With recession on the horizon, in-Cumbria speaks to the new owner of The Royal Oak in Rosthwaite who says he is in it for the long term, just don’t ask him about breadcrumbs…

Purchasing a hotel during the pandemic was always going to be a risky venture. Having helped other companies acquire more than a hundred during his career, Matthew Welbourn decided the time was right to take the plunge. Together with friend Nick Wyatt (their sons go to school together) they bought The Royal Oak in the Borrowdale Valley in September 2021 and set about refurbishing it.

“We went there about 15 years ago. Like most blokes of a certain age you go away with friends and go walking and we ended up there one weekend and couldn’t stop talking about the enchantment of the place,” he says.

When it came up for sale he initially looked at buying it for an investor, but it fell through. Two years later it came back on to the market and the time was right for them to buy as Nick had just sold his waste business.

Both men have invested their own money in the project, the refurbishment of which is in the region of £1.4m. They have increased the number of bedrooms from 15 to 23, replaced all the electrics, installed a new kitchen and put in mains water (the showers now have better pressure) which alone cost £300,000.

Dating back to the 1750s, the hotel at Rosthwaite is a former farm and miners’ tavern located on the Coast to Coast long distance walking route near Keswick. “We bought the goodwill of the place,” says Matthew. “The building which is between 50 and 350 years old and its situation right in the heart of the valley. We bought the location and setting and the building but the interior was traditional. It was a bit of a labour of love and the end build has been fantastic. Everybody says we have captured the essence of the place, the kindness of the building, the peace. It’s a place of tranquillity,” he says.

Eco-friendly innovations and local manufacturers have also been a top priority, including soap from the Sedbergh Soap Company and reconstituted plastic bottles used to create feather-like, vegan down for all the pillows and duvets.

The work has come at a cost. It was due to open at Easter but the refurbishment took twice as long and they opened in July. The initial budget of £800,000 rose to £1.4m. Matthew said the delays were partly due to lack of availability of materials and labouring staff.

Luckily they didn’t have staffing issues at the hotel (at a time when

getting hospitality staff is tricky to say the least), retaining manager Ann Jackson who has been there since 1978. Then an argument over breadcrumbs divided the kitchen and they lost a couple of members of the team. Now they are full staffed again offering live-in accommodation to five employees. “The power is with the employees and you’ve got to give them something to work towards, to enjoy a lifestyle. We don’t do lunch so staff can go out in the daytime and enjoy the outdoors. It’s about blending goals,” he says.

Taking on a hotel with a recession on the horizon is a brave move. Matthew says: “When we took it on we were in Covid but I think domestic leisure was very strong in Covid. We knew the location was a tremendous draw as long as we got the product right. That’s why we dug deep and extended the capital expenditure. It was strategic.”

Along with many other hospitality providers he says it’s been a ‘soft summer’ with visitors opting for shorter stays. They have averaged 65% occupancy since opening, which fits in with their business plan although they have had to be more competitive in price. He knows the imminent recession will impact heavily on the demographic they are trying to attract as mortgages and utility bills rise. He says: “But we are not beholding to a bank. If we knew then what we know now we would think again but we have set it up for the long term. The hotel sector is quite vulnerable at the moment, the markets are polarising.”

Matthew has a long career in hospitality, having started as a cocktail barman at The Ritz Casino in London at the age of 18 and moving on to managing hotels and building up investors’ portfolios. Working alongside Nick (they both live in Harrogate where Nick works in property development) they jointly own The Royal Oak. Matthew, 58, has also recently purchased a property in Blackpool and he says the two projects will take him ‘into his dotage’.

In the meantime they aim to run The Royal Oak so it appeals to regulars and also new visitors to the valley. Matthew recently met a guest who had been going to the hotel every year for 50 years and was there with his great grandchildren. The place is also being taken over at

Christmas by regulars who hold a Christmas party. “It’s so full of regulars we could not get in,” he says. It appears some traditions are here to stay.