Andy Murray: Wimbledon champion and now hotel owner
Simon Calder visits the Olympic gold medallist tennis player's new Perthshire retreat to see what it serves up
Yesterday, a country-house hotel in Perthshire reopened after a two-year break in service. Normally that would attract little attention in the hospitality industry. But Cromlix is different. Forty miles from both Glasgow and Edinburgh, this Victorian mansion is close to the geographic centre of mainland Scotland. More importantly, it happens to be owned by a local, and national, hero: Andy Murray, who was brought up in the nearest town, Dunblane.
The Wimbledon champion and Olympic gold medallist bought Cromlix 15 months ago for £1.8m (€2.17m). The house is handsome indeed, with the requisite turrets and castellations for a baronial pile. It was built in 1874 with the finishing touches made by Colonel Arthur Hay-Drummond, who from just before 1900 to 1953 was the Laird of Cromlix.
There is something Harry Potter-esque about the name (and the nearby localities: Dam of Quoiggs, Naggyfauld, Wester Cambushinnie). The most likely origin is the Gaelic crom leac, meaning approximately "curved slab", as in the hillside on which the house perches nobly. A slab of London SW19 has been transplanted 400 miles north to FK15 9JT, in the shape of a tennis court in purple and green – the colours of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
Murray himself is currently transplanted 1,500 miles south-east to Naples, preparing for the weekend's Davis Cup quarter-final against Italy. But his mother, Judy, was on hand to meet the first arrivals for the soft opening last week. "It's been part of the local community for as long as I can remember," she told me. "Everything about it is aspirational – as is Andy Murray."
While the exterior stone is looking agreeably mottled with age, by all accounts the house had slipped way beneath its personal best by the time the hotel closed in 2012. A significant part of Murray's fortune has been invested in restoring it to peak condition – with a twist, because of the new owner's business plan.
The target guests are the mainstays of upmarket Scottish tourism: wealthy American, Brazilian and Japanese travellers. They will get formality in comfortable abundance, courtesy of the interior designer Kathleen Fraser, who also worked on the refurbishment of Bovey Castle in Devon.
The decor and furnishings in the public rooms on the ground floor fill a muted spectrum from ivory to burgundy. The theme continues in the first and second floor bedrooms, which are infused with tradition – and satellite-powered Wi-Fi, as demanded by 21st-century guests who want to escape, but not too far. The suites include bathrooms the size of tennis courts, with claw-foot baths, plus showers designed for doubles. All the sleeping quarters are named after celebrated Scots, from Burns to Connery.
There are surprises, not least on the faces of the deer whose heads and antlers decorate the Snooker Room. One element of the original building survived the 1874 fire, presumably with divine intervention: the chapel, which holds up to 30 guests for weddings; adjacent is a new whisky bar, with appropriate single malts.
The grounds have been lavished with as much care as the interior, with 50 acres of manicured gardens unravelling to the Gate Lodge – now a suite in its own right. And beyond the gates, the surroundings could hardly be more auspicious. The sun in springtime rises over the muscular Ochil Hills; at its zenith it shines upon Ben Clach (a 1,750ft-tall mountain, not a tennis pro); and it sets over the Trossachs.
Bright sunshine, though, is not a permanent feature of the Scottish climate. Murray's celebrity status has already attracted a volley of interest and custom, including mine, and filling the 10 doubles and five suites at the rack rates from £250 (€300) to £595 (€718) should not be too tough during the summer. But on gloomy nights in, say, November or January, full occupancy is always going to be a stretch.
So the bar and restaurant were designed by a separate firm, Ian Smith of Edinburgh, to a different brief. The sky-blue and gold of the bar leads into a restaurant of citrus and pine – plus big picture windows that will allow the long evening light of summer to illuminate the theatrical front-of-house kitchen. It provides a dramatic complement to the conservative decor of the hotel, which was precisely the plan. Albert Roux was brought in to oversee the restaurant, with a brief for innovative cuisine using local ingredients – at a price that will attract locals and people from the big Scottish cities. The three-course set menu is £26.50 (€32) at lunch, £3 (nearly €4) more in the evenings.
"We are proud to support artisan and local producers," is the boast, and certainly breakfast – included in the room rates – reads like a gazetteer of Scotland: Loch Fyne kipper, Dunkeld smoked salmon and Dingwall black pudding.
Running the hotel is the task of Inverlochy Castle Management International, a multinational "consulting and management service" based at a mansion near Fort William. The chairman, Dr Sin Chai, is as enthusiastic as you would expect about Cromlix, saying "The idea is it's a house, not a hotel – you're coming home."
The reopening of Cromlix has created 40 jobs. Some have gone to experienced staff from outside Scotland, others to local recruits.
During a soft opening, with the staff and systems bedding in, you can expect the odd glitch – but the service was excellent to a fault. We found ourselves in the odd position of experiencing Cromlix before the owner. But Andy Murray told me by email that: "I think I've got a long way to go before I start challenging the larger, more established chains, but who knows, I would like to think I'm on the right track."
Stories that combine celebrities and hotels usually concern deeds committed by the former in the latter: from inappropriate liaisons to trashing rooms or, in extreme circumstances, dying. So it is cheering to report on an abandoned hotel being brought back to life by the UK's greatest sporting hero. µ
Simon Calder paid £250 (€350) for a double room, including breakfast, at Cromlix (01786 822 125; cromlix.com). A promotional rate of £199 (€240) (non-refundable) is available for stays on some dates in June, July and August, if you book this month or next. And if you happen to be a fellow pro on the tennis circuit, Andy Murray says he will give you "a reasonable rate".