50th anniversary for Angel and Salthouse Harbour owner Gough Hotels

The Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds.

The Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Archant

Gough Hotels, a family-owned business which runs two of Suffolk’s top hotels and one of the county’s best-known visitor attractions, has just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Duncan Brodie went to talk to managing director Robert Gough about how the business started by his parents has developed over the years - and about his plans for a third hotel.

One of the bedrooms at the Salthouse Harbour Hotel in Ipswich, featuring a copper bath.

One of the bedrooms at the Salthouse Harbour Hotel in Ipswich, featuring a copper bath. - Credit: Archant

Dick and Mary Gough, who were orginally from the West County, made Suffolk their adopted home but their son Robert says that, in many ways, it was Suffolk who adopted them.

Before acquiring the Marlborough Hotel in Ipswich in 1965, the couple worked for the Trust House Forte hotels group, including a spell at The Bull in Long Melford.

They left Suffolk to work at hotel in Surrey, but jumped at the opportunity to return to the county when the Marlborough became available.

“My father was very much a self-made man; he was a Grammar School boy and he did his National Service,” says Robert. “He was also always grateful for the welcome he received in Suffolk.”

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The Marlborough, in Henley Road, Ipswich, was only a short distance from what was then the main road around the town and the couple built the business up during the 1970s and 80s into one of the main social hubs for Ipswich.

It was, says Robert, a big step for his parents to take on the Marlborough, and a bigger step still when they added the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds to the business in 1972.

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The business in Bury also developed steadily in parallel with that in Ipswich but tragedy struck in 1987 when Dick died. Mary took over the helm, with Robert joining her in the business in 1990 – the same year in which Mary received an MBE for services to the hotel industry.

Under the family’s ownership, the Angel has grown from around 40 bedrooms – of which only a handful were en suite when they first arrived – to a total today of 70.

This was achieved largely by replacing five function rooms. One smaller function room, for around 25 people, has been retained but the business has moved decisively away from the weddings and conference market.

Robert says: “We decided would would be very clear and specific in what we offered, and to keep the offer very simple. We decided we wanted to offer fantastic bedrooms and a high quality restaurant,

“We felt that other guests could be disturbed by weddings and other functions, and that it would be better to use the space to add more bedrooms.”

Viewed from the outside, however, the Angel is little changed, but the company’s investment in Ipswich has taken a different direction.

Further development of the Marlborough was considered but in January 2001 Robert went to view a redundant commercial building he had become aware of a few months earlier facing the town’s Wet Dock, and immediately recognised its potential.

“You could see the building would make a fantastic hotel,” he says, “and you could see the potential of the Waterfront area in general.”

As a result, the Marlborough site was sold later in 2001 for redevelopment – it was also around this time that Robert took over from his mother as managing director – and the family opened the new Salthouse Harbour Hotel in 2003.

Comparatively little development had taken place at this stage, with the Wet Dock still being used by commercial shipping. However, Contship House (now known as Waterfront House and home to law firm Ashton KCJ) had been converted into offices for Contship Containerlines some years earlier and, to the other side of the hotel site, Bellway then recently completed a new-build complex of flats.

“A lot of people told me I was mad but we could see that that if more building went ahead this area would be transformed,” says Robert. “It was a very exciting opportunity and, while the word ‘boutique’ was not being applied to hotels at that time, we saw no reason why Ipswich would not embrace a unique, four-star hotel on the site.”

The aim from the start, he says, was to create a high-end offering. giving customers something “very different”, and the success of this approach was such that an extension to the original building was constructed in 2007-08 to take accommodation from the initial 43 bedrooms to a total of 70.

The standard of rooms was also taken to yet another level, with bigger bathrooms and underfloor heating and, in some cases, copper baths. “We want to offer people something they are not able to get anywhere else in East Anglia, and possibly not anywhere in the country,” says Robert.

Both the Salthouse Harbour and the Angel have four-star ratings. Even while the development of the Salthouse Harbour was in progress, Robert was also considering the expansion of the business through the acquisition of a third site.

“We have always been very keen to expand,” he says. “I had been looking for somewhere else to take on since 2005, all over East Anglia to Norwich in the north and south to Colchester.”

It was, however, to the popular Suffolk coast that the company eventually turned, with the acquisition of Southwold Pier in 2013.

Stephen and Antonia Bournes who then owned the pier had been seeking a buyer since 2010 and what clinched the deal with Gough Hotels was their success in securing planning permission for an Art Deco-style 30-bedroom hotel at the shore end of the structure.

“We knew all about Southwold Pier, being friends of Stephen and Antonia, who built up the business,” says Robert. “We had always been looking for a destination site and the so the chance to build a hotel on a pier in such a distinctive coastal town as Southwold was a unique opportunity.”

The family are currently still working through ideas about what to put in the Southwold hotel, with Robert’s wife, Claire, whose love of art and contemporary design has already transformed the historic interiors of the Angel and the Salthouse Harbour now having a the opportunity to create an interior design “look” for a more modern setting.

Gough Hotels now employs around 250 people, split fairly evenly between the three sites, and each of the towns is being included in the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

“As I said, my father was always grateful for the welcome he received in Suffolk and we are now aiming to give something back, by supporting community projects in each of the three towns where we operate,” added Robert.

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