On a sunny summer day, the full glory of the co-operative movement’s most northern English outpost is revealed in all its splendour. On a wild and windy winter’s day, it still looks magnificent and majestic – because this is the land of the borders along Hadrian’s Wall. A mighty empire had its northernmost boundary here.
The Gilsland Spa Hotel, 18 miles east of Carlisle, nudging the foot of the Northumberland National Park, is one of the co-operative movement’s finest remaining jewels in its crown. It is run as a co-operative society, with a board comprising co-operative activists.
I first visited Gilsland in October 2013, joining a party of co-operative society members who travelled there for that year’s UK Society for Co-operative Studies conference, and became totally transfixed by the place.
There has been a building on this site since the reign of Elizabeth I, with famous visitors including Scottish poet Robert Burns, who travelled to Gilsland during his Border tour of 1787, and, 10 years later, Walter Scott. The opening of the railway line in 1836 further galvanised the village.
Originally called Shaw’s Hotel (from ‘schawe’, meaning a small woodland), the hotel was destroyed and rebuilt in the late 19th century to an Italian design, before being leased to the Gilsland Spa Hotel and Hydro Company of South Shields in 1893. But expensive renovations, including an improved water supply, crippled this company financially, and it failed in 1900.
In 1902 the entire estate – a hall and 140 acres of woods and parkland – was taken over by the Co-operative Wholesale Society (as the major shareholder) and a number of retail co-operatives, to be used as a convalescent home for employees and members who breathed in the pure air 700 feet above sea level and drank the spa waters.
The hotel has served the nation too – during the First World War it was used for the recuperation of wounded soldiers before they were sadly patched up and sent back to ‘the Front’. While it resumed its role as a convalescent home inter-war, in WWII it served as a maternity home for women in the blitzed cities of Tyneside and Teesside who must have so loved the tranquillity and safety of what was at the time known as ‘The Home’.
Since the war, after the closure of the Co-operative Convalescent homes, it has been run as a family hotel and holiday centre. The property was established as the Gilsland Spa Hotel in 1972, but there are plans afoot to rename it Gilsland Hall Hotel as these days people assume a ‘spa hotel’ has a swimming pool and saunas, which Gilsland does not.
What it does have, however, is a magnificent location in the centre of Hadrian’s Wall walking country, pretty much equidistant between coasts with some stunning places of interest and some of northern England’s finest Pennine scenery. Part of the Roman wall runs through the village of Gilsland a mile away and the great remaining forts of Vindolanda and Housesteads are 12 miles east and Birdoswald just a mile and a half away.
I especially liked the Lanercost Priory some five miles away where, according to some legends, Guinevere is rumoured to be buried.
To the west is Carlisle with a cathedral and castle and south west is the Lake District, to the north is Gretna Green and a superb Buddhist Temple at Eskdalemuir and of course even further north is New Lanark. To the east are the delightful market towns of Haltwhistle (and the nearest station, at 8 miles away) and Hexham. Further east are the cities of Newcastle with its Metro Centre and all the bright lights of a major city and Durham, home of the magnificent Norman Cathedral where the Venerable Bede’s bones lie and the relics of St Cuthbert. Definitely one of my top five English Cathedrals.
If you like Hiltons and Marriotts or prefer Ibis and Premier Inns then maybe Gilsland is not for you. It is a walk back in time in some ways to the values of the 50s and 60s with its quirky en-suite bedrooms, grand staircase and imposing ballroom. However, it also has a splendid modern Orangery added in 2010 where weddings and receptions can be held, a ‘pub’ called Galloways which serves meals and has an excellent pool table and there is also free wifi and a souvenir shop. There is even Hadrian’s very own Coffee Shop. The staff are helpful and friendly and the food is simply out of this world.
I can truthfully say this is my favourite hotel in England where I feel totally relaxed, completely at ease and secure in the knowledge that this is an integral part of our co-operative heritage.