In the latest instalment in a series showing how Durham is Powered by People, PETER BARRON visits a family-run hotel where imagination is a key ingredient in the fight against the coronavirus crisis

THEY’VE always done things differently at the South Causey Inn – the old London bus that doubles as a bedroom, and the fire engine that serves as a bar, are ample evidence of that.

And four months into lockdown, the rustic Durham hotel is blazing a trail again in its creative response to the challenges brought by the biggest public health crisis in a generation.

“There were times when we wondered if the business would survive, but we sat down as a family and tried to come up with ways to get through it – that’s what we’ve always done,” says managing director, Susan Moiser.

The hotel and popular wedding venue is run by Susan and husband, Phil, with their four children – Katy, Frances, Harriet, and Douglas – all heavily involved.

The creative juices tend to flow best during family gatherings at breakfast or – better still - over a few glasses of wine at the end of another long day.

And instead of allowing coronavirus to get the better of them, Susan and her family have responded by adding a range of new attractions to the venue, located a couple of miles from world-famous Beamish, The Living Museum of the North.

For diners seeking the latest dining experience during lockdown, ten heated ‘bubble pods’ have been hired and installed in the grounds, alongside the double-decker bus and fire engine. Able to accommodate up to six people, the pods have proved to be so popular that the family is now planning to buy 12 outright and make them a permanent feature.

With the pandemic devastating the wedding market, the South Causey Inn has introduced drive-through weddings on three Wednesdays of the year. The next is October 7, when six weddings will take place, and the idea has proved such a hit that an extra day – November 11 – has been added to the schedule.

“It’s been dreadful for couples having to postpone getting married,” explains Susan. “We should be flat out with rearranged weddings scheduled for next year but, in the meantime, the drive-through weddings have really taken off,” explains Susan.

Other new features at the hotel include a Saturday cinema club, with a combination of movies and afternoon teas on the menu. A case of ‘Scone With The Wind’ perhaps.

The South Causey success story goes back to 1976 when Susan’s parents, Jean and Jim Gibson, bought the site as a farm. They’d owned a milk delivery business on Tyneside, but competition from supermarkets led to a radical review of their lives.

Despite having no farming experience, and “hocked up to the nines”, they kept pigs, sheep, and turkeys on 30 acres of land. They then developed a riding school, initially with a single horse, and ending up with 130.

Susan was 13 when she met her future husband, Phil, who was living up the road. They married ten years later, in 1986, and Phil joined the business.

A decision was taken to turn the site into a hotel, working in partnership with Pat Whelan, who ran a construction business. The hotel opened on July 4, 1990, but nine days later, tragedy struck when Pat and his wife, Margaret, were killed in a helicopter crash.

After her father passed away in 2007, Susan and Phil bought the business – by then comprising a 16-bedroom hotel, a small restaurant, and the riding school – and their creative ambitions flourished.

They acquired a civil wedding licence, and the first couples were married before the end of the year. Marquees were erected, the restaurant was extended, and old cow byres and a stable block were turned into a new wedding venue, named The Durham Suite.

The riding school was closed, with the arena converted into another large wedding venue, and the collection of stables becoming stylish bedrooms, complete with hot tubs. Other changes included an old dairy being transformed into a conference room, and a barn being reinvented as a chapel.

The London bus arrived in 2015, and the fire engine bar became an added attraction last year. The latest project is the conversion of a six-bedroomed house on the site into a function venue.

By the time coronavirus came along and the world went into lockdown, the South Causey Inn had become a business turning over £9m a year and employing 125 people. All of them, apart from the family, were furloughed before returning on July 4.

“It’s people who make a business, and the staff have been fantastic in the way they’ve adapted and gone along with our ideas,” says Susan, who is a passionate supporter of the Powered by People movement, which puts people at the forefront of efforts to promote Durham as a great place to live, work and invest.

“It’s exactly the right strategy because wherever you go in the world, people from this area are known for being friendly, welcoming and hard-working,” she adds.

Now, Susan and Phil are looking to the future with the added attractions of the bubble pods and drive-through weddings, along with a greater emphasis than ever on hygiene and safety.

Dog and cycle-friendly, they are especially keen to target the rising potential of the ‘staycation’ market, with the recently reopened Beamish Museum, and a host of other tourist attractions, on their doorstep.

“We had a choice when the pandemic hit – either give in or come up with new ways of attracting customers. We chose the latter,” says Susan.

It is a bold and creative philosophy that deserves to be rewarded.

  • To find out more about the Powered by People movement, go to 


The Northern Echo: