing dissent reached national charity the Victorian Society, which also appealed to the Allerdale Borough Council to deny the redevelopment permit.
Edward Kitchen, an architect with the Victorian Society, said “the Skinburness Hotel is a local landmark by a leading Cumbrian architect. It adds a great deal to the character and heritage of Skinburness. The proposed holiday apartments are bland and uninspiring. They would be detrimental to the character of the village and make it less attractive as a holiday destination, not more. The Skinburness Hotel should stay.”
Moore/E21 plan for Skinburness Leisure Hotel
Discussion of demolition galvanized the community to fight for the old building which had been a landmark of their town for more than 100 years. In an effort to protect the Skinburness Hotel, villagers submitted an application to English Heritage in October of 2006. However by the time Heritage officials arrived for an inspection, the Skinburness Leisure Hotel was an empty shell, having been plucked of its dishes, furniture, and even a staircase (which sold for £1,600) during a bankruptcy auction.
A March 2007 article acknowledged the empty hotel as missing its fixtures, but claimed “the removal of internal fitments can be reversed.” English Heritage refused to recommend the building be listed, citing amongst other reasons the missing fixtures and furniture, as well as design cues that had been altered with additions and modifications over time.
In December of 2006 the Skinburness Hotel was again submitted for consideration to English Heritage, and this time it passed the first stage toward protected status. It would eventually be defeated once more, and ultimately failed to make the register.
[ Did You Know? Nine structures from Silloth-on-Solway are listed on the National Heritage List for England. Skinburness Hotel is not one of them. ]
During its final days under Moore ownership, the hotel was used as a training area for police dogs.
The Skinburness hotel claimed another victim in the Moores, who like many of its past owners, were forced to file for bankruptcy. The filing became official in 2008, when it was revealed the couple had racked up £1,219,362 worth of debt – including more than £77,000 to creditors and almost £40,000 on credit cards. The couple had also re-mortgaged their home and took out a further mortgage on the hotel.
The Moores explained to the court the financial problems were caused by a “lack of pre-booked coach trade, increase in staff costs, poor weather, and changes to fire regulations.” They estimated another £18,000 would need to be spent on improvements to the premises.
Skinburness Hotel Under System Cycle, Ltd.
The Skinburness Hotel went to auction again on December 12th, 2007 – this time with a significantly lower guide price of £380,000. Four bidders drove up the price until it ended up selling at £450,000 to System Cycle Ltd., a holding company for a Team Valley-based development group.
System Cycle Ltd. was chaired by property tycoon and former Darlington Football Club chair George Houghton. It was also one of a dozen different limited partnerships run by home care providers Executive Care Group, a North East-based consortium founded by Houghton in 1989 that converted distressed properties into senior care homes.
In 2008 the new owners revealed plans to redevelop the former hotel into a three-story, 64-bed senior care home (or in local vernacular, an “old age pensioner (OAP) village”). System Cycle hired specialist project management firm NorthStar Capital Projects to put everything together. NorthStar’s role was to support developers, negotiate with townships, and to advise throughout the duration of planning and construction.
In July of 2008 a plan was revealed to potentially link a Skinburness Hotel redevelopment with Chichester Hall, a residential home nearby caring for around 20 people – and like the Skinburness Hotel, also an original Edwin Banks property.
Residents in town slowly began to embrace the proposed re-development, acknowledging it would bring jobs, result in quieter neighbors, and was “probably the best option we’ll get.” The Allerdale Borough Council, however, was a harder sell.
In August of 2009 – more than a year after System Cycle purchased the property – NorthStar Capital Projects was still in talks with the Allerdale Council planners. At the time the council was concerned with the building’s dilapidated state. A spokesperson said “the building is not currently classed as a dangerous structure; however a further inspection is scheduled. The property does appear to have fallen into a dilapidated state which could now potentially warrant the use of Section 79 of the Building Act 1984.”
For those not familiar with Cumbrian law (who isn’t?), Section 79 gives local authorities the power to deal with dilapidated buildings by requiring an owner to “repair or demolish a structure deemed detrimental to the area.”
The Building Act was not cited and discussion would drag on for more than a year as NorthStar and the Allerdale Borough Council discussed various concerns regarding the proposed development. Everything from the elevators and parking spaces to widening of the sidewalks was discussed.
Progress appeared to slow when it came to the Flood Risk Assessment (FRA) and a Sequential Test; further delays were offered by a slow response from the Environmental Agency to approve the plans. When NorthStar addressed one issue, another would surface. For their part, the Allerdale Council was not making it easy for those parties wishing to demolish the old hotel.
It took until November of 2010 – more than two years after the project was first introduced – for Allerdale Borough officials to finally approve the planned senior home development. But in a post-financial crisis world, lending had tightened and investment capital was harder to come by. The project ultimately fell through and both NorthStar Capital Projects and System Cycle abandoned development plans.
NorthStar Capital Projects was later dissolved in 2012, and today continues independently as NorthStar under the trading name of Holmes and Sharpe, Ltd.; it is no longer involved with the Skinburness project.
In 2009 System Cycle executive George Houghton notoriously guided the Darlington Football Club into administration. Today Houghton continues his property development endeavors under the name GH Group, and like NorthStar is no longer involved with the Skinburness Hotel.
As for System Cycle Limited and the remainder of the North East-based development group companies, they were acquired by distressed-debt firm Monarch Capital in February of 2015, with Matthew Cardwell Glowasky being appointed as director. Most of the companies are still listed as “active” and appear to serve as holding vehicles for various properties.
According to companieshouse.gov.uk, System Cycle Limited still holds the outstanding mortgage on the Skinburness Leisure Hotel, from an application dated 27th March 2009 & granted 31st March, 2009, under financier HSBC Bank, PLC:
“The registrar of companies for England and Wales hereby certifies that a legal mortgage dated 27 March 2009 and created by System Cycle Limited for securing all monies due or to become due from Executive Health Care Limited to HSBC Bank PLC on any account whatsoever was registered pursuant to Chapter 1 part XII of the Companies Act of 1985 on 31st March, 2009.”
If there was any question over who has the final say in what happens to the former hotel, the listing makes that clear by recommending “prospective purchasers should contact Allerdale Borough Council Planning Department with their enquiries.” Any plans will need to go through the council because the permit granted to redevelop the Skinburness Hotel expired in 2013.
One Skinburness Leisure Hotel regular said that as a patron, he noticed the downturn in 2004 when the food changed and prices escalated. Just before the hotel closed in 2006, the patron said he and his partner were regularly the only people in the hotel bar. Still, the Skinburness Leisure Hotel received positive reviews online from its last few guests before it closed.
While a lack of community support might be a factor, the salient point might be that the hotel just costs too much to run. As Vanessa Moore noted, “the electrics, plumbing and fire precautions are outdated, illegal in some cases, and costly to maintain and replace. Sentimentality does not pay bills.”
Former owner David Milne acknowledges that locals can be a tough nut to crack, but he believes that village participation alone is not enough for sustained success. “[Even with] all the locals in the bar five nights a week, it wouldn’t pay the bills and cover the hotel.” David is understandably proud of his unique accomplishments during his time with the Skinburness Hotel, of which he reminds us:
“no owners have succeeded since, and none prior.”
photos courtesy Guy Carpenter
Meanwhile the hotel has endured a decade of neglect. Since it was re-possessed, vandals and thieves have stripped the building of its artifacts, decor, piping, and wiring. Upstairs, water has penetrated the roof and collects in puddles on floors below.
Inside, the now-empty Skinburness Hotel is distinctly characterless and almost disappointing. Dozens of remodels over the years have covered up history and left the hotel with a mish-mash of design styles exacerbated by a lack of cohesion, flow, and interior accoutrements.
Carpets have been ripped apart, floorboards have been removed. The boarded up windows create a pitch-black atmosphere on the lower levels. Wind comes through broken windows on the upper floors and spooks visitors. And despite the countless makeovers of the Skinburness Hotel, the cellar system – which dates to the original Skinburness Hotel – is reportedly still intact.
Will the Skinburness Hotel be saved? It appears unlikely. Help probably won’t come from English Heritage, where bids to nominate the hotel have failed twice. The cost to refurbish the existing 1.5-acre hotel is too great for any party expecting a return on investment. And as the series of bankruptcies can confirm, the hotel requires an experienced hand to successfully guide it to profitability.
It appears only two options are available to the Skinburness Hotel: Re-development into something that can make its owners money, or continue to slowly collapse on the side of Skinburness Road. For the citizens of Skinburness neither option is ideal, but the hotel’s current state shows a vote in favor of what the people just might view as the lesser of two evils.
photos courtesy Guy Carpenter
(click for slide show)
2016 images courtesy Guy Carpenter of Gullwing Photography