The Yarrow looks unremarkable. OK, the building is Grade II-listed and has an interesting history: it was built in 1894 as a convalescent home for children, by shipbuilder Sir Alfred Yarrow, who declared Broadstairs the healthiest place in Britain. But heritage buildings are turned into hotels every five minutes; we don’t seem to know what else to do with them. On the inside, too, it ticks the boutique boxes without much wow factor.
But appearances can be deceiving. This hotel is the only one in the country owned by a further education college and run by its students. What a brilliant idea by East Kent College! Why farm out students for work experience when they can graft right on campus, and bring in a few quid? After years of cuts, cash-strapped colleges need all the help they can get (though the government’s Skills Funding Agency did chip in for the £11m refurb).
As well as a hotel, the Yarrow is a restaurant, salon and spa, so catering, hair and beauty students can learn on the job, too. About 70 students work here each year, first on unpaid work experience and then as paid apprentices. Some will go on to full-time jobs at the hotel. A handful of former students are already working in the kitchen and front-of-house, overseen by fully trained staff. Executive chef Ben Williams, for example, used to work at two-Michelin-starred The Square in London.
At check-in, we didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. At dinner, though, it was obvious who was a pro and who wasn’t. Waiting staff were flustered and overattentive. We were asked more than once for our drinks order, and repeatedly whether our food was OK. When a young waiter arrived with some “pre-starters” and I asked what they were, he turned bright red, blurted “I don’t know” and practically ran away. They were clearly nervous and doing their best – far nicer than being ignored by complacent or too-cool-for-school staff.
The food was good, occasionally verging on great. Those pre-starters were a nice touch (cheese beignets, mushroom crostini and a gorgeous vichyssoise, for the benefit of my waiter). The main-course Kentish lamb was very pink, with deep green broad beans and bright green pea puree, and the beef fillet came with fancy-sounding oxtail croustillant. These turned out to be meat-stuffed mini yorkies – delicious. The dessert was even better, an eggy sponge with plump, boozy cherries, a lemon curd-filled sugar cigar and vanilla ice-cream. We paired it with a glass of Chapel Down Nectar, a lovely light, sweet wine from Kent – the wine list is strong on local vineyards, and the food menu changes every few weeks.
Even after a huge meal, the climb up to our room was surprisingly easy: the oak staircase is the original, with small steps for little feet. This was an added bonus as my friend was recovering from open-heart surgery – a place where children, and later soldiers, had convalesced seemed a fitting place for his first outing. (Coincidentally, he is also an FE lecturer, and quizzed the poor students endlessly.)
Our room, one of five suites (there are also 23 double/twin rooms) was quite plain, but high ceilings and windows, and a coastal colour scheme of pale blue, white and cream, gave it an airy feel. A cast-iron fireplace and a half-staircase up to the bathroom, which had a rolltop bath and separate shower, were nice features. Some rooms have sea views.
In the morning, I tried out the spa, which has treatments by junior therapists (massage from £12, manicure from £6). My masseuse was a former beauty student, now working full-time at the hotel; another success for the scheme. Breakfast meant the same overzealous table service and some truly terrible coffee, but again we gave them full marks for effort.
The hotel hasn’t entirely shaken off its institutional feel. Plus points are the wide hallways (to give the children room to play on rainy days), the cavernous lobby with honeycomb tiles and chandelier, and the fat houndstooth-check carpets. They could do better with the plasticky bar and matchy-matchy furniture – perhaps they should draft in some art students to breathe a bit of life. But it seems harsh to nitpick when the concept is first class. Let’s hope other colleges learn a lesson from East Kent.
• Accommodation, dinner and spa treatments were provided by The Yarrow (doubles from £80 B&B, 01843 460 100, yarrowhotel.co.uk. Travel was provided by Southeastern, southeasternrailway.co.uk
Ask a local
Corinna and Simon Ward, owners of the Palace Cinema
Have a leisurely lunch at Wyatt & Jones, which serves elegant British classics in gorgeous surroundings. Aqua 43 does the best fish and chips.
We love a morning stroll on Stone Bay. At low tide, we follow the coast along beautiful beaches and chalk cliffs all the way to Margate.
Live music is huge in Broadstairs. We like gigs at the Chapel, converted from a bookshop with the books still on the shelves.
For gifts, Arrowsmiths is great, and Fruits De Mer is a fishmonger selling fresh hauls from local boats.