Liz Cottingham "mortgaged her soul" to buy a 400-year-old converted mill house hotel in the New Forest, but never imagined that one of her best attractions would be an orphaned duck called Crispie. Andy Morton reports
Need to know
When Liz Cottingham ran away from home at the age of 17, she didn't join the circus, she went into the hospitality industry.
"I went from Nottingham to work as a chambermaid at the Palace Court hotel in Bournemouth," she says. "And then I got hooked into the catering way of life. My father said I'd be back within a fortnight, but that was 38 years ago now."
After a management training course at Bournemouth's Royal Bath hotel and seven years as manager of Langtry Manor, also in Bournemouth, Cottingham fell into the pub trade.
She and her business partner took on two pubs in Dorset but when she met her carpenter husband in 1987, they decided to combine their skills and took over a wooden beach café on a sandspit near Christchurch along the south coast.
"We thought it would be quiet but in the summer season we were doing 120 breakfasts and 400 lunches a day," she says. "We lasted four seasons and then we decided to get out. We were exhausted."
Cottingham found refuge back in the pub trade, this time in the New Forest where the couple first bought the leasehold of the Hare and Hound and later the Fisherman's Rest.
Then, in 2000, Cottingham decided to retire from the industry again, this time for keeps. Or so she thought.
"Once you do this job, you can't get out of it," she says.
A rough start
A failed attempt at securing a property in the New Forest - they were gazumped three times - left Cottingham and her husband dispirited but with a lot of ready money from the bank.
So, in 2002, when friends who owned the Mill at Gordleton asked if they would like to buy the 400-year-old converted mill house hotel, Cottingham found she had enough cash to step up the property ladder.
But, just months after taking over, Cottingham's husband left her.
"I was in a bit of a condition and we'd mortgaged our souls to get the place," she says. "I wasn't sure what to do, so I decided to buy him out."
The couple remained good friends, and her relationship with her bank was strong, allowing her to keep control of the business.
"At first, the bank wouldn't extend me any extra funds for improvements, but turnover went up rapidly, so thank goodness we weren't hanging on for dear life," she says. "And it's gone up steadily ever since."
When Cottingham took over, the hotel was not at its best. "It was pretty tired, very old fashioned," she says.
But with extra funds now secured, Cottingham set about refreshing the hotel's look. Now many of the guests are young families with children who enjoy the rambling three-and-a-half-acre gardens.
The main clientele, however, remain a core of over-50s regulars who have been with Cottingham since her pub days.
The hotel has just eight rooms, so much of the focus is on the restaurant, which has an average spend of £25 to £30.
"I much prefer to think of us as a restaurant with rooms," Cottingham says.
Cottingham long believed word-of-mouth was her best promotional tool. But that was five years ago, before Crispie waddled into her life.
Crispie is an orphaned duck rescued from certain death by the hotel's general manager, Teri Seabright.
She is now part of the hotel family and follows Seabright around the hotel like a dog, to the delight of customers.
"People ring up for lunch and ask if Crispie is there," Cottingham says. "If she's not, they sometimes cancel their booking."
The hotel now has a whole range of Crispie merchandise for sale, from Crispie Duck T-shirts to Crispie Duck door stops.
More traditionally, Cottingham relies on guides such as Alistair Sawday's and Les Routiers to bring in customers. She gets a lot of business from Germany and Holland, where country house magazines ran features on the Mill.
Cottingham's advice covers what she believes is the most important part of any hotel - staff.
"I choose the staff on their personality and not their skills," she says. "You can teach someone how to change a light bulb but you can't change their personality."
She also thinks staff retention is key to success. "We've got one man who joined us when he was 19," she says. "He's now the restaurant manager but he also met his girlfriend here. He proposed to her here and now he's having his wedding here."
The hotel's Victorian kitchen garden has its uses - the chefs grow fresh produce - but is not exactly pleasing on the eye, Cottingham says. So this year it will have a complete overhaul. Cottingham has already bought a machine to crush glass bottles down to form pathways and the Victorian greenhouse will get a makeover.
Cottingham intends to make the garden accessible for disabled people. She's formed a partnership with a local school for autistic teenagers, who will spend time working in the garden.
She also wants to bring in a couple of beehives and recently paid some of her staff to take an apiculture course. It's a move that has created a buzz.
"There's a local guy who makes wax handles, and he's excited because he thinks he's going to get all the wax, and the chefs are excited because they're going to get to make their own honey," she says.
Spotlight on private dining room
When Liz Cottingham first bought the Mill she lived in one of the hotel's rooms. It was the one with the worst location, right off the main hallway and Cottingham was often kept awake by a stream of guests walking past the door.
At the same time, people were asking her about private dining facilities. So she decided to turn the room into a conference and dining room.
"I just strongly felt that it was the right thing to do," she says. "And it was."
The room can hold 18 people and is often booked out to doctors, who by law cannot discuss patient details in a public space. The hotel also holds art lectures there, and when Cottingham booked beekeeping lessons, it was the perfect venue for her staff.
She made sure she got a civil wedding licence for the room, and while the hotel is also licensed to hold weddings outdoors, the conference room makes an ideal venue for more intimate services.
Liz Cottingham's revelations
Favourite hotel Chewton Glen, New Forest, Hampshire
Favourite restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
Who do you most admire? Firmdale Hotels owner Kit Kemp
Motto Every now and then, bite off more than you can chew
Describe your hotel in five words Fun, friendly, warm, welcoming, quirky
Favourite UK holiday spot Bath
Facts and stats
General manager Teri Seabright
Head chefs Karl Wiggins & David Baker
Number of rooms 8 (All doubles)
Average occupancy 68%
Rates start from £150