John and Lena give 250 year old building a new lease of life

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FROM head hunting bankers to plumping up pillows for a growing clientele, it’s been quite an 18 months for John Tormay, who runs Kirkbank House B&B in Paxton with his wife Lena.

John is a proud Scot but prior to moving to the Borders, spent 15 years in the hustle and bustle of Singapore.

But with both he and Lena having previous experience in the hospitality industry, and both having stayed in countless hotels, when a move to Scotland was on the cards it didn’t take them too long to decide running a B&B would be their new vocation.

Explaining the motives behind their decision, John said: “I’d been a headhunter for many years but with the finicial collapse everything started going down the toilet.

“I’d been away from Scotland for 25 years in total and both myself and Lena were looking for something new.

“Singapore is an exciting and dynamic place to live and work so coming to a quiet location like the Borders was something of a culture shock.

“It didn’t help matters that we were going from a temperature of 35 degrees to sub-zero over here. We arrived last December so we’’ve so far had the pleasure of two harsh winters!”

But although they got a frosty welcome from the good old British weather, the reception from both customers and critics so far has been anything but.

A five star rating from the Scottish Tourist Board is something that businesses realistically aim for two or three years into their trade, but John and Lena were awarded the accolade within three months of their boutique B&B being up and running.

And John said that despite he and Lena being new to the world of B&Bs, they were quietly confident, that with the time and money they invested in making Kirkbank top drawer accommodation, they would cut the mustard with the board.

He continued: “We spent our first nine months here completely renovating the place. The property is 250 years old and needed pretty much everything doing to it.

“We knew that the five star grade was hard to get but at the same time we were hoping we’d be awarded it.

“We’ve stayed in some fantastic hotels in places like Thailand and Bali that were of an exceptional standard. We wanted to re-create that level of detail at Kirkbank House.

“We’ve made it quite contemporary and a bit spa-like with some Asian influences. I’d like to think it’s a place where guests can totally relax.

“The fact that both Lena and I had worked in hospitality before has been a big advantage. I worked in a Michelin starred restaurant in London for a while and Lena spent time working in a few hotels in New York.”

Like many others in the trade locally, John and Lena have had to adjust to the seasonal variations in business, but John said it was their aim to promote Kirkbank as a place people can come all year round.

“We didn’t realise trade changed so much with the seasons here but the fact that it is has helped us a bit as it’s given us more time to catch up with things that needed doing around the place.

“The harsh weather of the last month or so hasn’t helped matters but we were expecting a quiet time of things anyway.

“After achieving five star status from the Scottish Tourist Board, our next aim is to really get our clientele up and get to the forefront of people’s minds when they are planning a potential visit to the Borders, whether it be for a day, weekend or longer.

“Lena and I have proved to be a great team so far, with her building our website from scratch which has seen a lot of traffic. We’re also getting good business from Trip Advisor and Visit Scotland so our next aim is to be featured on Britain’s Finest and Mr and Mrs Smith, two of the trade’s top sites.”

Wanting to give a modern overhaul to a building that is hundreds of years old, while still making the best of some of its original features, was no easy feat for John and Lena.

But if anything, John said the traditional nature of Kirkbank House complemented the more contemporary twists the couple had in mind for it.

“We knew taking the house into the 21st century would be quite difficult,” he admitted.

““We had to do a lot of re-wiring, plumbing and install a second hot water system.

“It was also quite tricky getting wi-fi for all four bedrooms as some of the walls are three feet thick.

“A lot of hotels charge for wi-fi access but we wanted to give it to our customers for free and the feeddback we’ve had from people so far suggests they are very happy to have this service available to them.

“We’ve also got i-Pod docks and even yoga mats in the rooms and the bathrooms each have a stand alone bath in which guests can have a relaxing soak while gazing out of the window at the scenery. The location offers views for 30 miles.”

If the Kirkbank House guest book is anything to go by, John and Lena are obviously doing something right as they have attracted custom from all around the world, with guests from California, Asia, Scotland, England and Ireland so far.

John added: “Visitors are attracted by the many walks and cycle trails along the Northumberland coast, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty,” said John. “Lindisfarne, Bamburgh and the cliffs of St Abbs are close by but even closer to home are Paxton House and the river bank walks along the Tweed and Whiteadder just beside the house.”

Rooms at Kirkbank House cost from £90 per room per night.  Details are available from  012893 86534 and at www.kirkbankhouse.co.uk.