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Polishing the diamonds

Born into the hospitality trade, John Adamson has spent his lifetime serving others. And he has no intention of stopping soon. Despite his Ramside Estates venture employing more than 750 people and continuing to grow across the region, John remains front and centre, his hands-on approach central to his very being. Here, Colin Young sits down with John to learn more about his business’ history, his plans for future success and why he’ll always be happier working in the sweltering confines of a hog roast van than a spacious boardroom.

Ramside Hall Hotel celebrates its 60th birthday this year.

One of the biggest and most popular independents of its kind in the north of England, the hotel, golf club and spa complex on the outskirts of Durham has a fascinating history.

A religious centre in medieval times, the original Belmont Hall was built on Ramside Grange in 1820 by Thomas Pemberton, whose family opened Monkwearmouth Colliery, the deepest coalmine in the world, last of the Durham pits to close and now known as the site of Sunderland AFC’s Stadium of Light.

The property was purchased from the Pemberton family in 1963 by Dick Coleman and Gordon McIntyre, who were building homes in nearby Belmont, Broomside and Carrville.

But when plans to use the land for further development were refused, they reverted to the old Ramside name and converted the hall into a hotel with ten bedrooms, opening a year later.

Today, there are 127 bedrooms. Additionally, there are two championship-standard golf courses, a farmhouse – which sleeps ten – ten treehouses of different shapes and sizes (including one that can host a wedding for 40), a luxury spa and a health club and gym.

There are also four restaurants, including the golf clubhouse, which has an adjacent driving range, employing more than 320 staff across 350 acres, and a driver to take you to your treehouse in a gold-coloured, converted buggy. Ramside may have a grand history, but owner John Adamson is always looking to the future.

There are now nine premises in the Ramside Estates portfolio – Ramside Hall Hotel; Hardwick Hall Hotel; Bowburn Hall Hotel; The Funky Monk; The Impeccable Pig; Sticky Wicket; WonderBar; Colonel Porter’s and The Fed (formerly known as the Lancastrian Suite), which is now a swish function hub alongside 15 newlyserviced office spaces.

Like John, his business is always on the move.

That means plans for a double decker, hi-tech driving range within the Ramside Hall golf club, and down the road at Hardwick Hall, near Sedgefield, a ‘spectacular 40,000sq ft spa’ is on the cards for a derelict coach house in the beautiful hotel grounds.



“There’s a bit of unfinished business there,” says John, who was brought up at Hardwick and now hosts its three-day musical festival, transforming the same grounds into a mass of 30,000 people, six stages, countless food and drink vans and one of the best music weekends the north has to offer.

He says: “The development is a big expenditure, but it’s got to be done.

“You’ve got to keep investing and improving, and Hardwick needs different revenue streams.

“And the improvements will be spectacular. Amazing, actually. “I remember standing in the coach house, about 20 years ago, saying, ‘this will make a unique spa.’”

Hardwick Hall, it turns out, is John’s favourite.

He’s not supposed to say – it’s like choosing a favourite child – but has no hesitation.

He says: “I have a close affinity to Hardwick; every time I walk in, it still pulls at my heartstrings.

“My grandad and dad bought it for £14,000 in 1970.

“It’s a lovely setting, overlooking the lake, the follies and the country park; it’s definitely my favourite.

“I love seeing the festival; 10,000 people every day in the grounds enjoying themselves. That’s a great buzz.

“We did To The Manor Born for 30 years, which was iconic, and this is the tenth year we’ve done Hardwick Festival.

“The first was one day but now it’s three, with 4000 campers and glampers, and it’s turned into a proper festival.

“We’ve got Becky Hill, Snow Patrol, Richard Ashcroft, incorporating house and soul across six areas, all genres, local bands, and we’re about to commence a battle of local bands, with the winners playing on the main stage.”

Stay local. Support locals. It’s a huge part of the Ramside/John Adamson mantra.

We’re sitting in Charcoa – the Ramside’s bright, new-look BBQ/pizza/carvery restaurant adjacent to the original entrance, and subject of a recent £350,000 refurbishment.

Like John, the room has many tales to tell.

He says: “When Ramside opened in 1964, it was run by Eric Brooks, a flamboyant character.

“My father came on board as the chef, and he married the boss’ daughter Marian Coleman.

“I was told a few times that I was conceived in a caravan at the back of Ramside Hall – no wonder people say I enjoy pulling the food trailers around the North East!

“They took the tenancy at the Fox Hunters, in Whitley Bay.

“I can still remember it. “It was a proper community pub; there was a foot of smoke covering the ceiling, pints three quarters full down the bar from a hosepipe linked to the tank in the cellar, 200 people queuing to get in on a Sunday morning, and then pints topped up as the punters came in.”

Of course, John was destined for a life in the hospitality industry.

When the family moved into Hardwick Hall, he started helping out aged 12 and – like his eldest daughter now – worked part-time from 16.

He worked in France to improve his French, graduated from the Centre International de Glion hotel school, in Montreux, Switzerland, had placements in France, Belgium and London, and worked at Grosvenor House Hotel, in Hyde Park, for TrusthouseForte.

And then Ramside pulled him back.

He says: “My dad thought he was just coming to Ramside for three months, but stayed about three years trying to turn it round.

“Then Robin and Kate Smith, a young couple, became part of the family, and stayed 33 years, living in the flat upstairs.

“Both were great people, who started building Ramside from there, adding bedrooms on.

“I probably should’ve waited another five years, but my dad needed a hand here.

He adds: “Within a year, I’d set up Ramside event catering; we did Sedgefield and Newcastle races, and it mushroomed.

“Durham County Cricket Club went first class in 1991/1992, which was fantastic; Ian Botham, Dean Jones, Wayne Larkins. Don Robson instigated it.

“It was like a travelling circus going around all the various grounds every fortnight.

“Feeding the players and the hospitality was crazy; we were doing more than 1000 meals at some matches.”



Today, The Sticky Wicket bar, at Durham’s Riverside ground, is a stalwart of Ramside Estates. And it is joined by The Impeccable Pig, in Sedgefield, and Colonel Porter’s, on Newcastle’s Quayside – two beyond quirky popular establishments filled with unique furniture and art accrued by John from Newark Antique Fayre – and WonderBar, in The Gate, the venue for the Hardwick hopefuls.

Another recent development is The Fed, at Dunston, transformed into a venue hosting Asian weddings, dinners and guitarist conferences, and already filling the 15 workspace offices that have been built on site.

It is another favourite of its owner, who still loves nothing more than putting on his apron and serving cricket fans or racegoers.

He says: “I don’t do it as much as I used to.

“I just enjoy it. It’s a hobby, isn’t it?

“I don’t play golf, even though I’ve got two golf courses; my hobbies are watching Newcastle United and working on hog roast vans.

“You’ve got to get stuck in, you’ve got to work,” says John, who took over the business in 2010, when father Michael Adamson MBE passed away, and today still ‘lives above the shop,’ with wife Suzanne and the couple’s four children.

He adds: “Our business is meeting people, and you’ve got to be hands-on.

“You can’t just sit in an office, you’ve got to be on the shop floor.

“And I like to get around my places, to feel and touch them, to keep polishing the diamonds and keep them nice.”

Those diamonds include the Funky Monk, five quirky serviced apartments – take your pick from Friar’s Nook, Bashing Bishop, Temple of Funk, Brother John’s Boudoir or The Cloister – in Durham city centre, and Bowburn Hall Hotel, which has been in the family for more than 50 years and has also undergone recent investment, including five woodland lodges in the grounds.

John says: “Bowburn Hall is a great spot and delivers what it says on the tin.

“It’s a good three-star hotel, serving good pub grub.

“We do 400 Sunday lunches, it’s great for the community – we do a lot of birthdays, weddings and funerals.

“The ex-general manager Billy Trewitt died recently; he ran it for years, was a real character and really important.”

There are more than 750 employees across the Ramside group.

It’s a nomadic industry.

In November, 75 long-serving staff enjoyed a celebratory night, including more than 20 with in excess of 25 years’ service, and waiters Geronimo Martins and Margaret Hutchinson, who have 103 years between them.

Customers are loyal too and, over its 60 years, Ramside has continued to attract repeat business, not only from visitors but locals too.

John says: “I like everyone leaving with smiley faces.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the festival, a carvery meal, a spa treatment, or 18 holes of golf – you want people to be happy and to come back.

“I think we get it right a lot of the time.

“It’s about keeping the consistency.

“That’s the hardest thing.

“And it’s what we’ll continue to do.”


May 9, 2024

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