Who wouldn’t want to live in the sort of rooms where Aidan Turner as leading man Ross is bound to come striding in at any moment? Now, with Sunday’s opening of new east London hotel Batty Langley’s, you can — at least for a night or two.
“Atmosphere,” declaims Douglas Blain, descending a dramatic staircase that sweeps through the five-storey Spitalfields building which he and his business partner, Peter McKay, have just finished turning into London’s newest romantic hotel. “Atmosphere — that’s the most important thing.”
The staircase is based on the one in Goldsmiths’ Hall in the City. Like all new hotel stairs, it had to be made of steel to comply with fire regulations, just as every panelled wall — and every single wall at Batty Langley’s is panelled — must have a fireproof core. However, a carpenter then encased the steel posts and treads in wood. “And then we built in squeaks,” says Blain. How? “It’s a secret.”
Indeed, atmosphere is what Blain and McKay have created in spades here. Batty Langley’s joins their previous ventures, Hazlitt’s in Soho and The Rookery in Clerkenwell. Batty Langley’s is special, with its best suite, the Earl of Bolingbroke, featuring four rooms across two floors and a terrace with sweeping London views, costing £1,200 a night.
The hotel’s namesake was a garden and architectural designer who made globally published pattern books for early 18th-century architects and joiners. George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon in the United States used them, as did many English houses.
Blain and McKay, who wryly refer to themselves as “two daft old gits” — “I must be nearly a hundred, and Peter can’t be far behind,” Blain jokes — have been creating exclusive hotels since 1983, when they transformed a defunct Soho hostel, almost on a whim — and their course was set.
In the early Seventies, McKay ran a travel company called Intertrek, going all over Afghanistan and Africa, but his wife and small children complained.
Having moved to London in 1962, Blain was a journalist and antiques dealer who also restored old houses. “I think in 3D. I built my first real house when I was 12, in Tasmania, where I was brought up,” he says. “I’m the ideas man, Peter is the furniture man and fusspot.”
“I drive the staff round the bend,” McKay adds cheerfully. “But it’s all about detail. You can’t compromise on that.” In 1977, Blain and McKay were also founding members of the Spitalfields Trust, which saves and restores old houses. And in 1983 the Trust had heard of some 18th-century buildings for sale in Frith Street, Soho, that it couldn’t take on, but Blain and McKay were looking for a venture.
“So we went to the bank, said we needed £500,000 and, astonishingly, they loaned it to us,” says McKay. After toying with the idea of creating an upmarket brothel, they hit on a hotel. “We had enormous self-confidence,” says McKay, “but no idea at all about hotels.”
Nevertheless, they “slapped on a coat of paint, put in some rudimentary plumbing and a Helena Bonham Carter lookalike on reception, and opened the door. And Nigella Lawson reviewed us. We’ve hardly had an empty room since,” says McKay. “It’s full of household names, but people hardly know it’s there.”
Hazlitt’s set the pattern that The Rookery, and now Batty Langley’s, would follow. The front door is locked unless you are staying, making it a cross between a private house and a members club.
It doesn’t say “hotel” outside, so no one walks in off the street, and there’s no restaurant. “A restaurant is hell to run and a trap for the unwary,” Blain says crisply. “We offer breakfast in bed.”
It has taken more than 20 years to put everything together at Batty Langley’s — and cost millions of pounds — but it all started with converting an empty Eighties office building, plus a car park and two adjacent houses, into a representation of an 18th-century inn.
Having built the structure, over the past five years the pair have gone to extraordinary lengths to get the depth of detail right, including pure wool carpets, the finest bed linen and 17th- or 18th-century beds as standard.
But you will also find, along with wi-fi, things such as TV sets concealed in folding mirrors designed within a Batty Langley architrave — “I hate to see a television and have never watched it,” says Blain. Or, in the best suite, an immense marble bath the size of a sarcophagus, which was flown in from Tuscany and installed by crane when the roof was off.
McKay reckons he has driven 30,000 miles scouring the country for period pictures and furniture that his craftsmen adapt to his design. The superb mahogany Carlton House desks in several rooms, with secret drawers and compartments, are pirated from square pianos, with all the compartments made bespoke, then French polished.
All the thick mahogany loo seats are bespoke, too. In some bathrooms the plumbing, made by their boffin engineer enjoying a Heath Robinson moment, has cranks and decorative levers. Everywhere you look there are things to enjoy — swan head bath taps, a little brass hand to flush the loo and shutters with sweet trefoil cut-outs. But this is the key to the hotel’s charm, for there is nowhere else like it.
“It’s because we’re bonkers,” says McKay. “Both of us have quite big egos, but the thing is, you need to be proud of what you do in life. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re proud of it. And even though you’d have to be batty to do this — we’re proud of it.”
Batty Langley’s hotel opens on Sunday. Rooms from £234 per night.
GET THE LOOK
- Tapestry cloth in the tapestry room from Hines of Oxford
- Silks for bed covers and curtains from sources such as Warwick Fabrics
- Paintings and furniture from various auction houses — try www.the-saleroom.com
- Bed linen by the Fine Bedding Company
- Furniture restoration by Charles Jarvis
- Paints by Farrow & Ball
- Mature olive trees and other plants by Evergreen Exterior Services
- Faux lead planters by Capital Garden Products
- Antique baths re-enamelled by specialist Hytech Enamelling
- Some antique baths and fittings from central source Salvo