Burning issues, embracing the future


Katie Clarke breezes into the room all smiles and welcoming gestures that immediately make you feel at home.

I’d been warned that both Katie and her husband Alex, owners of the landmark hotel, The George, in Rye High Street, were hostile to media intrusion. Far from it. Despite being manically busy after the re-opening of the George just three weeks prior to our interview, a period Katie describes as “probably the most stressful three weeks of my life”, I was accorded time, patience and a tour of anywhere I asked to go, during an extended visit that made Katie late for a following appointment. So, I apologise here and now, to whoever Katie was meeting after our interview. It was all my fault.

Katie is very much a woman on the go. All the time. So much so, that when coffee was suggested, it arrived in take-away cartons, not the fine china normally accorded guests. The staff know she’ll never sit still long enough to finish a cup!

It’s take-away coffee for Katie Clarke, a woman always on the go, as she explains the devastating effects of the fire in 2019.

I had never visited the George before the apocalyptic fire that swept through the hotel that dreadful night three years ago. Witnesses recall people sobbing in the street as they watched the iconic building in Rye’s historic old town suffering such an ignominious fate.

“We were on holiday with the children,” recalls Katie, when they received a wake-up call to tell them of the fire. “That four-hour drive through the night was literally horrible,” she says, and the memory shows clearly on her face.

“Initially, we were in shock, but believed we could get it back together in six months.” The insurance company disagreed – and was proved correct. It’s taken three years.

“You suddenly find out you’re on your own,” says Katie. “There’s nobody to help you. We project managed the renovation ourselves and called in all our contacts to get the show back on the road. We’ve had a great team and we’ve all done restorations before but everyone involved has been fantastic. It’s been very much a community effort and we’re really proud of all the local trades and tradespeople who have played such an integral part in the restoration process.”

“The staff have been terrific,” she says. “We wanted to keep them all on but as time went on, we had to let some go. Thankfully, most of them are back now.”

Waiting for planning permissions was always going to be the most frustrating problem. The opportunity to make changes was always there after the fire, but internally, with the exception of a tastefully discreet elevator that affords disabled access to bedrooms, the structure of the hotel remains very much the same.

Everything has been repaired with attention to detail and historical accuracy. Not least the exterior colour scheme.

“So much historical reference has been made to getting the colour correct,” stressed Katie. “We took guidance from the Rother District Council conservation officer who encouraged the use of four different shades and an historic paint specialist. Finding an historic paint specialist in the midst of a pandemic is not easy, I can assure you!”

Having unearthed and commissioned said specialist, 18 layers of previous colour schemes were peeled from the walls, and the exterior colour we see today is the result of this time consuming and detailed study.

“Twenty times a day I hear people say ‘I love the colour’, ” says Katie. But negative social media comments and a less than positive response from some segments of Rye’s community have made the last few weeks the most stressful ever for this former set decorator for movies such as Nanny McPhee.

“There are a few people who seem to want it to fail. We’ve had some incredibly unfair comments on social media and some of the things I’ve heard people say in the street have been very upsetting, but our core guests have all been very supportive.

“The neighbours have all been behind us 100%. Poor Bennetts, the menswear shop, has put up with scaffolding over their premises all this time and not said a word against us.

“I think one of the biggest problems has been managing other people’s expectations.”

Adam Ohman, mixologist in the Dragon bar at The George

So, what of the future? “We have to re-write how we make it work. Staff, food, wine, prices. It’s been more like starting a new business than re-opening an existing one. We’ve lots of plans but everything is reliant on staff. Alex is keen to employ enthusiastic young people looking for a career in hospitality and we want to get everything running perfectly.”

Adam Ohman, the mixologist in the new Dragon bar, named after the hotel’s loyalty card, is just one of those enthusiastic young people that Alex is keen to embrace. While mixing a wicked Margarita, he tells me: “There’s a definite sense of community working here. We’re a family and it’s a place I get every opportunity in to thrive as a character. The hotel has kept its authenticity, its sense of place and history, but it’s better, upgraded!”

As we draw a curtain on the dreadful effects of the fire including the terrible extent of water damage, Katie expresses a degree of satisfaction. “I love the way it looks. We really want to make it a part of the community, it’s a building loved and respected by so many, but we still need more time … And I need a holiday.”

Image Credits: Susan Benn .

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  1. The (New) George is fabulous. It looks great from both the outside and the inside. It’s a huge asset to Rye and I would like to extend my heartiest congratulations to Kate and everyone else involved in its renaissance. Welcome back and don’t go away again.

  2. Very glad to see the George hotel back. As a resident of an outlying village I am relieved to see the High Street restored. I admire the diligence shown during the restoration, to keep other businesses as unaffected as possible.
    I think everyone should be grateful that Kate and Alex didn’t give up and have put a huge amount of work into making their hotel a significant attraction to Rye.

  3. Congratulations to the fire brigade for saving enough to restore, I’m a local and like the colour.
    Good luck for the future.

  4. Katie and Alex deserve a huge thanks from us all for a great restoration. The George is the anchor point for Rye High Street and it is wonderful to have it open again. I find Katie’s comment about the social media to be relly depressing- the destructivenesss of social media has become the sourge of moden life – if only we could put the clock back and become a more appreciative soociety.

    I also almost wrote a piece last week having read the barrage of negative comments about Sally-Ann Hart, who has been brave enough to stand for Parliament to represent the local community and all she gets is a torrent of criticism. Soom we will have no decent peiople left in Parliament if all they get is constant brickbats. How about a bit of support for our elected representatives in whatever capacity?

  5. Nice for Katie to mention Bennets. However, here at The Golden Fleece (next door to Bennets) we have also been very patient with the scaffolding outside the shop, work vans parked in the street all day with no approach from anyone to explain what was happening & when. To apologise for the numerous road closures and the loss of trade due to the scaffolding tunnel & trades parking outside our shop making it dangerous for pedestrians to walk up Lion Street to get to the shop. Unlike Bennets this effected the entrance to our shop & not the side windows.

    It is safe to say “Our expectations have NOT been managed”!

    We have stayed positive throughout and never said a bad word even though there has been damage to the shop frontage, have had to pay for specialised cleaning, had to buy a new interior blind for one of the windows because the scaffolding stopped the awning being used for over 2 years and cope with reduced footfall.

    The staff & I believe Katie and Alex have gone through a very stressful time which we would not wish on anyone, have done a fantastic job restoring The George as it is the heart of Rye and is really needed.

    It would have been nice if they popped their head in occasionally.


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