Peter Elson speaks to Helen Ainscough, on the Racquet Club Hotel’s first 10 years
IN SPITE of my flaky memory, I can categorically state that no woman in Liverpool has said to me, “Sorry, I can’t meet you tomorrow evening – I’m playing polo.”
However, I was brought up in Runcorn. But then Helen Ainscough par- ries my feeble excuse, too, by saying: “I come from Wigan.”
Touché. Although, more accurately, she spent her childhood on a beef cattle farm at Parbold, run by her forebears for 200 years, and is part of an old Lancashire Catholic family.
She also really does have six polo ponies, kept at Peover Park, Cheshire.
Bringing matters right up to date, Helen is about to celebrate the tenth anniversary of opening Liverpool’s first boutique hotel, the elegant Racquet Club Hotel, in Chapel Street.
This fine mini-hotel, converted from one of the city’s former gentlemen’s clubs, is one manifestation of the successful working partnership with her brother Martin, an ex-stockbroker and brewery and leisure analyst.
With its processional staircase and high-ceilinged public rooms, this is the perfect pad for the Ainscoughs’ eccentric chic style of antique and modern.
Scattered around are contemporary paintings by Liverpool artists such as Adrian Henri, Don McKinlay, Sam Walsh and Martin Greenland – plus many stuffed animal heads.
“My brother’s an auction freak. I asked him to get a sofa for wedding pictures and he bought a moose head instead,” she said.
Luckily, this is too high on the wall for any over-excitable Liverpool brides to straddle for the ultimate money shot.
Above the staircase is the head of a hungal, a rare Asiatic stag. Helen admitted: “They’re not to everyone’s taste and one woman guest branded them ‘disgusting’ and walked out.”
The former Racquet Club members wanted to sell the building but perpetuate their facilities. The deal was to retain the gym, squash courts and club atmosphere, which must be a plus among the rather bland chain hotels.
“We didn’t know anything about the club, but a solicitor friend asked if we were interested in buying. The property was quite bare when we bought it. It seemed like a good move as it was such a cracking building.”
Having worked in London, Martin wanted to return to the North west and their first venture in Liverpool was 20 years ago with the No 7 Cafe & Gallery, Falkner Street (now The Quarter), sold to fund the hotel.
Their Ziba Restaurant, in Berry Street, was incorporated into the eight double-bedroom hotel. Because of its former club role, the building can also accommodate more than 200 people for meetings or weddings.
“They’ve been our saviour in the recession,” said Helen, “they’re such a success due to our manager, Sue ‘the legend’ Clement-Evans.
“She’s been here since the start and is the wedding queen of Liverpool. I’m more the Sybil Fawlty of Liverpool and thankfully we have a wonderful staff.”
Mention must be made of Helen’s four-year-old daughter, Molly, who accompanies her mother on the hotel tour for potential wedding clients.
“The other day I noticed she was mimicking my gestures and can repeat some of the spiel, which causes some amusement, so I suppose she’s becoming one of the team,” said Helen.
Sounds like another zany, high- octane chip off the Ainscough block is evolving into the next chatelaine. Another unusual staff member on hand for guest schmoozing is Frank the mongrel terrier, a rescue dog nicknamed “the head of security”.
Helen said: “He always knows which chef will give him a sausage.”
The Ainscoughs now own and run 10 properties, including five of the region’s best gastro-pubs. To make the figures work, they have juggled around properties, having previously owned well-known city watering holes such as The Brewery and the Belvedere.
“Martin is the brains and I’m the hamster,” she said, presumably referring to pedalling madly on a metaphorical wheel. Surely she must have a knack for business?
“No. I’m a good grafter. I’ve always been into cooking and began in a pub.”
Not any old pub, though, but one owned by the monks of Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire, where her great uncle Anthony was prior.
On the abbey’s farm, she made yoghurt to avoid the EU milk quotas which were killing the dairy industry.
“I went to food trade fairs with the monks – Benedictines are always funny and very quirky. They’d grab cakes from neighbouring stands saying they needed to bless them,” she said.
After taking a degree at the Royal Agricultural College, in Cirencester, Gloucestershire (a fellow student was Edward Stanley, now Lord Derby), she trained as an “atrocious” surveyor.
“Luckily, I never did any surveying but worked as a weigher-in at Wigan Cattle Market. Dad wouldn’t have me on the farm in case I wrecked it.
“Luckily, my dad’s cousin was a caterer doing directors’ lunches and, having cooked at the Ampleforth pub, I thought I could do it myself.”
More recently, she has cooked for Samuel L Jackson when he was filming the 51st State in Liverpool. Another “lovely” celeb she catered for was actor Charles Dance.
“Lovejoy (actor Ian McShane) was so gorgeous I couldn’t serve him,” she giggled, going gooey at the memory.
“We came to Liverpool as it was cheaper than Manchester 20 years ago. You could get Falkner Street shops for about £10,000 and lots were starting to happen with the opening of LIPA and all the students. It would have been daft not to have a crack at it.”
Another Liverpool link to the Ainscough accommodation empire is the Lake District country house hotel Miller Howe, a trail-blazing foodies’ paradise opened by chef John Tovey.
This big villa, overlooking Lake Windermere, was built in 1916 for the Liverpool shipping magnate, Thomas Harrison.
Until a few years ago, Harrison Line had its HQ in Mersey Chambers, practically next door to where the Racquet Hotel is now.
Martin Ainscough is lovingly restoring Miller Howe’s Arts & Crafts style.
“It was much more of a pink palace in John Tovey’s time and we’ve had to execute about 30 decorative cherubs to get it back to what it was,” said Helen.
While it tends to appeal to an older, wealthier market, it has a share of glamour. For example, the former Oasis band star Noel Gallagher literally dropped in.
“He arrived by helicopter on the lawn one afternoon and sat in the conservatory strumming his guitar,” recalled Helen.
“No doubt our more venerable guests were thinking, ‘What a scruffy, appalling-looking individual’!”
So, in the depths of economic double dips and up against the big boys, what keeps independent hoteliers going?
“The good bit is dealing with the great British public, who are hysterical. You see every type and attitude.
“You get well-off looking types who want discounts on everything and, in contrast, I had another quite rough- sounding guy who told me, ‘Give my girl whatever she wants’!
“Once, at 6.30am, I came into the office and heard the Jacuzzi in the gym below bubbling away, and I found Felix the Housecat DJ with five women – all naked – drinking Champagne.
“I said, ‘For God’s sake, get to bed. You make me feel like my mother’!”