WHEN Barbara Johnson first took over The Morritt Hotel in Teesdale in July 1994 it had no bookings, six bottles of wine in the cellar and three staff.
And when the first shooting party arrived a few weeks later in August, not knowing there were new owners, they had brought their own heaters, tins of soup and were prepared to cook their own breakfast.
Now, as she and husband Peter Phillips celebrate 20 years at The Morritt, it has more than 50 staff at the hotel and adjoining Garage Spa, a cellar full of excellent wines and bookings for weddings into the next three years.
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"I think the first thing I thought when we came in was “what have we done?”, said Barbara.
"But the first things we did were to clean the place from top to bottom, put in safe electricity and heating and employ a good chef and some staff.
"And we must have done something right for the shooting party because they kept returning twice a year and now their children come and stay with us."
Barbara and Peter came to the hotel in Greta Bridge from the US and Switzerland. They both had jobs with the same company, but Peter was moved to Switzerland and Barbara stayed in America – not good for family life with their three daughters, Charlet, Georgette and Jacqui.
They had both travelled the world with their respective jobs and had a vision of how a good hotel should look and feel. So coming back to the UK, they bought The Morritt, attracted by its history and its setting.
"One of the biggest challenges we faced was changing people’s perception of the place. It has a long history in hospitality, going back to before Dickens’s days, but had become very run down.
"We had to turn it around, and pretty soon we had former staff come knocking at out door saying how pleased they were it had been bought. We took some of them on and a couple of them are still here."
One of the hotel’s biggest successes has been its transformation into a popular wedding venue. More than 1,000 weddings and receptions have been held at The Morritt since Barbara and Peter took over.
"We have had generations of people celebrating their weddings here – grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters – which is lovely for us as well as them."
Barbara has also hosted a number of familiar faces – celebrities from The Fast Show who came three times to shoot in the area, Blue Peter, the Antiques Roadshow and Songs of Praise and MP William Hague’s 50th birthday party, to name but a few.
During their time there Barbara and Peter have invested heavily in the future of the business, spending around £3m just on developments which have included the Garden Room and the Garage Spa, which opened about 15 months ago.
As part of the 20th anniversary celebrations, Barbara and Peter are inviting artists and sculptors who live within 20 miles of the hotel to vie for a £1,500 commission to produce a piece of artwork. It will be called ‘The Spirit of Teesdale’ and will be put on display indefinitely in the hotel or its grounds.
Barbara added: ‘We’re a family-run hotel set in beautiful countryside so we want something that encapsulates what this area is all about.
"We love it here and are responsible for employing a good many local people. So we’re hoping this will be a lasting tribute to Teesdale - and The Morritt.’
Five minutes with Barbara Johnson
Favourite North East building and why?
There are lots – Durham Cathedral or the Sage. But actually I love the rooftops on Grange Road in Darlington. They are all different and interesting, and have such character and charm.
What was your first job and how much did you get paid?
It was for £5 a week working in an accountants’ office for the Premier Oil and Cake Mills in Hull, where I spent some of my childhood. I was good at maths but it was very boring. I worked with a mechanical accounting machine and one day took it apart to see how it worked. The company that owned the machine were impressed and offered me a job, which I took.
What is the worst job you have had?
See above job at Premier – I hated it.
What would you cook for me if I came around for dinner?
I’d probably do Saltimbocca – an Italian dish meaning ‘piece in the mouth’. It’s veal, and a sage leaf wrapped in Parma ham. I’d accompany it with wild mushroom risotto and spinach. It’s a favourite from when I lived in Switzerland, although I tend to use pork loin in the UK as veal is difficult to come by.
What would your superpower be?
I’d love to speak any language that was spoken to me – always been one of my dreams.
Name four people, dead or alive, who would be at your perfect dinner party?
Carl Gustav Jung, extraordinary philosopher and psychoanalyst, Christine Lagarde, very impressive Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham who had his own distinct views on life and religion, and Katharine Hepburn, amazing actress. That would be quite a dinner table.
Most expensive thing you’ve bought – other than your car or house – and how much?
Apart from The Morritt, that would be a walnut Victorian breakfront bookcase, which is in our drawing room at home. I had a tough time outbidding my rival for it at the auction room, but I secured it. (Peter still doesn’t know how much I paid for it, so it’s a secret). When I got home, I had a call from the person I was bidding against offering me an extra £1,500 – so I knew I had made a good investment.
Who is the best person to follow on Twitter and why?
My daughter Charlet (CORR), who is manager of the hotel. She tweets with lots of interesting people – and she’s very good at it.
I am reading for the third time a book called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl. He was a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and it talks about the small things which give meaning to your life. Brilliant and highly recommended.
When did you last cry?
Earlier this year when my youngest daughter Jacqui returned to Mexico. I am so proud of what she has achieved - Master Scuba Diver Trainer and Cave Diver qualifications and now opening her own business with her friend – but it is so difficult to say goodbye.
What is your greatest achievement?
Three happy, healthy, beautiful daughters, of whom I am very proud.
What is the best piece of advice in business you have ever been given?
Trust your gut instinct and don’t listen to the naysayers. If you feel it’s right, just do it.
Favourite animal and why?
My favourite would be the polar bear. They look beautiful and soft and cuddly, but there is so much deceptive power. Stunning creatures.
Most famous person on your mobile phone?
Professor Sir Mansel Aylward, Knight Order of the Bath and a personal friend.
What was the last band you saw live?
Local outfit called the Dean Solomon Band from Darlington. Excellent performers, always great fun and a fantastic sound. They will be playing at our 20th anniversary ball at the hotel in July.
Describe your perfect night in?
Sitting comfortably in a big chair with the log fire, reading a good book. The log fire is very important – warm and comfort is the key.
In another life I would be…
Actually I’m not sure I want another life. I am very happy with the life I have now.
Who would play you in a film of your life?
The aforesaid Katharine Hepburn please – she had such poise, beauty and quality. And the ability to act everyone off the screen.
What irritates you?
I hate negativity and bitching about other people. It’s a horrible trait.
What is your secret talent?
Quilting. I have something on the go at the moment – a 24 piece single bed quilt.