A hotel with a difference is drawing holidaymakers to the seaside in Essex. Natalie Valios visited the Grosvenor Hotel at Westcliff, which specialises in breaks for older people and their carers
It is hard to miss the minibus picking me up outside Westcliff station as it has Grosvenor Hotel emblazoned all over it. I’ve come to Essex to visit a hotel with a difference – it caters specifically for older people, as well as people with disabilities and their families or carers.
A two-minute drive later and we are at the hotel, a rambling old house, a few steps from the seafront. It is sandwiched between the two faces of Essex. As you look out to sea, to the right is the old fishing village of Leigh, full of character and cockle sheds; to the left is a rather more traditional picture of the English seaside – Southend, with its shops selling sticks of rock, the Adventure Island funfair and amusement arcades. Whichever way you go, the beauty of Westcliff is that it is flat, so guests can walk or be wheeled as far as they like along the seafront.
Owner Pat Henstock greets me with a cheery “Alright, mate”. By the end of the day, it is difficult to imagine Pat as anything other than cheerful. A tour of the hotel starts in the garden. Two female guests doze in the summer heat below the canopy of the garden’s swing seat; water features make a soothing sound, wind chimes tinkle, there’s a small pond, decking with tables and chairs and an aviary with owls, all with a backdrop of yellow, red, pink and orange roses. It is an oasis of calm.
Hand grips are fixed to the outside walls to help guests through the door. There are handrails along all the walls and in all toilets; wheelchairs, walking frames and an electric scooter are available; there is a ramp to the reception desk which, like any other hotel, displays tourist leaflets on local attractions; all en suite bathrooms have a shower with a seat; there is a wet room downstairs so that disabled guests can take their wheelchair into the shower. And hotel manageress Anna Decosimo, a former carer, lives at the hotel to provide 24-hour care. There are also four care assistants.
When guests arrive in their rooms they find complimentary slippers, toiletries, yellow mugs and umbrellas, today doubling as parasols. There are eight ground-floor bedrooms and a lift and stair lift to the first-floor rooms.
Before Pat bought the hotel in 2003 it was owned by the Aston Mansfield charity, which ran holidays for older people from London – picking up on the tradition of east enders taking day trips or breaks in Essex.
Today, 90 per cent of business is bookings from older people. The hotel is open all year but, out of season, as business dips, it runs as a mainstream hotel. Pat’s aim is to have it running as a specialist hotel for the whole year.
Guests who need carers often bring them too, something Pat is keen to encourage. “It means the carers can have ‘me time’ and go off together without feeling guilty because my staff are here to look after the people they care for.”
Pat is all too aware that it is important for carers to have time to themselves and support from others. His mother moved in with him when she had Alzheimer’s and was blind, and he cared for her for 12 years. This understanding has led him to branch out further. He has found that some residents in other care homes have not been out for years. “Many places don’t have the capacity to take lots of wheelchairs,” he says. “We can get 40 people with wheelchairs in our dining room, so we have been doing day trips for them to the hotel. A coach drops them off and we charge them £7 for fish and chips, fruit and ice cream, and take them to the sea front. They are here for about seven hours. And they can stay overnight if it is too much for them to do it in a day.”
Southend Carers’ Forum has recently started using the Grosvenor as a meeting place. And Pat is opening his doors further by inviting individual carers, members of regional carers’ forums, care workers and anyone involved in care to form a seaside carers’ network.
While we’ve been talking, Dave the minibus driver, and the hotel’s handyman, returns from taking some of the guests to the shops. The minibus runs to Southend three times a week, but if guests want to go on other days, or anywhere else for that matter, Dave or Pat will take them. Organised trips include a butterfly farm; Sealife Adventure; and Cliffs Pavilion Theatre, where guests saw Elvis the Musical recently. Southend Pier, the longest in the world and which handily has a railway along its entire length, is also on the itinerary. There is far more to this part of Essex than white stilettos and slot machines.
Evening entertainment includes belly dancers, Terry the Singing Postman, karaoke and bingo. All this comes for £325 full board for a week. Guests pay for themselves, although recently one social services department paid 90 per cent of the costs for a disabled older man and his wife, who was his carer.
“I would love for local authorities to say we want 30 people to come to your hotel for a week because I don’t like taking money off old people,” says Pat.
And often he doesn’t. Guests who cannot travel to the hotel under their own steam are picked up and taken home by the minibus for free if they live within a two-hour drive. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea and biscuits at 11am and 3pm are included in the price, but guests can ask for something else to eat at any time free of charge. There are fruit bowls dotted around and the hotel bar, which opens until everyone has gone to bed, provides free drinks each night. Guests can do as many trips as they want, organised or spur of the moment, at no extra cost. Nothing is regimented about the place which exudes an easygoing atmosphere.
On top of this, moved by the work of the Chernobyl Children’s Project UK, which provides recuperative holidays for the children of Belarus, Pat invited 15 children to the hotel free of charge last year. He repeated the offer this year for seven children and their mothers.
“We aren’t making any money – my other businesses support this,” says Pat. As well as some property that he rents out, he has another hotel, although he is about to sell two-thirds and plough the proceeds into the Grosvenor.
There is no age limit for guests and there were three centenarians on the guest list on my visit. A measure of its popularity is that one guest lives just a mile away on her own but likes to come for a holiday and the company.
Before I leave, I take a stroll along the seafront with Pat and two guests Phyllis Day and Flo Willingale, who have been friends since meeting at an older people’s club 14 years ago. They live independently and have been staying at the hotel together twice a year for several years.
“There used to be six of us who came but we have lost them and it’s just down to two,” says Flo. “The rooms and meals are perfect.”
And with that, they turn to Pat to work out which week they can book for a return visit next month.
For more information, call Pat on 01702 345365
Elizabeth Blackman was picked up by the minibus from her residential home in Walthamstow, east London. It was her first time at the hotel.
She says: “I liked the idea of coming here because it’s near home. Friends at the home thought I was brave to come on my own. I think they might be jealous when I get back and tell them about it. You couldn’t wish for better care. If there’s something you want they get it; they would do anything for you. I would definitely come back.”
Leonora Hellyer (Nora to friends) was there with her sister, Yvonne Webb. Nora lives in sheltered housing in Woodford Green, close to the Essex-London border. Yvonne lives in a flat nearby at Woodford Bridge.
Nora says: “I’m glad to be away from home. It’s a change of scenery and you don’t have to cook. Oh, yes, I’d come back.”
Yvonne says: “You do just as you like here. We’ve been sitting in the garden and reading and we have a walk each day to the seafront and along.
“I’ve always liked Westcliff. We used to come here a lot with the family when I was young. Coming here keeps your independence and they never complain about anything you ask for. They will do it if it’s possible. You feel very safe in the care of the staff.”
Southend Carers Forum
Chernobyl Children’s Project UK