Just north of Bristol, in the provincial town of Thornbury, is the Thornbury Castle that has in its 500-year-old history hosted many well known guests – from Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell in the 14th century to Lakshmi Mittal and Barbra Streisand in the present times. The most famous is of course King Henry VIII who twice visited the castle, and even today five centuries later the property continues to draw guests who are fascinated by the fact that he had stayed in the castle. Currently owned by Luxury Family Hotels, Thornbury Castle is the only Tudor castle in England that is a hotel.
Thornbury Castle has positioned itself as a MICE venue of distinction. “We are such an individual and unique property. Our clientele are companies that are looking for aspirational venues. We hold lot of high level meetings of major companies, who come here to plan their marketing strategies, sales and budget strategies, mergers and acquisition deals. They want to go somewhere which takes them out of corporate hotel space and puts them into an inspirational and aspirational property. This reflects on their conversation, their ideas,” says Faye Kelly, general manager, Thornbury Castle. The client organisation can use all of the grounds and assets of the castle. “We want people to feel very relaxed in this environment. Our property is different from the normal hotel environment, like your home and we cater to every need. During weekends we do lot of weddings and family events, but mid week it is all about the high-end MICE business and that's what we do well. We work with some agents and unique venue finders,” adds Kelly.
With close proximity to Bath and Bristol, London is only two hours drive from the castle, which attracts a lot of international business. Equally important is however local business enterprises, who want to entertain their clients at this historical property. “We are open to all markets. About 50 per cent of our business comes from those who are within two hours drive time, but equally 50 per cent would be American, Australian, Canadian, Asian, French and German operators and Middle East families as well. You can have a shopping experience in London and stay in this very prestigious historical castle,” states Kelly.
The property has hosted many guests from India, who have mostly been leisure travellers. “Indian clientele are generally wealthy people, they like nice things, they understand what they want and enjoy high-end hospitality. We had an Indian family last Christmas who had seven rooms, all paying in excess of GBP 3000 per room. On Christmas night they actually ended up cooking for us and made such amazing curries. We had great fun,” mentions Kelly, adding that, they are working at the moment with American agents, German agents, leisure agents, but have not interacted with Indian market. “But we know that it is such a huge market, who travel internationally frequently,” she avers.
The historical provenance is the greatest USP of Thornbury Castle, which is often taken by corporates for exclusive use. “Some of the venues and heritage properties do not have so many venues and big meeting rooms that we have. They are perhaps too small to do meetings or too big to take exclusively. Our castle sits in a real great position - there meeting spaces for 60 odd people with beautiful dining spaces. Our proximity to Bath, Bristol and London is a great advantage. Although we are very rural from the location point of view it is very easy and accessible,” states Kelly. The castle is just seven minutes drive from major motorway network in a small provincial town with a beautiful church and surroundings. It also has a helipad.
The management of the castle has a good relationship training companies due to the focus on MICE and incentives market. They can organise bogey racing in fields, archery, clay pigeon shooting, and other activities. “We bring in a different company and they design these experiential training programmes as per the requirement of the client organisation. We tie up with experts and professionals who provide these services. We have had the castle lit up and branded across for certain companies who had exclusively booked it for three nights,” informs Kelly.
The Tudor Hall and Baron's Sitting Room are the main conference venues. The property has 26 rooms, the decor takes one back to another era of royal luxury with four poster beds, the ornate fire places, tapestries. The castle also boasts of the largest four poster bed in the country, in its Tower Suite. One of the highlights of the property is its F&B. The Tower Restaurant and Oriel Restaurant are the main dining rooms. The castle is also a unique location for the celebrated British afternoon tea.
A slice of history
Thornbury Castle was built by Edward Stafford, the third Duke of Buckingham who was the most premier duke of England in his time - he was the second wealthiest man in the country after King Henry VIII. It is a Grade 1 Star building. According to local amateur historian Valerie Quinn, it was a big manor house, but the duke wanted to build a palace within the castle. So he applied to Henry VIII in 1510. The license was granted and the work was started. There were 600 masons to start with. Most of the doorways and fireplaces are original, but the castle did fall into disrepair and in ruins. So there are no original doors and the original glass was taken. The Stafford knot is the main emblem of the Stafford family and it can be found at many places. “A single wing was rebuilt in 1824 to 1830. It was a fortified castle. One side of the castle is the church. The restoration is redone with the same material with which it was built. The chimneys are the finest examples of Tudor chimneys in the world,” she informs.
King Henry VIII visited the castle the first time in 1535 with Anne Boleyn. He stayed here for 10 days hunting, playing tennis and jousting. The second time he came here in 1541. “Every summer the king left London and travelled to different parts of the country showing themselves to the lords, the aristocracy and the people. There were no photographs so it was important that the king be known and seen. By that time Boleyn was beheaded and the king was married to her cousin Catherine Howard. It is not known whether she came with him during his second visit. People come to the castle from Japan, Russia, Indonesia. All these people come here because he stayed here,” adds Quinn.