It used to be hen-night central. Now Jamie and Charles, not to mention Zoe and Norman, are turning it into Kensington-on-Sea. But not everyone's laughing...
Sunday May 14, 2006
Jamie Oliver could have chosen anywhere for his new restaurant: any venue, in any city, in any part of the country. Instead, he chose a small beach in a tiny town famous for being the capital of Britain's binge-drinking and surfing culture.
Zoe Ball, the TV and radio presenter, and her husband, Norman 'Fat Boy Slim' Cook, the DJ, as well as actors Ray Winstone and Timothy West, are already devotees of the charms of Newquay, where Fifteen Cornwall will throw open its doors on Friday. But when Oliver announced his decision last August to set up there, critics were incredulous.
Although the chattering classes, they said, might be willing to travel to Padstow to eat at Rick Stein's restaurant and even trek to St Ives to visit the Tate, surely it was madness to hope that a town better known for its kebab joints and £1-a-shot bars could become a gastronomic mecca? 'There are nostalgic reasons for the choice of Newquay,' admits Oliver. 'I grew up going to Devon and Cornwall. I was a publican's child, so we only really got two weeks' holiday a year, and one would be close to home.
'But there were sound business reasons for my decision as well: Newquay has loads going for it,' he adds. 'There has been a quiet revolution transforming the town for a few years now. Not that carping urban critics have noticed.'
Certainly the calibre of the team at Fifteen Cornwall has proved Oliver is not alone in his faith in the town. Five of the staff have been lured over from Stein's restaurant, while Neil Haydock, Oliver's new executive head chef, resigned as head chef of the fine dining room at the Sandy Lanes resort in Barbados to take up his post.
'When I was thinking about taking this job, I mentioned it to some of my customers in Barbados and it turned out that loads of them had recently bought second homes in and around Newquay,' says Haydock. 'This seems to be the new, cool holiday venue for the sort of people who have previously been jetting off to exotic climes for their short breaks.'
He is confident that the cognoscenti will be ready to overlook Newquay's less than salubrious reputation to sample his food - which, he promises, will hold its own even against world-renowned Sandy Lanes. 'If anything, it will be better,' he promises. 'There will be less playing around with the food here. It will be more honest and the portions are more robust.'
As prescient as Oliver's business sense was, however, he is not the first entrepreneur to see potential in the town. Long before Fifteen Cornwall was even dreamt of, Prince Charles had chosen Newquay as the home of his second ideal village project.
Dubbed 'Surfbury' and based on a similar Duchy of Cornwall project in Poundbury, Dorset, the long-delayed construction of the 1,000-home estate, with its Catholic primary school and railway station, is now due by the end of the year. 'We have been waiting to start development until we are sure we have the local people behind us,' says Gemma Smith from the Duchy's office. 'But now we are almost ready to go.'
While Fifteen will act as a magnet for holidaying fashionistas - it has received 9,000 bookings already - Surfbury is expected to have a more permanent impact on the social fabric of the area. 'The village will become a Kensington-on-Sea,' says Paul Tyler, the former Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall. 'It will become an exclusive holiday resort for rich Londoners.'
It is not only on Newquay's outskirts that the transformation is taking place: this week, the most expensive, luxurious flats ever seen in the town will go on sale. Expected to cost around two-thirds of a million pounds, the Ocean's Gate penthouse apartments will boast private roof gardens and outdoor jacuzzis.
'There is an astonishing amount of money flying around Newquay at the moment. I've never seen anything like it,' says Simon Scott-Nelson, new homes manager from the Exeter office of estate agency Strutt & Parker, which has been bought in to handle the sale.
'Last month we broke property records in Newquay by selling a couple of two-bed apartments for over half a million pounds, and now have a waiting list for these new penthouses, even though the developer has yet to decide on an exact price.'
There remains little doubt: having refashioned itself once from a tiny, traditional fishing village into the stag and hen party capital of Britain, Newquay is now undergoing a second transformation.
Will Ashworth, 31-year-old managing director of the Watergate Hotel and the Extreme Academy, which teaches kite-surfing, wave-skiing and the like, was key to bringing Fifteen to Newquay by offering Oliver the upper floor of the elegant wood barn that houses his Academy for free.
'Newquay is becoming hipper, trendier, livelier and more exciting than it has ever been before,' says Ashworth. 'The pubs and bars are beginning to realise that you can't run a £1-a-shot business and invest the money needed to appeal to the new, trendier sort of tourist we have coming here. Newquay is becoming caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle of quality.'
Some are sceptical of this claim: 'If you feed "stag" and "hen night" and "Newquay" into Google, the hundreds of websites that spring up give some idea of the area's reputation as the Ibiza of south-west England,' says Tom Lloyd, a shopkeeper in the town centre. 'I think that reputation is permanently ingrained in this town.'
The council does not deny the fact that it has a problem.
'The message coming out of Newquay in late 2003 was almost entirely negative and, if allowed to continue, could have had a disastrous impact on the tourism industry,' says Paul Wright, tourism and cultural services manager for the Newquay and Cornish Riviera tourism department.
But there are strong signs of a turnaround: overall crime is down by more than 13 per cent over the past two years, with serious crime down by 56 per cent - a success rate that has been largely attributed to firm policing throughout the summer months.
In part, Newquay is benefiting from the same 'Eden effect' that has seen £700m of extra spending injected into the Cornish economy since the Eden Project opened five years ago. Hot on Eden's heels came Tate St Ives, the National Maritime Museum and Stein's restaurant and cookery school in Padstow. Suddenly there were classy reasons to visit Cornwall while, at the same time, its remoteness was nibbled away by more and cheaper flights from cities across Europe.
And now, just as Padstow, Rock and St Ives have raised their game to meet increasingly sophisticated expectations, Newquay is finally starting to follow suit.
'We are not seeing fewer hen and stag parties, but we are seeing more tourists looking for a high-quality experience,' says Ben Owen, a taxi driver who has lived in the area for 18 years. 'The area is developing into a two-tone town: in the centre it remains pretty squalid, but on the outskirts it is becoming so chic that some of the bars, restaurants and hotels wouldn't look out of place in central London.'
This isn't the first time Newquay has allowed itself to dream of shedding its partying reputation. Two years ago, Stein announced a new restaurant-cum-hotel that was hoped would turn Newquay into a sophisticated gourmet destination. Amid rising costs and planning complications, however, he eventually dropped the plan and, instead of the expected exciting upsurge, the town centre degenerated and Newquay's regeneration plans hit the buffers.
But Wright believes Oliver's restaurant, and the reinvention of the whole Watergate area of the town, is a microcosm of a new spirit that, this time, will stick. 'There are increasing numbers of entrepreneurs and developers with ambition and vision coming to the area,' he says, reeling off a list of other high-class renovation projects in the pipeline. 'Newquay is changing, for the better, and for good.'
But what of the old, free spirit of Newquay? Some locals grudgingly accept it is a case of adapt or die.
'Somewhere along the line, the unique character of Newquay has been lost,' says Lady Helen Long, who writes a weekly column for the Cornish Guardian. 'There aren't many places left where you can sit and look at the moon or strum a guitar in peace.
'But to survive, change it has got to be,' she admits. 'If we need any further evidence of the gentrification of Newquay, consider the recent case of the homeless alcoholic who broke into a local supermarket. He ignored the beers and wines, and opted instead for two bottles of champagne.'
Forget Cannes, Britain's beach resorts can be just as cool. Here Rowan Walker picks some of the best coastal hang outs.
Beside the seaside
Rhossili, south Wales
Where? Rhossili is a pretty village on the westernmost part of the Gower peninsula. The beach stretches for three miles and has the best surfing waves on the Gower.
Who goes? Surfers, ramblers and Dylan Thomas enthusiasts. The cocktail crowd head to Neil Morrissey's hotel, Hurst House in Laugharne.
Where do you stay? Step back in time at the Fairyhill Hotel in Reynoldston, an 18th-century house with its own trout stream and lake. It has eight double bedrooms from £150.
Highlights? Rhossili bay was recently voted as the best place in Britain to watch the sunset, by readers of Country Living magazine.
Where? A village across the River Blyth from Southwold. It was home to architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and featured in John Constable's works.
Who goes? Outdoor junkies, bird spotters and people escaping London. Screenwriter Richard Curtis owns two country retreats here.
Where do you stay? Try the 600-year-old Bell Inn, just a stone's throw from the beach. The Anchor Inn serves meals from own-grown vegetables and local products.
Highlights? The British Open Crabbing Championships take place each July. The first prize is for the single heaviest crab. Check out www.walberswick.ws.
Plockton, Scottish Highlands
Where? Plockton is a National Trust village in the Western Highlands with a permanent population of just over 300 people. The BBC filmed the television series Hamish Macbeth here, putting the village firmly on the map.
Who goes? Artists and photographers looking to capture the spectacular views and those in search of a tranquil hideaway in the Highlands.
Where do you stay? The Plockton Hotel has 15 rooms and fantastic views of Loch Carron. It is converted from an ancient terrace of fishermen's cottages and the restaurant specialises in seafood such as Skye mussels.
Highlights? The annual Plockton Regatta in late July.
Where? Whitstable has grown from a sleepy little fishing village to a smart resort, complete with galleries, boutiques and fantastic seafood restaurants.
Who goes? Popular with the London crowd who come down at weekends for oysters and sea air, along with restaurant critics and interior designers.
Where do you stay? Renting a 'fisherman's hut' on the seafront has become a popular choice for visitors, even more so since artist Tracey Emin sold her hut to Charles Saatchi for £75,000.
Highlights? Catch the Oyster Festival from 22-30 July. See www.whitstableoysterfestival.co.uk.
She's gotta have it
Sandbanks, in Dorset, is one of the world's most expensive places to live. For some of its residents, however, there is a far more telling – and coveted – badge of success: owning an Eddie Mitchell house. Sarah Lonsdale reports
There's a flutter of excitement among the ladies who lunch at Café Shore today. As they pick over their tiny portions of Caesar salad, or crab with parmesan chips, there is only one topic of conversation: this weekend there is an open day for the latest Eddie Mitchell-designed property to come on the market, and, darling, you've simply just got to be there.
Must have: Seven founder Eddie Mitchell's own Sandbanks property
Like Gucci bags, Dior suits or Jimmy Choo shoes, the unveiling of the latest Mitchell house has become something of a fashion event and anyone who claims to have any taste, style and an eye for the latest must-have will be at the launch.
The only difference being that the product does not retail at a few hundred pounds, but at more than a million. But here in Sandbanks, Dorset - unbelievably the fourth most expensive place to live in the world after Tokyo, Hong Kong and central London – large price tags only make the product more desirable.
As with previous Mitchell house launches, bouncers will be at the door to prevent the occasion from becoming a whirling bun-fight of blonde highlights, golden tans and designer labels.
While smart houses have always been status symbols for the rich, here in Sandbanks, as nowhere else in Britain, it is not enough simply to own an expensive property - the label is all.
Sandbanks is dedicated purely to pleasure and leisure, and has inevitably attracted its share of footballers (Jamie Redknapp and his pop star wife Louise, Harry Redknapp, Darren Anderton), crooners (Max Bygraves) and retired cricketers (Geoff Boycott).
For those who have never been to this moneyed part of Dorset, a visit is a real eye-opener: every other car seems to be either an Aston Martin, Bentley, Porsche Cayenne Turbo or open-top, baby-blue Mercedes.
Hazel Kite, who has just bought half of Eddie's latest product, Wavemaker - specifically, a three-bedroom townhouse overlooking Poole harbour - can hardly conceal her glee at being the proud owner of one of his labels.
"If you've bought an Eddie Mitchell house, it means you've made it," she says, leaning on the smooth Corian kitchen work surface to show how, at the touch of a button, the Gaggenau kitchen extractor fan lifts out of its invisible cradle to perform in the style of a James Bond gadget. "I've been to all his show-home openings – but the last one I had to try four times before I got in, there were so many people wanting to have a look inside."
Ready for take-off: the £4.5 million Thunderbird
Eddie Mitchell and his houses have become something of a phenomenon in this southernmost tip of Dorset, comprising Lilliput, Sandbanks and Branksome Chine. Grateful estate agents credit him with transforming the place from a well-to-do yet sleepy enclave of mainly mock-Tudor, between-war mansions smattered with the odd, brave 1930s modernist house to a racy millionaires' row, more like Cape Cod and the Hamptons than its neighbours, Bournemouth and Wimborne.
"More than any other builder, Eddie Mitchell has contributed to the desirability of Sandbanks," says Matthew Heard, of local agency Lloyds. "The houses are dramatic to look at, photograph well and they are very easy to sell."
Sandbanks also has a lot of natural beauty going for it: three miles of golden beach, the only one in the UK to have won the Blue Flag award for every one of its 17 years; the great, sweeping curve of Poole Harbour, with its intricate network of islands, inlets and hidden coves; and beautiful Brownsea Island.
It was to this genteel and lofty area that local boy Eddie and his four brothers used to come during their summer holidays in the early 1960s, riding on their bikes across the heathland from their small, rented house in Parkstone, where they lived with their worn-out mother and war invalid father, who was regularly unemployed.
Occasionally, Eddie and a brother were sent to a Doctor Barnardo's home when his mother could not cope. He remembers cycling to the beach and admiring all the mansions and thinking: "One day I'm going to live in one of these."
Eddie has done better than that – he has a personalised Bentley with the number EDD 5, lives in a fuschia-pink house on the waterfront in Sandbanks (his own design, naturally) and is a millionaire several times over. He is fit and tanned, and, although in his fiftieth year, could be 10 years younger, with his mop of dark brown hair, designer jeans and T-shirts.
He spent his early adulthood labouring on building sites. Then, in 1981, at the age of 27 he joined a self-build programme and built his first house. "It was a community self-build and they were looking for bricklayers," he says. "I wasn't actually a trained bricklayer, but I told them I could do it and sort of fudged my way through.
To join the scheme, each member had to put down a £1,000 deposit, which I scraped together somehow, and when the homes were built, we would own the houses, owing the organisers another £10,000, making the total cost of the house £11,000.
"But the day my house was finished, I sold it for £32,000, making a £20,000 profit overnight. For someone like me, growing up with nothing, and then having £20,000 in my pocket, just like that, it was a miracle. I knew then that this was how I was going to make my fortune. I called my company Seven, my lucky number, and just carried on building."
He now dominates the aspirational dreams of up-and-coming Dorset professionals, who know they will not have made it until they possess the keys to one of Eddie's homes.
Jo Timberlake and her partner, Neil, live with their three-year-old daughter, Jamie-Leigh, in the ground-floor flat of one of Eddie's latest ventures, Lucy's Hill, a six-apartment confection of multi-coloured glass and odd geometric shapes. Jo's flat is a paean to pink, with pink carpets and paintwork and even the kitchen splashbacks in pink glass ("Neil's a new man").
Eye-catching: Jo Timberlake's pink-flooded home
"I set my heart on living in a Seven property, ever since I started my first job," says Jo, 26, a beautician. "And this is what I could afford. Everyone wants to live in a Seven home - they're like a designer label. When you buy a pair of sunglasses, you don't buy Boots' own label any more, you buy Ray-Ban or Boss." Even these two-bedroom flats, with small second bedrooms and modest bathrooms were snapped up for between half a million and £725,000.
The strange thing about Eddie's houses is that, architecturally speaking, they are not much to write home about. They are simple geometric shapes fashioned out of building blocks and render. Names such as Moonraker, Stargaze and Seaside Sizzle only serve to reinforce their fantastical nature.
However, like any other fashion item, it is the accessorising that lifts them beyond the humdrum: the coloured glass of the balcony screens and stairwells, the unusual curving walls, the Navajo-style chimneys and weird, banana-shaped copper roofs.
Eddie has now taken to selling his homes fully furnished, with fitted televisions in every bedroom, white leather Rolf Benz sofas and Hulsta bedroom suites. It is a canny move, adding both to the desirability and the price tag, which can be as much as £3,000 per square metre. And his lucky buyers can slip into their dreams without having to make a trip to World of Leather.