Ruins of the Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter.

Four years on: Exeter looks to the future as the Royal Clarence is sold

Ben Fox
Ben Fox
Ruins of the Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter.

Exeter’s most famous hotel, the Royal Clarence, has been sold by its owner, Andrew Brownsword, four years on from the fire that gutted the historic Devon site.

The new owners are South West Lifestyle Brands Limited, a company indirectly owned by former Plymouth Argyle chairman James Brent and his wife.

As it stands, the site is due to continue serving the city in the form of a hotel, as the site is sold with planning permission for one with 74-bedrooms.

The Grade-II listed, 53-bedroom Royal Clarence Hotel, described as England’s oldest hotel, was severely damaged by a fire in October 2016.

The fire originated in No.18, the Gallery on Cathedral Yard and spread within the first half an hour to the roof apex of the front left section of the Royal Clarence Hotel and within the first hour internally, predominantly to rooms 401 and 402 on the third floor. The gallery was being converted into luxury flats.

The Royal Clarence four years ago just after the fire had been extinguished

The fire was later fuelled by a ruptured gas main, leading to the collapse of part of the frontage of the building.

The interior of the Grade-II listed building where the fire started, 18 Cathedral Yard, was also destroyed, and the two listed buildings between were damaged, but firefighters prevented the fire spreading to other historic buildings.

Over a hundred firefighters attended the incident and it was necessary to draw water from the River Exe to fight the fire.

Andrew Brownsword hotels had originally hoped to rebuild and reopen the property in 2018, but the project became unviable after the restoration work took longer than planned.

At the time of putting it up for sale, Mr Brownsword said: “We are deeply saddened to announce the intended sale of the site of The Royal Clarence Hotel, but after many months of work and following extensive investment made, we have explored every avenue and have come to the conclusion that our group is unable to deliver a new hotel, as we had so hoped to do.

‘We stand with the people of Exeter that this is such an important area of the city and so have made the very difficult decision that it is now time to seek new owners for the site, in order that the rebuild can progress.”

He added: “The extensive recovery and preparation work that has been completed at the site means it now offers an excellent opportunity for the next stage of development and I have had to concede that this will be realised by others.

‘It was always my vision to deliver a new hotel at the level of luxury and quality as others within our group, however, the financial and resource investment made in the demolition, historic restoration and enabling works has been significant and this has meant that it is regretfully unviable for us to develop the level of hotel that we had envisaged.

Ruins of the Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter.

This has been a heart-breaking decision for us to take, but, alongside the residents of Exeter, we want to see this corner of Cathedral Yard restored to its former glory.

‘We believe that selling the site now to a group that operates to a different business model to ours, will enable them to start building, unencumbered by all of the challenges and costs already overcome by us, and is the only way we can conclude to make the rebuild happen quickly and viably.

‘We thank all the people of Exeter for the patience and support that we have been shown since the night of the fire.”

A year on from announcing the intention to sell, the site has now finally sold to South West Lifestyle Brands Ltd.

Upon completing the sale Andrew Brownsword said: “We would like to thank the people of the city of Exeter who have shown us such support and patience since the fateful night of the fire.

‘While we are deeply saddened that we were unable to return the hotel to the city that we love, we are satisfied that we have found a good owner for the site, who will restore this corner of Cathedral Yard to its former glory.

‘We offer James and his team every good wish as they set to work.”

James Brent said: “We are delighted to have acquired this important site in such a stunning location. We look forward to working with the City, the Cathedral and other partners to replace the historic building.”

Ruins of the Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter.

Peter Wadham, chairman of Exeter Civic Society, added: “I welcome news that the hotel has a new owner and look forward to reviewing new proposals through a public consultation before any planning application is submitted.

‘It is important that the facade of the hotel is reinstated as it was, and my preference is for it to operate again as a hotel with public meeting spaces, but if this is not possible it is important that the ground-floor spaces are redeveloped as retail or commercial spaces to provide active frontages to the street.”

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