The picturesque quay in Blakeney is dominated by one building – the Blakeney Hotel. But this North Norfolk hotel, with panoramic views of the estuary, salt marshes and vast skies, is a relative newcomer to the waterfront.
The family-run hotel, named among the best seaside hotels in England, was purpose-built 100 years ago in 1923 on the site of the Crown and Anchor beer house and other harbour-side buildings. This was at a time when the wharves of Blakeney’s harbour had fallen into disrepair as the village began to diversify from commercial port to become a sought-after holiday resort.
The waterfront activities of what was once an important port in the Middle Ages were giving way to Edwardian leisure such as boating, nature walks, motoring, wildfowling, and golf – Blakeney had a nine-hole golf course then.
Blakeney is one of Norfolk’s prettiest seaside villages. Few of the 15th century buildings from its really wealthy period remain. However, the population was just 600 in 1800. Today, it is 800 but the number of people in the parish rises enormously at peak holiday times due to the fact that some 40 per cent of the properties are second homes or holiday lets.
The Blakeney Hotel was apparently the dream of Holt garage owner Walter J. Elsden, the managing director of Elsden and Company. He bought the land and buildings to create an upmarket hotel from Mrs A. Storey of Sheringham in June 1920. She sold him the Crown and Anchor beerhouse, two cottages, extensive granaries, a garage and a malting.
Building the hotel began in October 1921 and was estimated to cost £30,000 to £40,000 to build, an enormous amount at the time considering a cottage and its land cost just £250. The hotel was completed in 1923. The architect was Geoffrey Fildes who designed the building to be 'in keeping with' and sympathetic to its surroundings.
But development to the east coast’s best hotel did not stop there. A new road linking the hotel to Morston Road was created and the hotel brought electricity to Blakeney for the first time in 1927.
The new Blakeney Hotel boasted a writing room, a card room, smoking lounge and a boating lounge along with garaging with inspection pits for 50 cars.
The site was selected for the magnificent views from the hotel across the harbour and creeks to boats moored in The Pit - a lagoon shelter behind Blakeney Point spit.
The views and expanse of marshes were something Dutch oil magnate Henri Deterding must have recognised when he underwrote the hotel venture and joined the board with Mr Elsden.
Sir Henri was one of the founders of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company and lived at Kelling Hall outside Holt. The Grade II-listed home he had built in 1,600 acres at nearby Kelling was created in Arts and Crafts style with 13 bedrooms, a shooting lodge, tennis court and swimming pool in 1913 by architect Sir Edward Maufe.
Sir Henri was one of the first executives of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company and its general manager from 1900 to 1936. He was given an honorary knighthood in 1920 for Anglo-Dutch relations and for supplying the Allies with petrol during the First World War.
He went on to become chairman of the combined Royal Dutch/Shell oil company and made it into one of the world’s largest oil companies.
Sir Henri died in Switzerland in 1939 aged 72 and Kelling Hall was sold for £25 million in 2008 by Sir Henri’s grandson. It remains a private estate.
The coast and marshland around Blakeney is an unspoilt Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) managed by the National Trust. The 1,100 acres of salt marsh attract up to 100 species of birds as they stop over on their migration.
The Blakeney Hotel’s enviable position giving grandstand views of the peaceful marshes, huge skies and a thriving village helped the now 60-room Blakeney Hotel achieve a listing on the Daily Telegraph’s list of the 'best beach hotels in the UK for 2022'.
This is just one of many accolades the four AA Red Star Blakeney Hotel has achieved over the last 40 years since it has been owned by the Stannard family. A hotel awarded Red Stars has been selected by the AA as one of the best hotels in the British Isles with outstanding levels of hospitality and service.
It is hard to imagine the peaceful and picturesque quay of today's Blakeney as a working harbour.
As a medieval commercial port, Blakeney Harbour was famous for transporting spices and Oriental cloth as well as coal and fish. In the 1300s it had a reputation for piracy and smuggling and some skippers refused to dock in Blakeney for fear of losing their cargo.
The port was given a new lease of life in 1817 when the channel was deepened to allow larger vessels to dock with passages to Hull and London. It was still trading as a commercial port until the early 20th century when larger steam ships were unable to access the harbour and railways offered swifter transport to market.
The transformation from industrial port, much of this based on local fishing and corn exports, to one of Britain’s most attractive holiday resorts has been relatively recent as the channel to the harbour has silted further.
Accountant Michael Stannard bought the picturesque Blakeney Hotel in 1983. It fulfilled his dream of running his own hotel combined with his love of Blakeney. Almost immediately he began improvements with en-suite bathrooms, adding more rooms, extending the hotel dining room and updating the decor.
Mr Stannard ran the hotel for 30 years before his death in 2012 aged 82. His daughter Emma, who helped her father run the hotel for 15 years, has continued running the independently-owned business.
Today Blakeney’s tranquillity, vast skies and rich bird life attracts artists, writers, nature lovers, walkers, sailors, and ornithologists from all over the world.
Extra research for this article was provided by the Blakeney Area Historical Society (BAHS). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org