For over a century, The Headland has been the most iconic of Cornish hotels. With its air of calm and easy-going ambience, you might never guess that our history is one of high drama and sabotage with a cast of extras ranging from Hollywood stars through to British Royalty.
Right from the beginning, the owners of The Headland had lofty ambitions. The aim was to create a Victorian masterpiece which would make every hotelier from Penzance to Portishead green with envy. The project began with opposition and even the odd arson attack from locals…
Not everyone welcomed the idea of a new hotel in the late 19th Century. Local fishermen claimed that the site was common land where they had dried their nets for generations. Heated arguments ensued, workmen were threatened and on one fateful night, an angry mob even trashed the foundation walls and scaffolding before tipping the foreman’s hut into the Atlantic. The so-called Newquay Riots blazed on for some time.
With the locals too intimidated to cross the fishermen, 200 out-of-work Cornish miners were drafted in to complete the project. Fires started, fines and arrests were made, and the developers even used traction engines armed with steam hoses to keep restless natives at bay!
Despite a few setbacks, the job was finished with heady determination. Jaws dropped at the sheer opulence of the new hotel. It was the height of luxury for its time, boasting lavishly decorated rooms, hot and cold running water, electric lights and snazzy service bells throughout.
The Headland received its first guests in June 1900. Whilst the new arrivals loved the luxury and staggering views; the first manager loved helping himself to stock and was dismissed six months later. As tourism grew, it became a busy haven for the great and the good, complete with quarters for their servants. But the owners wanted to go the extra mile…
A stylish Ballroom was soon added to bring further glamour. The new maple dancefloor was supported by 2,500 coil springs; London orchestras were booked and the hotel hosted BBC broadcasts (a far cry from the Radio One Roadshows that would be hosted many years later).
The Second World War interrupted a golden period for tourism, with the hotel serving as an RAF hospital. From time to time former patients and nursing staff still come to see if the hotel is still standing. On occasion there have also been reports that ghostly nurses have been seen around the hotel (but these have yet to be substantiated).
Unfortunately, The Headland began something of a decline from the 1950s onwards. Miserly owners and post-war shortages had caused serious problems which created a cold, creaking hotel. Guest capacity was slashed in half, paint peeled and, tragically, the former jewel suddenly looked about as glamorous as a wet paper bag.
In 1979, John and Carolyn Armstrong bought the hotel and are still the current owners. When they arrived they took on the unenviable task of resurrecting the hotel from the brink. With serious issues to address and a lack of working capital, it was a labour of love that would take many years. From replacing miles of grotty carpet, to overhauling the central heating and even rescuing the saltwater-damaged structure itself, they stopped at nothing to reinvent The Headland as a modern luxury hotel.
Over four decades, improvements and repairs to the tune of £30 million plus have transformed the hotel from a wreck to a multi award-winning hotel, complete with 95 individually designed bedrooms, state-of-the-art gym, luxury spa, five-star holiday cottages, and Rosette-worthy dining. Just as importantly, the architectural beauty of the original hotel has been preserved for future generations, having secured Grade II listed status besides crucial repairs.
A list of former Headland Hotel guests reads rather like the most outrageous dinner party in history. In the early 1900s, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were the first of various royals to stay at the hotel. The current Prince of Wales and Princess Royal have also enjoyed several visits.
Many TV shows and movies have also been filmed here. The most famous of all is the 1987 production of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Angelica Houston starred as the Grand High Witch and, much to the excitement of the staff, we’d receive huge flower bouquets and phone calls from her then boyfriend Jack Nicolson.
Rowan Atkinson played the hotel manager and caused a Mr Bean style calamity when he left the bath taps running in his room (the frantically knocking porter was told “go away, I’m asleep”). The flood wrote off much of the production team’s electrical equipment on the floor below. Every year thousands of guests from around the world visit to see their favourite filmset for themselves, and wide-eyed children still look for the mice.