Project Reflections : John O’Groats

Posted by on Oct 28, 2020 in We Are GLM

Project Reflections : John O’Groats

This week on our social media channels Aythan Lewes, Director, has reflected on the project at John O’Groats – sharing lessons learned and insights as well as some great photos. The blog below brings all those posts together as one memory of the project. If you were involved in the project or have stayed in the Inn or the Residences then why not share your memories with us too? 

Post 1 (images above)

Back in 2009 John O’ Groats was a sad and sorry place to arrive at after travelling the longest road in the UK – the road from Lands End in Cornwall. Despite a steady stream of visitors, years of decline and neglect had left the existing buildings in a bad way. The layout of the destination made little of the location and did not maximise the guest experience or the return for local businesses. Event the sign post, that most iconic of welcome, was removed at the end of the day, leaving late arriving “end to enders” with a rather bleak reward for their days or even weeks of travel.

Lucky then that a chance meeting of two Manchester based companies, one with a vision and the other with the land, formed a joint venture to deliver a transformation of quite ambitious proportion despite a global recession and economic crash. With them and a broad team including public bodies, international artists, local contractors, suppliers from all over Scotland and the UK, the next two years would see us lead this complete transformation. The story could fill a book, but I’ll try to condense it over the next few blog posts.

Post 2 (images above)

The vision was nothing short of a complete transformation of the entire area around the ‘end of the road’. This meant broadening the accommodation offering, improving the roads and footpaths, sorting out the food, beverage and retail offering. The scheme would in the end deliver 23 self-catering residences, the refurbishment and extension of the Victorian Baronial Hotel, the refurbishment of the café to become the Storehouse, and the refurbishment of the Last House (a traditional cottage) to become the Outfitters – a location to arrange outdoor activities around the local area as well as buy the clothing and equipment needed.

The starting point was the accommodation. GLM fulfilled the role of Architect, Project Manager and Construction Manager. Planning consent for the residences and hotel was gained in 2011 and we set about in earnest pulling together a team to work through the detail. Local timber frame supplier Norscot provided the frames for the residences and the hotel, and Caithness suppliers were central throughout the project.

Post 3 (images above)

As if delivering a multi-million pound development in one of the most remote locations on mainland Britain wasn’t tough enough, we were trying do so amongst the wreckage of the Global Financial Crash. The construction industry was seeing huge shifts in available contractors and attitude towards risk. As we worked through procurement it was clear that the investment available just wouldn’t work alongside what the market needed to cover the risk of such a challenging project. GLM recruited a local construction manager and the subcontracts were let separately. This was challenging in an industry where a main contractor is the norm. Public funding rules had to be worked with and it took a lot of courage and faith from the client bodies.

The construction management route was amazing as we could control who did the work and so keep money in the local economy. We achieved programme efficiencies and ultimately spent less than we would’ve with a main contractor. It was a victory on all fronts, except perhaps the stress levels of the team!

Post 4 (images above)

The Storehouse café and Outfitters activity centre/retail offering were smaller but still significant elements of the project. Both were conversions/alterations of existing buildings. My personal favourite was the Outfitters, as it retained the lovely character of the old crofter cottage, one of the few vernacular buildings on the site. We made few interventions, though the large picture window in the 20th-century extension at the rear affected none of the historic fabric while really making the most of the building’s location.

The return to the local economy and sustainable tourism approach was integral to the approach throughout. The Storehouse stocked local produce and stopped serving at 5pm to encourage tourists to go to local restaurants. The residence welcome packs included lists of local businesses in the area. The Outfitters directed visitors to neighbouring attractions.

We were able to mimic this approach with the furniture and fixtures, using products from ANTA and Harris Tweed in the development.

Post 5 (images below left)

The project started on site in the autumn of 2011 with the hugely challenging target of opening to the public in summer 2012. Moving in phases, the groundworks were completed through the very wet conditions of the winter of 2011/2012. The frames for the residences went up in the spring and then fit-out started. At the same time we worked on the shell of the Hotel, stripping back the 20th-century extensions, clearing out the internals and forming the foundations for the extension. The Olympic torch went through in the June of 2012 and GLM took the whole team up to see the project and enjoy the festivities.

With the residences opening in July 2012 the focus moved to the Hotel, now re-christened as the Inn. The Inn was designed as a flexible apart-hotel to allow low staffing in the quieter months and cater for all sizes of party. This required a unique combination of logic and creativity only found in our own Neil McAllister. The Inn later won several awards, including the RIAS Award for Architecture 2014.

Post 6 (images above right)

The vision from the start was to consider the whole visitor experience at John O’Groats. Once the accommodation and retail was in hand we turned our attention to the wider public realm and infrastructure. We worked with HIE to assist with public art installations, we re-designed and procured a new sign-post, and took services to the events field to improve local events. Working with some of the UK’s best holiday, day visitor attraction and destination companies such as Heritage GB we masterplanned the main visitor area looking at themes of integration, permeability, sustainable-tourism, re-use of existing infrastructure, local materials and vernacular construction, and the role of the local community. The aim was to use the enduring power of the “end of the road” attraction to generate the most benefit for the people who live there.

Having achieved outline planning consent for the redevelopment of the remaining parts, “The Village” development will have to await new investors but for now, we are proud to have played our part in the transformation of one of the UK’s key landmark locations, a world-famous name and a community of unique character and resilience.

The Inn and Residences at John O’Groats are run by Together Travel – head over to their website to book your stay.

If you would like to find out more about this project or how we can help bring your destination to life then do get in touch with Aythan Lewes here