As seen on TV: The Norfolk guest house with a spa...in a bank vault!
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
The Old Post Office – known as TOPO for short - in Harleston welcomed its first guests last summer after owner, business consultant Claire Myers-Lamptey, spent three years restoring the Georgian building and returning it to its former glory.
And architect George Clarke has been following her journey for a forthcoming episode of his Channel 4 show, George Clarke’s Remarkable Renovations.
Here she tells us about it.
Why did you fall in love with the building and when did you buy it?
I was looking for a Georgian house in a market town within two hours of London.
The building was derelict when I first visited, unloved and looking quite austere. I fell in love with the vision of what if could become and imaging how the space could be transformed.
I love the symmetric proportions of Georgian buildings, the very high ceilings and big imposing sash windows.
This is my first project and so when George Clarke’s Remarkable Renovations initially wanted to chart the journey from start to finish, I was apprehensive in case it was a big failure!
The main challenge with historic buildings is the cost of sympathetic restoration, there is essentially no budget and on a large scale you could go on and on, that's the scary part.
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The experience is made a lot easier with a good team of highly skilled contractors.
How did you come up with the concept of creating a luxury guest house and hammam spa?
Initially I was looking for a holiday home, but the idea of a guest house evolved during lockdown.
The property is 5,000 sq ft, with what was then a high proportion of interconnecting rooms and dead space corridors.
I wanted to create different experiences in each room to create continued surprise and interest, but at the same time with a natural flow.
A luxurious feel was important as this building was originally a grand bank. Built in 1790, first as Gurney's Bank, it became the post office when Gurney's Bank merged to form Barclays Bank in 1896.
The interiors chronicle period design changes from the building's origin in the late 18th century to present.
I was determined for the property to feel inviting, comfortable and with modern additions such as USB switches, touch screen bathroom mirrors and power showers.
Hammams originate from the Middle East, similar to saunas, except the cavity is tiled, not made of wood and the spa treatment is with steam as opposed to dry heat.
This hammam was created out of the former bank vault, still with the original exposed brickwork with reinforced iron. Traditional Hammam designs are based on an arched ceiling, perfectly adaptable to what is an arched vault.
Just like our Lebanese meze menu and belly dancing, held on our themed Arabian Nights, the hammam also celebrates my Middle Eastern heritage.
How did you reflect the building's history in the design?
It was first a preservation and restoration project to save what was a building at great risk of ruin and involved reinstating features that had been stripped out over the years.
Once this was achieved, it was simply about having fun and a bit like playing with a doll's house.
I have an original Gurney's Harleston bank cheque which was kindly gifted to me by Paul Allum, new owner of The Exchange which sells an array of antique and vintage goods in The Corn Exchange and where I recently opened a shop unit selling vintage crockery.
It ties in nicely with my Great British Tea Party blog on Facebook. I write about everything afternoon tea and British culture, so undoubtedly we are known for our fabulous afternoon teas!
I'd like to think I am adding to the history of the building, and that stories will be recounted in years to come of local inhabitants with royal roots, both past and present.
Most recently my son was a Royal Chorister at St George's Chapel. Windsor Castle and sang at royal occasions including the weddings of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry and Princess Eugenie. We have even had royals spend the night here.
My great, great grandfather was an African king, within the British colonial Gold Coast. He was a friend of Queen Victoria and their letters are in the British Museum. There are books already written, but one day I'd like to continue my own research.
In addition to the interesting collectible items that visitors can see on the tour I give on arrival, including Post Office memorabilia, I also, to the shock of guests, have a collection of slave death certificates.
It is a fact that in 1790, the bank would have been involved in the slave trade. However, there is a more amiable link - Elizabeth Fry, a Victorian who fought against slavery, was, in fact, a Gurney.
Have you got a favourite room in the building and what do you like about it?
There are too many favourites from which to choose...
The Drawing Room chandelier is from The Savoy in London, so I nickname it 'Savoy on a Shoestring.’ Its formal look with black ebony baby grand piano is in contrast to the quirky lounge, filled mostly with contemporary Timothy Oulton furniture and modern prints.
The Shakespeare Room is full of antiques with original French 1760 beds, gilded in brass with ornate carriages and cherub figures and dramatic drapery.
I loved working with the very talented Julie Handforth-Doidge from JHD Interiors to create the drapery and upholstery in the house.
The Gurney Room has a large, beautiful marble fireplace with a stand-alone cast iron bath in the middle of the room and a stunning gold leather and chrome modern four poster bed.
With hints of the Middle East, it has dramatic low pendant copper and silver lighting, with rich fabrics in gold hues, fittingly in what would have been the bank manager's office. The en-suite WC also houses the original safe door of the hammam.
But without doubt, there is no other room in the world like The Waveney Room, with its king size quadruple bunks with real house staircase and double en-suite. It can sleep up to eight people in comfort and style.
Tell us about the food you have on the menu...
Our Supper Clubs are becoming increasingly popular, offering Lebanese meze and locally-sourced seasonal menus.
Chef Julian Cardoza trained at The Savoy and at Raymond Blanc's King's Head in Teddington.
Chef Alex Cooper trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and has a 15 years’ experience of fine dining, working at double AA Rosette wining Rufflets in St Andrews, Scotland and the multiple Michelin-starred Sketch, before setting up a restaurant in a London tube carriage.
And chef Julia Martin has an unrivalled palette when it comes to the delicate flavours of Middle Eastern cooking and also specialises in vegan and gluten free menus.
Our delicious cakes and patisserie for afternoon tea are baked by local chef, Stephen McNair of Oh Crumbs, who also dabbles when he has time in our Supper Club.
We have a great team and love what we do, creating total experiences with music from talented pianist Will Ferguson, cabaret by Jane Hoggan and belly dancing by Kay from Dance Egyptian, all with TOPO as the main stage.
Guests also love our bespoke chauffeured wine tours, which are now open to non-residents, visiting Chet Valley, Flint, Wyken Vineyards and Winbirri Vineyards. Norfolk is the new Napa!
And also tell us what's on the treatment menu at the spa...
Most people come for the unique hammam four therapy experience, which includes chromatherapy (colour therapy), aromatherapy and music therapy. It ends with an amazing rhassoul clay ritual which is used to create a full body mask, completed with black soap (crushed coconut kernels with shea butter), Moroccan argan oil and rose water enriched with real gold.
We have the most indulgent list of massage therapies including Himalayan salt massage, Balinese, Hawaiian LomiLomi, Ayurvedic and traditional hot stone, reflexology, Swedish and deep tissue. We also offer our signature Moroccan Natural facials, luxury manicure/pedicure and waxing.
What is there to do in Harleston?
We have no TVs here, which guests don’t notice at first because there is so much to do and see!
Our day spa can last for up to four hours. And Harleston is a wonderful place to spend the day, with lots of wonderful independent shops and numerous places to eat.
We have Mrs Clarke’s General Store, which has its own locally-made chalk paint line, Howie and Bo.
There’s a most fabulous lingerie shop, Close Essentials where ladies can get measured by Carol Harris, who has been fitting bras for nearly 30 years.
And we have vegan cafe/deli, the Hungry Cat, which has its own published cookbook.
The town hosts several festivals. The Fuller brothers, residents of Harleston, made the first trip to the New World and last year the maiden Mayflower voyage to America was re-enacted with a specially-written play performed by Harleston Players, marking its 400th anniversary.
And there is still a Wednesday market, which dates back to 1259.
To find out more visit toponorfolk.co.uk or follow on Instagram @toponorfolk